Story and photos by Jason Feulner
There’s been a persistent whisper in the Finger Lakes for a few years now that winemakers are becoming more inclined to approach Syrah, a grape often associated with warmer climates. Despite Syrah being a topic of conversation, there are still precious few official wines being made in the region. Therefore, the announcement from the 2016 New York Wine & Food Classic that the panel had selected Billsboro’s 2013 Syrah as winner of the Governor’s Cup elicited a bit of a double take among observers. Has Syrah have finally “arrived” in the Finger Lakes?
Vinny Aliperti – winemaker and co-owner of Billsboro with his wife, Kim – seems to take all of the recent extra attention with a grain of salt. Sure, the lieutenant governor recently came to the Billsboro tasting room for a photo and yes, the 2013 Syrah in question subsequently sold out in a matter of weeks, but Aliperti sees Syrah with many of the same question marks he had when he produced his first vintage in 2007. “I saw an opportunity to explore something relatively new to the area,” he explains. “I’m excited to be on the front lines of this grape and continue to figure out what the Finger Lakes style is.”
A native of the New York City area, Aliperti came into the wine business after a series of friendly, and unplanned, connections led him to the cellar. He cut his teeth for a few years in the Long Island wine region before he and his wife decided to pursue a change of pace. “We came to the Finger Lakes almost on a lark,” he says. “I did some site visits and became intrigued by the area’s potential.” Arriving in 2000 as an assistant at Wiemer, Aliperti became the winemaker at Atwater in 2001 where he has remained ever since.
And that’s where the story is especially interesting. Although Vinny and Kim purchased Billsboro in 2006, he has continued to make wine at Atwater as well, an arrangement for which he is tremendously grateful. Kim and staff run the Billsboro tasting room, and Aliperti can remain focused on his passion of winemaking for two respected brands in the Finger Lakes.
One of the important distinctions between the wines Aliperti makes at Atwater and at Billsboro is the sourcing of grapes. Atwater is a well-planted estate winery. Billsboro, on the other hand, sources most of its grapes from the much-heralded Sawmill Creek vineyard on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. It was at Sawmill Creek that growers Eric and Tina Hazlitt planted some Syrah in the early 2000s. Vinny Aliperti was one of the first winemakers they approached about this experimental grape – a challenge he embraced. “I’m really fortunate to work with a grower who takes chances.” Aliperti says.
In fact, Billsboro pushes the envelope a bit on the varietal front, offering not only Syrah but Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc – two varietals that are not universally offered in the Finger Lakes – as well as Albarino, a white wine made from grapes native to northwestern Spain. As far as Aliperti knows, Billsboro is the only winery in the Finger Lakes making Albarino. He believes that regional consumers are becoming more interested in unusual varieties of wines, Syrah included.
While the Governor’s Cup-winning 2013 Syrah is all sold out, Billsboro has subsequent vintages lined up for release. Aliperti is especially excited about the 2016 vintage, which won’t see the bottle for a few more years. Overall, he’s optimistic about the grape’s future in the Finger Lakes. “I think we’ll be seeing more Syrah planted – which needs good drainage and exposure – but there’s been success with it to inspire others. I continue to be very bullish on the Finger Lakes brand.”