An independent winemaker stays small, but sets his sights high
There’s a phenomenon in Europe’s most famous wine regions called Le Garagiste – a winemaker who works out of a garage. It’s not always literally a garage, but at times it’s pretty close. Basically, Garagistes work out of any available space to make wine, and much of the wine they produce can be good to excellent. There’s a subset of wine enthusiasts who travel Europe, and places like Napa, seeking out the best Garagiste wine.
The presence of a Garagiste class signifies maturity in a wine region. Such practitioners are the result of a deep pool of experience and talent, coupled with increasing costs and competition associated with starting one’s own “winery.” When I recently sat down with Nathan Kendall to discuss his most recent wine project, I asked him whether he considered himself a Garagiste. He laughed at first, but after some thought agreed that the designation is not far off.
Nathan Kendall always knew he wanted to be part of the wine industry. A native of Dundee, his mother worked in various capacities at Hermann J. Wiemer, when the potential of vinifera wines in the Finger Lakes was still a matter of debate. “My parents were local wine people before it was cool,” he jokes. The wine bug also bit Nathan’s brother, Aaron Kendall, who works in Oregon as the assistant winemaker at Harper Voit.
At first, Nathan didn’t imagine himself in production. After majoring in business in college, he took a five-year “world tour,” following the harvests in California, Oregon, Germany, New Zealand and Australia, and discovered his passion for not only wine, but winemaking. Nathan found himself most intrigued by the cooler regions, especially those that produced Pinot Noir and Riesling, and realized that the Finger Lakes had the winemaking challenges he sought.
Nathan’s journey back to the Finger Lakes first brought him to Chateau Frank – the sparkling wine arm of Dr. Konstantin Frank – then to Ravines, where he worked for three years on many of the winery’s most-celebrated lines. He then served at Villa Bellangelo as winemaker for two years, before deciding to strike out on his own
“I’m not a formula-driven winemaker,” says Nathan, explaining his decision to make his own wine. “I wanted to approach each vintage differently and push quality over all else. I want to make what I feel is right with the grapes I have on hand.”
As an expression of his own winemaking philosophy, Nathan decided to name the wine project N. Kendall (soon to be re-branded as Nathan K. – see below). The label he chose for his bottles has a design that is reminiscent of a pattern familiar to décor found in Arts & Crafts architecture and furniture; a homage to his father’s career as a craftsman and carpenter.
Nathan purposefully avoided founding a winery with a tasting room. Therefore, all of his wine is hand-sold to local restaurants and shops, as well as locations in New York City. He makes his wine at the facility at Shaw Vineyard on Seneca Lake, a site he selected after carefully observing facilities and winemakers throughout the region.
“You couldn’t ask for a better friend or mentor in the industry,” Nathan says of Steve Shaw. “He has the best equipment in the Finger Lakes and is one of the best grapes growers around. It’s a full package here for a quality-driven winemaker like me.”
At this point, Nathan is focusing exclusively on Riesling and Pinot Noir, two grapes that he believes can find full expression in the Finger Lakes. He is a proponent of long, cool fermentations, extended skin and lees contact, no fining and careful filtration. By staying small and independent, Nathan hopes to remain nimble, allowing the qualities of each vintage to drive the style of the wine.
“It’s great to be part of an up-and-coming region like the Finger Lakes that’s gaining notoriety,” Nathan says, reflecting on his journey through the local wine industry. In many ways, Nathan’s self-named label demonstrates just how far the region has come in recent years.
What’s In a Name?
Soon after launching his inaugural lineup of wines, Nathan realized that his last name too-closely resembled a major wine brand. To avoid conflict, he will soon brand his wine as Nathan K. – but the labels will look the same.
True to his word, Nathan doesn’t make his wines the same way every year. His 2012 Riesling, heavily aged on lees and never racked, is entirely different in style from the 2013 Riesling which was made with 25% botrytis grapes. Both wines are delicious, but carry nearly entirely different profiles.
The 2012 Pinot Noir has great structure, with balanced tannins ready to keep developing. Wine lovers who are looking for something interesting and fun should seek out these wines.
How to get the Wine
As a hand-sold product, Nathan Kendall wines are only available at select locations in New York City and in Hector (Stone Cat Cafe), Geneva (Red Dove Tavern, Kashong Creek), Watkins Glen (Graft), and Ithaca (Cellar d’Or).
Interested customers can set up tastings or purchase wine directly from Nathan at his website: nkendallwines.com
story and photos by Jason Feulner