Thursday was bright, sunny and relatively warm (it snowed early in the week), and we had been talking for weeks about going over to shop at Famous Brands. So, on Thursday with the new rack cards in the back seat, we headed down Rts. 227 and 79 to Watkins (no one calls it ‘Watkins Glen’ around here).
I had been needing a new pair of walking/work boots and Deirdre wanted to shop for pants. Famous Brands is a combination of a outdoor recreation, work and casual wear store right on Franklin Street in downtown Watkins. When we arrived we found that they had expanded the store enormously in the previous year. They had added an entire second floor to one of the three historical storefronts that the business occupies.
I shopped carefully for boots. Store personnel cycled by at intervals to see how I was coming along and eventually gave me some expert advice on how to properly fit a shoe. Deirdre bought two pairs of pants and our retail mission was accomplished in about 40 minutes.
It was still early afternoon, so instead of going directly home we bore left as we climbed the hill out of town and went up Rt. 414 instead of retracing our route on 79. Rt. 414 is the Seneca Lake Wine Trail East and it was time for us to drop off our newly printed 2009 rack cards at the wineries.
Our first stop was Silver Springs Winery LLC, a place we had never visited before. There were no other customers there on a Thursday in April and we found the owner practicing his guitar playing behind the tasting bar. John Zuccarino told us that his winery had been there for about 10 years. He grows his own grapes down the hill toward the lake and also out of the north fork of Long Island (he is originally from New Jersey).
The lower quarter of the east (west-facing) side of Seneca Lake is known locally as ‘the banana belt.’ It gets linger afternoon sun and its steep slopes are well drained. A few acres here and there along the banana belt are warm enough to sustain syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes, which is rare in the Finger Lakes, where the predominant red varietal is cabernet franc.
Zuccarino’s wines are called ‘Don Giovanni Wines.’ Most wineries name their wines after the winery, but at least one other winery in the Finger Lakes has a different name on the label than it has on the sign out front (King Ferry Winery makes Tréleaven Wines). Zuccarino has several merlots available for tasting, including a 2002 merlot, which was so nicely aged that it tasted like a French bordeaux, a 2003 merlot that we ended up buying a bottle of, and a “bold merlot,” which had spent more time in the oak cask than the other merlots.
It was unusual to find a 2002 bottle for sale in 2009 at a Finger Lakes winery. Most places sell much younger wine. Zuccarino seems to put aside bottles to see how they age. Dr. Frank’s winery over on Keuka Lake also presents older wine at the tasting bar. His chardonnay was unusual in that it was a ‘French style’ bottle, having been made entirely in steel and never stored in oak. This is done elsewhere in the region, but usually a winery will also make a barrel aged bottle.
Zuccarino approaches wine making with a biochemistry perspective and gave detailed (but rapid) descriptions of how he had blended different grapes to get just the flavor and color that he wanted in his wines. He refers to his wines informally as ‘organic.’ The claim is not on the bottle or in any of his literature, so he is probably referring to the fact that he does put sulfites or any additive (dyes, fruit flavors etc.) into his wine. The lack of sulfites is particularly noteworthy, as many people are allergic to them.
We left some rack cards at Silver Spring, bought some of their wine and took along some of their brochures and headed north to Atwater Estate Winery. The ‘estate’ part of the title means that all the grapes in the wine are grown right there at the winery (unlike Silver Spring, which grows on Long Island, which makes Don Giovanni Wines ‘New York State wines.’
The Marks family owns Atwater, but none of them were there on this midweek early spring afternoon. The lone employee present told us that Katie Marks was in New York City taking a course in the history of wine. We once again had the tasting room to ourselves and enjoyed hanging round with the taster and essentially toasting the beauty of the Finger Lakes region for about half an hour (the tasting room look out over the lake proper).
Atwater is a favorite of ours, so there wasn’t an exploratory aspect to this part of the afternoon. However, they had just released a 2007 pinot noir, which proved to be superior. Many Finger Lakes pinot noirs are a bit thin or downright bad because the grape is on the edge of its range here. In some years the growing season simply isn’t long enough, dry enough or warm enough for pinot noir and the wines bear this out. Atwater new release, however, was robust, smooth and had nice berry up front.
Chateau Lafayette Reneau is right next door to Atwater. The tasting room was again empty but for a single employee. Our host told us that in these slow months he was able to spend more time teaching online. He teaches history and politics at the Community College of Vermont. It has been our experience that a lot of the winery employees have other jobs, some of them additional service economy jobs, but it isn’t unusual to find that you are standing across the bar from an artist or a teacher.
The high point for me at CLR was their cabernet franc, which was a solid Finger Lakes red with the combination of smoothness and pepper that makes this such an enjoyable wine to drink by itself or with almost any food. Deirdre liked the dry riesling, which is the notable white varietal for this region. Some of them are amazing complex with different things happening in the beginning, middle and end of a taste. The CLR riesling was not that complicated, but had a clean, fresh, lightly fruity taste.
Our last stop was Red Newt Cellars. I had been to a mixer at the winery two weeks before and so had tasted their wines then, but Deirdre hadn’t been able to come along. Once again the tasting room was empty and two employees were occupying themselves with paperwork when we arrived. Red Newt does not grow any of their own grapes, but instead buys them from growers in the region. The Finger Lakes wine industry began when some (but not all) of the local grape growers decided to start making wine.
We tried several of the varietals, but were most impressed by the winery’s blend, which is called Red Eft. Every year they mix together several varietals to produce this low-cost bottle. This year’s Eft is especially good because the owner and winemaker, Dave Whiting, decided not make any wine from a particular crop (I think it was the cabernet franc in 2007, but I’m not sure) and instead mixed all the grapes into the blend. So what wasn’t quite good enough to make a straight varietal bottle produced an outstanding blend.
It was then time to head home and get ourselves some dinner. We had left behind four piles of rack cards, but acquired six very nice bottle of wine.