Story and photos by Jason Feulner
The traditional model for the Finger Lakes wine industry is fairly straightforward: Build a tasting room and they will come. Typically, this tasting room comes with a production facility and a vineyard, although many wineries started with neither and sourced their grapes and rented production space elsewhere (a differentiation many visitors do not recognize). Regardless, the standard presentation for many years was tasting-room oriented, a standalone building somewhere near a main route and a given lake, a dot on the map, if you will, with a big sign out front.
While the vast majority of Finger Lakes wineries still resemble the tried-and-true, newer wine is being marketed and sold in decidedly different ways. Young, independent winemakers are selling their wine wholesale without even contemplating a tasting room. In the case of new label Wild Brute, Justin Recktenwald is selling much of his wine in a wine bar, one that serves food and sells beer and other wine as well. And unlike most tasting rooms, this establishment is not located next to a picturesque lake, but in a storefront in downtown Hornell.
The Brute, the name of the establishment founded just this past year, is a funky place filled with pictures and decorations that harken back to the glory days of flat track hill climbing, a motorcycle discipline that has long been popular in the steep hills surrounding the greater Hornell area. (Justin’s family includes some noteworthy riders.) Like many hip bars these days, it’s got both a touch of the rustic and the refined, offering a simple menu but one bursting with local fare and high-end cheese and meats.
Justin and his wife Kyleigh both grew up in nearby Arkport. Justin attended Alfred and then transferred to Cornell thinking he was going to pursue animal biology. Instead, he was bitten by the wine bug, graduating from Cornell’s viticulture and oenology program in 2012. He spent time working at Dr. Frank’s and also some time in Sonoma.
It was during his brief stint in California that Justin was inspired to start his own label. “I was working with indigenous ferments, and I realized not much was going on with that in the Finger Lakes,” Justin remembers. Wild Brute refers to wild fermentation (allowed to ferment naturally with no manufactured yeast) of the wine and Brute refers to many things, among them the unfiltered and unfined nature of the finished reds.
From the first limited vintage in 2013, Justin emphasized grape sorting, natural (wild) fermentation, and an attention to process over a specific varietal. Like many young winemakers, Justin is not focused solely on the type of wine that is generally successful in the region, but how the wine is made. By focusing on manageable and sorted lots, Justin believes that anything is possible in terms of quality.
After the first vintage was made at Element winery in Arkport, Justin and Kayleigh founded their own production facility there, and they still do take visitors despite the recent opening of The Brute. However, it’s not about a fancy tasting room, and Justin and Kayleigh have created something that lets people peer into the often messy winemaking process. “It turned into a backyard tasting room in the summer,” Kayleigh says of the early years at the tasting room. “It showed us that people wanted a fun place to enjoy our wine, so we focused on opening the bar.”
The Brute was a chance to become “part of the community,” on the leading edge of Hornell’s resurgence after years of dormancy. “We wanted to be at the beginning of the revitalization of Hornell,” Justin reflects. “We knew that people were looking for something different – you can get your staples here in terms of beer and wine but we really carry some great local wineries and breweries for people to try.”
The Brute offers live music and is, after all, a bar, but Justin is a very serious winemaker who will speak at length about his knowledge and passion for the subject. Wild Brute is a wine label that mixes a lot of genres – winemaking, motorcycle racing, animal imagery – but Justin and Kyleigh seem to make it all fit together and make some sense. They pride themselves in creating an establishment that appeals to many different types and they said it’s been an eclectic mix of clientele thus far.
Despite his pride as a winemaker, Justin waves off my attempt to link some of his recent positive critical scores in the major publications to potential placements in high-level New York City restaurants, the coveted accounts to which so many Finger Lakes winemakers aspire. “We are in a few good places, but the target audience for Wild Brute is not New York City,” Justin tells me. “Wild Brute is about the local scene and promoting regional wine in a unique venue. That’s what we are trying to do here.”
Wild Brute is a newer winery, but the few wines that are currently available certainly impress. The 2013 off-dry Riesling has great acidity with a slate finish. The 2014 Cabernet Franc has a subtle cherry fruit with just a little spice. The “fun” wine on display was a mixture of backyard apples and Chardonnay fermented together – a weird combination that worked. People will either love it or hate it. The real standout was the 2015 Cabernet Franc, a tannic, structured red with tobacco and leather notes that is still developing in the bottle and could probably age for some time.
Justin is still refining his grape sourcing and is excited about what’s in tank and barrel for future release. Wild Brute shows a lot of promise, with some good wines that have already delivered.
The Brute is located in downtown Hornell. Hours of operation are Thursday through Sunday from11 a.m. until 11 p.m. The Wild Brute Winery production facility is open for visitors Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Visit them on Facebook, @wildbrutewinery and @thebrutewinebar.