Story and photos by Jason Feulner
Some of the better wine in the Finger Lakes is being made at a cidery just north of Ithaca, and in many ways it’s still a secret (in the Finger Lakes, that is, although consumers in New York are hip to it). Winemaker Kris Mathewson hopes to get the word out about what Bellwether is trying to accomplish with both apples and grapes.
Bellwether Cider has been around since 1999, founded by Cheryl and Bill Barton. In that time period – not so long ago – hard cider was still an uncommon product, and Bellwether was the first hard cider producer to be granted a farm winery license in New York State. In fact, Bellwether was among rare company in the late 1990s, as there were few hard-cider producers anywhere in the United States, and none of the large beverage companies had a cider division. Hard cider was by definition a growth business.
In 2011, when Kris Mathewson married Caitlin, the daughter of Cheryl and Bill, they planned to leave the Finger Lakes so Kris could pursue his passion, winemaking, in Oregon. Kris respected the hard-cider business, but he had cut his teeth at several Finger Lakes wineries, including Bully Hill, Heron Hill, Swedish Hill, Atwater and Billsboro. He wanted to continue his training in a different region.
“It almost didn’t happen,” Kris recalls, “but it occurred to us that maybe we should try making wine here. When that first delivery of grapes arrived, we knew we weren’t leaving the Finger Lakes.”
A harmonious duet
Kris was able to convince his parents-in-law to shift their focus at Bellwether a bit, and the transition made sense. With more competition in the hard-cider business, costs had been increasing and differentiation was becoming more of a challenge. Bellwether wanted to remain a high quality cidery, but why not try wine as well?
Although fermenting apple juice and grape juice is in principle the same process, the extraction and treatment of the products is entirely different. In order to make wine, Kris had to invest in a bunch of equipment on the spot. His first vintage was a labor-intensive affair, but he was determined to make wine his own way. By the second vintage, Kris was moving full-steam ahead on a plan to make mostly Riesling (nearly 2,000 cases) and some Pinot Noir to boot.
Kris does not employ a crusher and de-stems by hand, which puts him in the company of only a few wineries in the region. He believes in gentle press cycles for his grapes, sorting his juice by lots according to skin contact and other variables. Leaving the wine on the lees (grape and yeast particulates) for nine months or more is not an uncommon occurrence at Bellwether, but is again a relatively rare practice in the Finger Lakes.
“We try to make Riesling like a German winery – two generations ago,” Kris jokes. A huge fan of Old World winemaking methods, Kris researches and employs various techniques that one might find in wineries tucked away in France, Germany or Austria. For instance, he showed me a technique calledRemplissage a billes, which is topping off barrels with glass marbles instead of more wine. By doing this, Kris explains, he simply displaces the empty space in the barrel, thereby reducing and concentrating the pure wine found within.
First jazz, then country
Knowing that Bellwether was not poised to make an immediate splash in the winery scene along the Finger Lakes wine trails, Kris spent a great deal of time marketing his wine directly in New York City. He found that young sommeliers were open-minded about Finger Lakes wines and wanted to pair them with food. “It’s a different scene down there with some restaurants,” Kris reports. “They are very interested in cool-climate wines, especially the acidic profile.”
Bellwether is poised to continue its positive track record in hard cider and to expand its winery reputation over time. The cidery has a 10-acre apple orchard development in the works, and Kris continues to work with his wife and her family to hone the marketing of the hard cider brand. He also hopes that his winemaking will garner more attention and more of a local fan base, in addition to its foothold in the New York City market. “I see the Finger Lakes as a transition between old world methods and new,” Kris reflects. “It’s an exciting time to be making wine here.”
Kris’s wines follow a pattern of a few select wineries in the Finger Lakes that are trying to get away from the typical Finger Lakes profile (open melon, apple, slight crispiness). Based on his treatment, the Rieslings at Bellwether have a deep, complex profile that varies considerably within the vintage. Honey and apricot can appear; the minerality is forefront, and sometimes petrol notes whiff about.
The 2012 and 2013 Rieslings are available in the tasting room. The 2014 Rieslings are still in barrel and tank but they will have a lot to offer as well upon their release.