A Red Revolution!

Despite its expanding reputation for quality, the Finger Lakes wine region continues to carry the stigma of producing red wines unworthy of serious attention. While some critical accolades have softened this strict interpretation, many visitors and consumers who otherwise purchase and enjoy Finger Lakes whites continue to avoid reds. Crafting Finger Lakes reds of the highest quality is an expensive and laborious process that not all wineries embrace; yet there are some producers who face the challenge head-on.

On the eastern shore of Seneca Lake, for instance, lies a winery that not only deals with reds, it purposely avoids whites. Shalestone Vineyards, founded in 1995, has never made a white wine. Owner and winemaker Rob Thomas arrived at his stance not because he lacked white wine experience – he cut his winemaking teeth making all kinds of wines at other wineries – but because he’s dedicated to doing something different. “I wanted Shalestone to be known for making red wines,” he noted. Thomas can cite many practical considerations supporting his decision, including the shallow soil composition on his vineyard site that he believes stresses the vines in favor of producing flavorful red grapes.

Visitors to the Shalestone tasting room are treated to a selection of red blends and varieties such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Suited to small wineries
The underlying premise of Shalestone’s business plan is to stay small. Thomas has no plans to expand beyond the modest 1,500 cases he currently produces, preferring to build a loyal customer base through word-of-mouth. “I imagine that it’s possible to get bigger and still maintain quality,” he muses, “although it’s difficult to sell that much red wine.”

Most of the other Finger Lakes producers who focus on quality red wine are by definition small, producing only a few thousand cases of red wine annually. Ravines Wine Cellars, one of the larger boutique wineries, produces all of the major red varieties plus a rosé wine made strictly with red grapes in the traditional fashion. Owner and winemaker Morten Hallgren, a European-educated winemaker who has worked extensively in France’s storied red wine regions, is adamant that red wines are suited to the Finger Lakes.

“Yes, people often question whether we should produce red wines here, but we have a unique potential to make red wines. The balance we can achieve in our reds – alcohol, acidity, tannin and fresh fruit – makes the Finger Lakes the ultimate region to grow cool climate grapes. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot: in Europe these are considered cool-climate red grapes.”

German native Johannes Reinhardt, head winemaker at Anthony Road, is open-minded about reds but cautious in his approach. “To me, consistent good red wine means living with inconsistency, expecting that not every year can bring an exciting red wine. Even our Cabernet Franc-Lemberger blend is only bottled seven out of 10 years, which is what I would call consistency,” Reinhardt states. “It is important to look at the total size of the winery and vineyard on an acreage basis to see how much risk we should put into the more challenging red varieties for the Finger Lakes climate. In the end, we all do have to pay our bills.”

In a similar vein, Steve Shaw, owner and winemaker at Shaw Vineyards, believes that small wineries are well suited to avoiding the pitfalls of red wines in the Finger Lakes. “You need some flexibility to make good reds,” Shaw admits. “I’ve let my red grapes hang until November to get the qualities I want, which means a more expensive harvest. I age my reds as long as I can before release, delaying a return on investment. The more overhead you have, the harder it is to do these things. No one can say that making good red wine in the Finger Lakes is an easy business decision.”

Phil Davis, co-owner and grower for Damiani, a winery that makes mostly red wine by volume, maintains that re-thinking the expenses associated with the cultivation of red grapes is the key to profitability. In the past, most independent growers who would contract with wineries would receive compensation by the ton, and therefore would avoid thinning red grapes throughout the growing season. “In our climate, low yields are the key to consistency in reds,” Davis says. “We’ve worked with growers to contract by the acre, so we can thin the fruit down to where we want it.”

The per-acre contract system, used by Damiani and several other wineries, compensates growers at an appropriate level while allowing wineries to adjust yields from year to year based on growing conditions. The desired outcome is consistency in red wine quality coupled with predictable annual expenses.

The price conundrum
Nearly all Finger Lakes wineries that specialize in quality red wines charge between $20 and $40 per bottle, including even their most exclusive reds. Mass-produced reds from California and elsewhere can sell for under $20, while high-quality red wines from relatively small wineries in California and Europe can sell for hundreds of dollars per bottle. Finger Lakes reds find themselves in an odd pricing niche, perhaps too expensive for some consumers to try and not nearly available in enough quantity to win over those who are inclined to associate price with quality. Many Finger Lakes producers admit difficulty in marketing their reds outside of Upstate New York, relying heavily on tasting-room sales.

Critical attention, however, is beginning to change the equation. The 2007 Ravines Meritage (a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) recently received from Wine Spectator the highest score for a red wine in recent Finger Lakes’ history. Damiani and Shaw have also recently received high scores for their reds from the same publication. While Shalestone does not submit wines for scores on a regular basis, it has seen its fair share of good scores in the recent past. “I care about making nice wine, not receiving accolades,” Rob Thomas states lightheartedly, referring to the long-standing perceptions that haunt Finger Lakes reds. All of these wineries point to a general increase in demand for their red wines in the past few years.

When one speaks with a Finger Lakes winemaker who is dedicated to red wine, there is a sense of excitement that permeates the conversation. Morten Hallgren speaks of the potential of “balance and harmony.” Phil Davis refers to the “love and passion” involved in making red wine in the Finger Lakes. Steve Shaw stresses the “satisfaction” of making good reds under difficult conditions. Rob Thomas, wholly dedicated to the production of red wine in the Finger Lakes, summarizes his pursuit succinctly: “If red grapes grow well eight years out of 10, why not make red wine?”

The economics of red wine production in the Finger Lakes are complex, and the leading question as to whether the region can enhance quality in conjunction with demand is still a sound one. With the presence of passionate red wine proponents, however, there is little doubt that an interested consumer can evaluate the potential of Finger Lakes red wine simply by seeking out and sampling those wineries that are actively making the case.

by Jason Feulner

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