Happy Labor Day weekend to my SOMMspirations readers! I’m enjoying a long weekend filled with wedding festivities (congrats Jon and Mel!) and the beach! Before I delve into my recap of Day 1 in the Finger Lakes, I’d like to give everyone an update on my WEST studies, as a lot has transpired in the last couple of weeks.
As you all know, I am currently enrolled in the WSET Diploma Level 4 program. It is a two year course that consists of A LOT of studying (600 hours over 2 years, to be exact) and a series of exams over 6 units of study. On August 23rd I took the first exam, a 100 question multiple choice format, with the subject being: viticulture (the growing of grapes), vinification (the making of wine), maturation, and bottling. I can report that it was a TOUGH test, which threw me a bit. This exam has an average pass rate of about 90%, so there is a good chance that I did pass. But I am not 100% certain that I did…fairly certain, yes…100% certain, no. I should have my results in about a week or so, and will share with everyone once they come in! Looking forward, I have a full day of exams coming up on November 3rd: a blind tasting of 3 sparkling wines, a long-essay case study (the topic has not been released yet), and a few short answer questions on sparkling wines. More info to follow!
Back to the Finger Lakes! To start Day 1, the Wine Bloggers Conference opened with Karen MacNeil as our keynote speaker. MacNeil, the author of The Wine Bible, is the most authoritative American woman in the world of wine. MacNeil is a very poised and confident speaker. She has a sense of calm and beauty about her that translates in everything she says. MacNeil imparted her words of wisdom to us bloggers, who soaked it up like little sponges. She urged us to think through our story and develop our own style. Voice, she said, is not as important as style. I am not in 100% agreement on this, as I think when you get started, your voice is something that needs to be developed and honed in on. As a blogger, I am still trying to define my voice in this wine blogging world. Simultaneously, I am working on maintaining a style as well, but for me, I find voice to be tantamount to style. She also told us to agonize over our writing. MacNeil is a perfectionist and this is not a secret. You can tell in the way she carries herself and in how she speaks (in person, as well as in her writing). Your writing will live out there in the world with MANY other pieces of work. With that many options for people to choose from, yours must be of quality. Also, you must tell your story, she said, don’t just write it. Anyone can write or recount a story, but not all can TELL a story. You must know wine deeply. Wine, she said, should never be stripped of its culture. For example, there is no way to understand Malbec, if you don’t understand tango. That sums up how I feel about wine. There is SOMETHING about wine that is more than just fermented grape juice in a bottle. Wine is a story and is constantly evolving.
The next session was an “Introduction to the Finger Lakes Wine Country” panel. The panelists included: Alan Lasko, a fruit crop physiologist from Cornell University, Christopher Bates, a somm, chef, and winemaker at Element Winery, and Fred Merwarth, the owner, winemaker, and vineyard manager at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard. This panel was particularly interesting to me because I knew almost nothing about the Finger Lakes to begin with. Some interesting facts I learned were that the Lakes exist because of ancient glaciation in the region, the lakes are very deep (Seneca Lakes at 650’ is the deepest), and that winemaking here is VERY difficult due to the climate, which can be extreme and unpredictable. The message that all the panelists conveyed was that those who come to the Finger Lakes to make wine, do so because they want to take on a challenge. Winemakers come to NY to become better winemakers, because it is not easy here. You have to work to make good wine here. Chris Bates, the only MS in the world who has presided over a kitchen, shared a strong message with us. He wants to get Finger Lakes wine out of the Finger Lakes. Most of the local wine is consumed here. The problem is that people outside of the NY do not know much about Finger Lakes wine because they are rarely exposed to it. His approach is to allocate a large chunk of NY wine to the state, but to also allocate a portion to other states so that people can get more experience with it.
The next part of the day was one of my favorites. We had an opportunity to taste 10 local Finger Lakes wines (all whites) in 60 minutes and live blog/tweet about them. You can imagine that we had some pressure on us. For one, we had such little time to taste, collect our thoughts, and to post. Also, we had to do this with the winemakers standing in front of us! We were all seated at round tables with our wine glasses and ipads ready. One winemaker started at each table and we had a total of 5 minutes to: hear about the wine, pour the wine, and tweet about the wine. Once the 5 minutes ended, the winemakers rotated tables. It was a wine whirlwind, yet I loved every minute! Here is one of my tweets from that session:
In case you thought that was the end of the day, you’re wrong! We still had a Finger Lakes excursion on the agenda. A bank of buses met us at the hotel and we had to jump on board one of them to find out where we were headed. Every bus had a different itinerary, which we did not know ahead of time. I was lucky, because in my opinion, I hopped on the best bus! We headed to a couple Keuka Lake wineries including Chateau Frank and the Pleasant Valley Wine Co. We first stopped at the sparkling winemaking facilities of the Frank family, Chateau Frank. Dr. Konstantin Frank was a Ukranian immigrant with a PhD in viticulture who came to the US in the early 50s. Dr. Frank is credited as one of the first people to successfully grow vitis vinifera grapes in the NE United States. We received a private tour by Fred Frank (Konstantin’s grandson) who now runs the family business. It was an incredible experience as we were in the private areas where the Chateau sparklings are made, in a beautiful building that is over 100 years old. We also had the opportunity to meet Fred’s daughter, Meghan, who is poised to take over the business as the 4th generation winemaker in the family. While there we enjoyed some sparklings from Chateau Frank, Ravine’s Wine Cellars, and Heron Hill Winery; all while overlooking the beautiful Keuka Lake at sunset. The setting was idyllic. I even walked over the vines and saw a lovely example of veraison in full effect (see picture above).
The afternoon was complete once we made our way to Pleasant Valley Wine Company (aka Great Western Winery). Fun fact: Pleasant Valley Wine Co. is the oldest bonded winery in the United States, and their stone buildings onsite are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We had a very memorable dinner at the estate in a beautiful, old cellar room. Our dinner was served and paired with wines from Dr. Frank and Ravine’s. It was a lovely evening as we were all seated with local winemakers and winery representatives and were able to get very intimate with the wine and hear even more about the Finger Lakes region. Overall, it was a very special trip and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to explore the Finger Lakes region, if only for a few hours. The love of the region by the winemakers is palpable. Finger Lakes is making honest, regional wines, and I am more than happy to support them!
Stay tunes for my next post, which will document Day 2 of my Finger Lakes trip to the Wine Bloggers Conference. Have a wonderful Labor Day!