Riding the Pinot in Niagara County
By Mark Criden

Photo courtesy of Warm Lake Estate.
Mike von Heckler’s Warm Lake Estate on Lower Mountain Road in Lockport remains the engine for the Niagara County wine industry. Von Heckler is a knowledgeable, talented grape grower and wine maker whose vision—he first saw the potential to produce fine wines from Niagara County—practically launched an entire industry.

Back in the January/February 2004 Spree, we reported on some of Warm Lakes earliest vintages, and Von Heckler’s ambition. “We can and will make wines as great as the Premier and Grand Crus of Burgundy,” he predicted. Well, he has produced some fine wines, at least as great as some of the Premier and Grand Crus of Burgundy. With Midge and Tom—who know a free wine tasting when they see it—I sampled a fascinating array of barrel samples and finished bottles resting in Warm Lake’s cool aging cellars.

Barrel tastings are the sadomasochism of the wine world: fun, but painful. You’ll slowly get inebriated, but not before your tongue hurts and gums bleed from all that primary, raw wine. Through the tannins and unresolved acidity, Von Heckler conducted a clinic as polished as any in these parts. We tasted through 2008s and 2007s from three different vineyards and two different French oak barrel types, and all, despite their infancy, showed strong and obvious potential. That night, Midge and I emptied a bottle of the 2007 with friends, and the wine was nothing short of spectacular: complex, ethereal, and intense without heaviness, with a long, sweet finish. If this was Gevrey Chambertin, it would fly off the shelves at the $35–$40 that Von Heckler asks.

Unfortunately, it’s not Gevrey Chambertin. Five years ago, I asked whether anyone would care to pay the tariff for premium Pinot Noir from Niagara County. With the current world-wide wine glut, who’s going to be interested in some pretender, no matter how good, from New York? In most parts of the country—hell, in most parts of the state—wines from New York can hardly get arrested. That problem persists. Warm Lake produces the finest Pinot Noir in New York State, but the wine world continues to say, so what? One of the country’s largest distributors praised the wine but refused to sell it, because a wine like this has to be hand sold to discerning merchants, most of whom view wine sales as moving boxes.

Von Heckler’s raising more money to expand his channels of distribution, but some of his current sales practices—home wine parties! Buy two, get one free!—offer a whiff of desperation. I’m sure that’s not the scent he’s going for.

Mark Criden is a nonprofit executive and past chair of the local branch of the International Wine and Food Society.


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