Excerpted from Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery, by John C. Hartsock, published in 2011 by Cornell University Press
Through the swirl of snow you could just make out in the distance the rows of leafless grapevines stitching across the hillside. Nearby, a snow devil twisted in a churning cloud amid whiteouts blanketing the neighboring farm field. Still farther, the dark outline of Cayuga Lake was a shadow lost in the snowstorm sweeping out of Canada.
Hardly a promising day for making wine, I thought.
Inside Long Point Winery the only evidence of the snowstorm was the distant muffled snap of the “Open” flag outside, beckoning futilely in the wind.
One thing was clear: Gary would have few customers for wine tastings today.
Gary Barletta was oblivious to the storm as he leaned over and the fluorescent light flashed across his balding head before he poked it between rows of oak barrels reflecting a tawny color in the light. He wrapped his hand around a large bung – a cork-like plug – in a bottom barrel, twisted, and withdrew it.
The owner of – and more important the winemaker at – Long Point put his nose up to the wine in the barrel and drew in deeply, slowly, his gray luminescent eyes intently focused.
“I like the way this is coming along,” he said.
He took a wine thief – a suction dropper – and inserted it into the bunghole, withdrawing a small quantity of Chardonnay. He filled first one wine glass and then another a quarter full, holding both by the stems between the fingers of his curled fist. The aging wine reflected a pale, transparent gold.
He extended his hand to me and offered a glass.
It was harsh in the nose.
“It’s still young,” he said, reading my mind.
He paused as he continued to draw in the nose. “It could be more complex.” He paused again. “It needs more oak.” Staring into the distance, he thought about it. “But it’s coming along. I like it better than last year’s.” And that surprised me given how much he had sung the praises of the previous year’s Chardonnay, as if it were a father’s cherished firstborn.
If there was nothing else to drink, one could probably drink this new Chardonnay, and that’s how it must have been for thousands of years past when most wine drinkers drank their wine young before it could turn to vinegar. Only someone who has spent season after season nurturing wine could detect how this raw new wine would age slowly into something more illuminating.
Gary picked up a stainless steel stirring paddle, a right-angled handle with a small paddle at the end of it. He inserted it in the bunghole, and slowly, quietly began to row back and forth, back and forth.
The paddle stirred up the lees – the sediment – to impart flavor. The lees had settled in the barrel since Gary last stirred two weeks ago. He continued silently paddling the Chardonnay, pushing and pulling against the volume of wine resisting the paddle blade in the 60-gallon
barrel. You could hear a cricket, a refugee from the storm, saw his fiddle, it was so quiet in the winery.
On a winter’s day that’s how you can often find Gary. Testing. Teasing. Hoping.
To a non-wine drinker there might appear to be something slightly illicit in wanting to start your own winery. After all, it doesn’t contribute to the basic necessities of life such as clothing, shelter, the greater public weal. When you think about it, starting a winery appears to be downright self-indulgent. Which may explain why Gary’s wife, Rosemary, likes to say, sometimes with a hint of embarrassment, that the winery was Gary’s idea.
“I’m doing it to humor him.”
But that’s not entirely true. Because while Rosie is the kind of person who doesn’t let on at first, she is as passionately committed to the winery as Gary. For example, when I told her one day that the Robert Mondavi Winery in California had been sold to the largest wine company in the world, she said, “I wouldn’t sell. No matter what they offered me.”
Not that Constellation Brands, which bought Mondavi in 2004, would take note of a little mom-and-pop operation like the Barletta’s. But to Rosie it was the principle of the thing. They had worked too hard to get to the point where they are now: They had built a winery. Their winery.
Then there is the matter of palate. Ask Gary. Because in many ways, Rosie’s palate is just as refined as Gary’s when it comes to tasting wine. She will tell him when she thinks the wine is not good.
“And you know, she’s usually right,” he admits.
Once again, to her it’s the principle of the thing: “We are not going to sell bad wine.” At least not knowingly, because there are times when wine can take on a life of its own, times when it can turn unpalatable, even into a monster, defying the best efforts of the winemaker.
To order a copy of the book or learn more about this title (ISBN 978-0-8014-4881-2), visit www.cornellpress.cornell.edu or call 800-666-2211.
by John C. Hartstock