April 1, 2011

One Sunday afternoon two summers ago, I was at a party in Brooklyn with a crew of serious riesling drinkers. If a meteor had fallen on the building when the event was in full swing, the New York City riesling market would never have recovered. All sorts of superstar riesling producers were represented in the wines poured that day, including aged bottles from the Mosel’s Joh. Jos. Prüm and Fritz Haag; bottlings from Steinertal and Steiner Hund, two of Austria’s most esteemed sites made by two of its most esteemed vintners in Alzinger and Nikolaihof, respectively; and not one but two super-cuvées from the Wachau’s F.X. Pichler, the “M” Reserve and the Unendlich. Yet the wine from that day that lingered in my memory most saliently was from the Finger Lakes region in western New York, the Ravines Wine Cellars 2007 Dry Riesling.

The wine would have been impressive enough on its own, but what made it particularly remarkable was how it performed in the context of the surrounding heavyweights. Normally, someone who wants to sneak something offbeat in such a lineup will wrap the bottle in aluminum foil and serve it blind, as if sheepishly admitting, “I know it doesn’t measure up, but give this a shot and think about it for a minute, you might be surprised.” Serving it with the label exposed is virtually asking for people to give it short shrift. The highest praise is usually something along the lines of “Not bad,” which isn’t far removed from “How cute.” Fully expecting to react in exactly that fashion, I was flabbergasted to take a sip of the Ravines and find that it not only compared favorably in quality to the Austrian rieslings that had preceeded it, but represented a seamless continuity in style. The distinctive characteristics of Austrian riesling—a bone-dry structure, acidic cut, and mineral base that make the stuff seem palpably craggy in texture—were also present in the Ravines. I’d experienced many Finger Lakes rieslings before that had managed to capture the flavors of the benchmark European riesling regions, but this was probably the first that had nailed the textural intricacy.

What I didn’t know then, but know now, thanks to Evan Dawson’s new book Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes, is that Ravines, or more specifically its proprietor Morten Hallgren, is one of a new generation of producers who—for reasons each their own—found themselves in this remote outpost of the winegrowing world as its early pioneer era was passing and, with nothing to fall back on except their passion and drive, set out to define the next stage of its evolution. The pioneers such as Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer had proven that making high-quality wines out of classic European vitis vinifera varieties was possible in the Finger Lakes. But it fell to the current generation of winemakers like Hallgren to show the world not merely what the Finger Lakes is capable of doing, but what it is capable of doing uniquely. The subtitle of Dawson’s book is apropos (more apropos than the actual title, as is the trend in publishing these days): this is how a wine region comes of age.

There are several different ways one can approach writing about a wine region. There is the genre in which the author does as much research in the library as he does in the cellar, relating the complete history of the region since it was first planted by (usually) the Romans. There is the buyer’s-guide method, in which the author tastes through a whole lot of wine and recommends some of his favorites. But Dawson’s method is by far the most engaging to read. In his account, the story of the Finger Lakes as a winemaking region is actually the backdrop to the story of its winemakers, who each get a chapter and are rendered with all the humanistic detail and affection of the protagonists in a novel. (Think of one of those novels which is actually a collection of interconnected short stories. One of Dawson’s recurring themes is the collaborative, non-competitive culture in the Finger Lakes winemaking community—they understand that any one person’s success lifts up the whole industry—so the figure you meet in one chapter frequently turns up later in the narrative as an important player in somebody else’s story.)

The cast of characters in this book is of course driven by the same passion for wine that inspires winemakers everywhere, but what makes them spring from the page in novelistic fashion is the way Dawson dramatizes what pushes them at a basic, human level. Some have grand ambitions, such as building or honoring family legacies. Others had more modest aspirations—to work a job that doesn’t grind you to pieces and lets you be there for your children; to build something from scratch in a place where vineyard land can still be had for a few thousand dollars an acre; to put down roots. Regardless whether they started at the top or the bottom, most of them had been worn down or kicked around some before they found salvation in this place; if they weren’t underdogs in some fundamental sense, they’d be in Napa. As a reader, you cannot help but root for these people. When Dawson raves about one of their wines, you take notice not merely because you might want to buy some, but because you are cheering on his heroes, emotionally invested in their struggles and successes, and the wine in the glass is the culmination of all of that.

Understandably, Dawson succumbs to sentimentality at times, but don’t let anyone tell you that wine doesn’t go well with schmaltz. Still, I can imagine some readers wondering if these wines are really as good as he says they are, or if he’s allowed his attachment to his subjects to get the best of him. The truth is in the glass, as they say. It is impossible to get more than a chapter into this book without succumbing to the temptation to track down some of the wines. I started with Ravines.

The Ravines 2008 Dry Riesling made for a fascinating comparison with the winery’s single-vineyard bottling from the Argetsinger Vineyard as well as with my memory of the 2007. Immediately it was apparent that there was a significant difference in vintage personality vis-à-vis the 2007: this had the searing acidic cut of a samurai sword, somewhat in the fashion of the übertrocken rieslings from Germany that are so trendy as of late. It’s hard to believe from the way it tastes that it has any residual sugar at all, but the winery says it measures 0.3%. With its sharp cut and lemony, grapefruity flavors, it is a potentially polarizing style of riesling, capable of testing the limits even of people who proudly proclaim themselves acid freaks. If you have any cuts or abrasions on your gums that you don’t know about, you will find out quickly! But it is difficult to imagine a wine with more powerful refreshment value. I could imagine it  singing with oysters or ceviche, maybe because it seems capable of serving as a ceviche curing agent all by itself.

The Ravines 2008 Argetsinger Vineyard Dry Riesling is a different beast entirely. It would be impossible for me even to attempt a fair synopsis of Dawson’s account of Sam Argetsinger, the owner and grower of this site. You will just have to read the book and take my word that when you meet Sam Argetsinger in its pages, you will want to try this wine. Single-vineyard bottlings are a relatively new phenomenon in the Finger Lakes, and in other regions they are often designated as such for reasons of marketing or ego before they have demonstrated any of the site-based distinction that justifies the effort. That is emphatically not the case here. From the very first sip of the Argetsinger it is apparent that this is a bona fide terroir wine with a voice that would have been tragic to lose in a blend. It is unmistakably deeper in tone than the blended riesling, and the fruit is augmented by a layer of solid mineral underneath that feels like a mouthful of obsidian rock. Despite its deeper complexion, it features the same fierce acidic cut as its stablemate, but it’s the rockiness that lingers on the palate. This is a sui generis expression of the grape, almost more comparable at this point in its life to a wine like Domaine de la Pépière’s Muscadet Clos des Briords than any riesling in my frame of reference.

The Ravines 2008 Pinot Noir is nearly as impressive, although for different reasons. Whether because the vineyards aren’t yet old enough or the wine itself isn’t yet old enough, it doesn’t show the depths and complexities of flavor that pinot noir from the most gifted sites can show. But what it does pull off is, in a way, an even more remarkable achievement. It is absolutely perfectly composed pinot noir, seamless and slender and without a hair out of place (12.5% alcohol, for those who keep track). What’s so striking about it is how effortlessly it manages to achieve this sense of balance and proportion. Many New World pinot noirs—and I am talking about the wines I like, wines I would even call world-class or potential grand crus—achieve flavors of the highest sophistication but couldn’t possibly manage to render them in so perfect a form. If they were even to try it would be like trying to squeeze into a dress several sizes too small. Which is to say that Ravines has already achieved the absolute hardest thing for a pinot noir to achieve; the rest is just ornament. So it’s quite impressive to contemplate that this is only the beginning of the next chapter in the Finger Lakes’ story.

For further reading:

6 Responses to “I♥NY”

  1. Just to add to your findings, the main reason for the differences you cite between the 2007 and 2008 Rieslings is vintage specific.

    ’07 was a long, warm vintage; in fact, equal in warmth to Napa Valley. Hence, lower acidity, higher sugar, likely more roundness.

    ’08 was a problematic year that began with serious winter kills in the vineyard. In the end, acids beat out over sugars.

    As for Ravines, this is one unique and strikingly advanced winery, but why not: Morton has the necessary chops.

  2. James L Dietz said

    As always, a very good read. Unfortunately, here in CA, I’m unlikely to ever find these wines. But they do sound great. Thanx for the insight.. and for the book suggestion.

  3. Keith,

    I love this short video of Sam Argetsinger, explaining the Iroquois story of thunder and why growers embrace it:


    Your thoughts on the book make for the review I appreciate most thus far. That’s because you took the time to check out some of the wines. I’m hoping more will do that, because that will allow them to better understand the winemakers and the land. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone who reads the book will agree on every wine. But it’s a useful exercise.

    You are more than a little astute when it comes to the book’s title. My 25 suggestions (and it was at least 25, but perhaps more) were dismissed by the publisher. Ultimately they chose the title, and I saluted them for having a better understanding of how to reach a wider audience. Sometimes pragmatics wins out.

    I consider you a tough, thoughtful writer and reviewer, and that makes this review resonate with me. Thank you, once again.

  4. Thanks for the vintage info, Thomas—what’s the skinny on 2009?

    Evan, cool video! He can play himself in the movie.

  5. Keith,

    ’09 was a cool, wet summer with a spectacularly dry, warm harvests season that saved the day. Mixed.

  6. Paul said

    …but I can imagine the Danes who chase Levenberg points will be driven absolutely mad trying to find these!

    Nice report – I enjoyed Weimer’s reislings in the past, including a terrific visit to the vineyards on a warm spring day more than a decade ago, nice to hear there are winemakers there taking it to the next level.

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