A Clear Focus

Enter nearly any Finger Lakes winery, and one is bound to find an offering of 10 to 20 different wines for taste and sale. To create these wines, most wineries will employ several different kinds of white and red grapes: some originating in Europe (vinifera), some from North America (labrusca), and some the result of both natural and laboratory crossings of these two sub-species referred to as hybrids. From these three main groups, many Finger Lakes wineries bottle wine made from grapes like Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Niagara, Catawba, Cayuga, and countless others.

At Heart and Hands Wine Company, however, the offerings are a bit more focused. This new winery, located near Union Springs on the northeastern shore of Cayuga Lake, offers wine made from only two grapes: Riesling and Pinot Noir. That’s it. The white selection consists of derivatives of Riesling; the reds of Pinot. Visitors have the option to taste several different kinds of wines, but the main ingredients are always the same. At Heart and Hands, specialization is the key business concept, a dedication that focuses on the pursuit of quality.

While some Finger Lakes wine drinkers might be surprised by the use of only two grapes at Heart and Hands, in fact, it is the normal practice throughout Europe and even in “new world” wine regions. While American wine bottles say the name of the grape on the label regardless of where it comes from, wine drinkers in Europe associate the region of origin with the type of wine. For instance, a red wine from Burgundy in France is almost always made from Pinot Noir, while a white wine from Burgundy is nearly always a Chardonnay. Red wine from Bordeaux is always a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and a few other minor varieties – even the domains within Bordeaux have a prescribed domination of these individual grapes. One of the most famous wineries in the world, Chateau Margaux, essentially bottles only two wines: a Bordeaux red blend and a white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc.

California as a state produces almost any kind of wine imaginable, but in Napa Valley many wineries grow only Cabernet Sauvignon and a few other varieties to blend in with that grape – and these wines often market for hundreds of dollars. To simplify, in California, Australia, and elsewhere, the wineries with the biggest reputations and the most expensive wines are likely to focus on one kind of grape, perhaps two if they also produce a white. In both the old world and the new, specialization is synonymous with serious winemaking.

It is no wonder that Tom Higgins, winemaker at Heart and Hands, spent time working in France and California before founding his own winery with his wife Susan. Higgins, a Finger Lakes native, grew up admiring the wine industry but majored in accounting and computer systems in college. After a stint in the corporate world, he began to consult for a wine shop in Westchester County and was re-bitten by the wine bug.

To receive a winemaking education first-hand, Higgins traveled to France in 2005 to work in the cellar at Chateau La Lagune in Bordeaux, a prestigious second-growth estate in the Médoc. In his travels he also visited Burgundy, the birthplace of Pinot Noir. Returning to the United State in the fall of 2005, Higgins arranged to work the harvest at Calera, a Central Coast California winery dedicated primarily to Pinot Noir. The founder of Calera, Josh Jensen, picked his vineyard sites near Mt. Harlan due to the abundance of limestone soil in that area—a rarity in California. Higgins instinctively knew that the soil composition in the Finger Lakes, heavy in limestone and shale, might make for good Pinot Noir.

“Pinot Noir is driven by terrior,” Higgins stated, referring to the French term that encompasses soil and climate. “The Finger Lakes has great Pinot potential, and it ripens well here. I think Oregon has proved that it can thrive in a cool climate.” In order to keep the quality of his Pinot Noir high, Higgins contracts with growers per acre and keeps the yields as low as possible. He blends his Pinot Noir by varying the contents. Each barrel of wine that makes it into the final blend is from a different growing site, or had longer stem contact, producing a balance between the soft fruit flavors of the grape and the tannic elements that provide depth and structure.

While Higgins is proud of his focus on Pinot Noir and Riesling wines, he admits that it would be easier to expand his offerings to attract more consumers. “I have growers calling each week trying to sell me all kinds of grapes,” he revealed. Tom’s wife, Susan, who runs the business side of the operation, sees their focus as a sign of differentiation. “When someone leaves the tasting room, after spending time with Tom and me, sampling our wines, and enjoying several custom food pairings, we feel that we will have made a strong impression,” she said. “We believe that this concentrated focus allows us to deliver the best possible product.”

Visitors to Heart and Hands are not limited to two wines since Pinot Noir and Riesling can be made into several different products. The winery offers a regular Pinot Noir and a barrel reserve version as well. The Pinot grape also factors into a Brut Rosé sparkling wine made in the traditional method used in Champagne. Riesling is bottled in a dry to slightly sweet style (depending on the vintage) but is also available in a late harvest dessert wine. On many weekends, a simple food pairing is offered for a wine on the tasting list to demonstrate its flavors and the wine’s ability to accompany a future meal.

For wine enthusiasts who want to enjoy more of the winemaking experience, a premium tasting is available. For a small additional fee, Tom Higgins will bring customers into the winery’s custom-built cellar and draw samples from individual barrels, highlighting the key differences between vineyard sites and production methods and how they factor into a final wine product. In a similar vein, Higgins publishes as much technical information about his wines as can fit on the back of each label. “I like to educate the consumer as much as possible,” Tom emphasizes. Both he and his wife serve their wines during the weekend hours, talking to customers about their experience in founding a winery and making choices about what wines to make.

In a broader sense, Tom and Susan Higgins are trying to educate the wider world of wine drinkers about the benefits of paying attention to the Finger Lakes. Most of the major wine regions have one or two grapes for which they are known and celebrated, and Tom is aware that the Finger Lakes still needs to improve its overall status. “Focus on a consistent group of grape varieties is what makes for reputations around the world,” Tom said about his choice to specialize. Asked if he considers himself an expert on Pinot Noir and Riesling, he answered humbly, “It’s hard to become an expert on anything – there’s so much to know. Mother Nature keeps us on our toes from vintage to vintage.”

by Jason Feulner

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