Five Questions with Damiani Wine Cellars’ Phil Arras


Phil Arras has been at Damiani Wine Cellars for 10 years and has served as head winemaker for the past seven. A native of Philadelphia, Phil arrived at Cornell University to obtain a degree in Philosophy with no designs to pursue a career in the wine industry. As he explored his education, he began to feel his interests shift toward the physical sciences, and concurrently discovered his passion for wine during his senior year wine appreciation course.

Having fallen in love with the Finger Lakes Region, and seeing winemaking as a blend of art and science, Phil worked a series of harvests and learned his craft in the cellar as an assistant before moving into the head winemaking position. He feels like his own growth over the past decade has mirrored the Finger Lakes as a whole. Phil states, “Winemaking and grape growing are getting better and better. It feels like the region has been on the cusp for a number of years; the quality is really at the tipping point in the Finger Lakes although there is so much more that needs to happen.”

1) What’s your favorite varietal/label that Damiani offers and why?

For the reds, it’s Lemberger. So unique in flavor and aroma; licorice and flowers, crunchy red fruit and ripe cherry/raspberry — medium body and tannin and it does well in our climate, year in and year out, which is more rare on the red varietals. Fun grape to work with.

2) Is there a wine you’d like to make that you currently do not offer? Any plans to pursue it in the near future?

For Damiani, Zweigelt and Grüner Veltliner. I make a Zweigelt for my own small wine project, but I’d be interested in making it in greater quantities. I’m a big fan of the lesser known vinifera from cooler climates around the world similar to the Finger Lakes.  

3) What’s the hardest thing about viticulture/winemaking in the Finger Lakes (perhaps an element that is often overlooked)?

Maintaining clean ripe fruit. Our vintages are highly variable in terms of rain/heat/sun, so every year is very different and offers its own challenges.   

4) Of course the Finger Lakes region is your favorite, but what’s your second favorite wine region in the U.S. or the world?

Oregon and Burgundy. I’m a big fan of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both of which are star players in those regions. These regions give me something to strive towards, in terms of quality if not in terms of style. 

5) What is the biggest misconception the public has about Finger Lakes wine?

That our wine is all native/hybrid or Riesling, and either way it’s all sweet.

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