There have been several sommeliers in recent history who have embraced Finger Lakes wines in New York City. Paul Grieco’s list at Terroir Wine Bar gave the strongest initial push for the Finger Lakes, pouring up to six of her rieslings by the glass at once. Then along came Thomas Pastuszak and the Nomad Hotel restaurant and bar, which certainly presents the largest selection of Finger Lakes wines I’ve ever seen in print, outside of the region itself. During her tenure at Roberta’s, Amanda Smeltz turned the north Brooklyn institution’s summer patio into a deluge of Finger Lakes rosé.
Rouge Tomate was arguably the least likely candidate to have cellared a mentionable collection of lake wines. Its opening beverage director, Pascaline Lepeltier, M.S., is a French sommelier from the Loire Valley with a violent devotion to natural winemaking and organic and biodynamic viticulture. So you might wonder why she bothered at all to connect with a region that doesn’t have much association with either movement. But, she took an approach that at one time may have seemed impossible: the vast majority of Finger Lakes producers on her list own their own vineyards, farm sustainably (in some vintages organically), and control every aspect of the winemaking from bud break to bottling. (Lepeltier left Rouge Tomate at the end of August after 10 years of employment.)
It’s important to understand that her approach rules out listing many of the wines coming from the northeastern North American lake regions, because of the nearly ubiquitous use of conventional farming, grape sourcing, and winemaking. Lepeltier, the rare unapologetic advocate for natural wines and sustainable farming who is also a master sommelier, seeks out those who are willing to risk losing an entire crop in favor of what she believes are the most responsible and honest farming methods. In true cool climate viticulture, this approach is too risky for most.
Lepeltier has always spoken of the far greater importance that is tasting with winemakers, over the regular tasting groups amongst the sommelier community. Early on in her studies in France, while working at restaurants in Paris and Normandy, she made it a point to return home to the Loire every weekend to taste with winemakers. For her, a fluent comprehension of viticulture and vinification practices was essential for learning how to taste. It only makes sense that while in New York Lepeltier would seek out the state’s regional winemakers. In addition to the Finger Lakes, she has formed relationships with winemakers from the Long Island and Hudson Valley AVAs.
From the day the second iteration of Rouge Tomate — formerly uptown, then relocated to 18th street in Chelsea — printed its first full wine list with around 1600 bottles, the Finger Lakes offerings made a statement. Producers were listed first in order of those who owned and sustainably managed their own vineyards, followed by a mix of small producers who contract grapes by the acre so that they can control the farming, and a few conventional producers whose wines Lepeltier deemed high enough in quality to merit a listing. On the critical question of winemaking, it’s far more common to find wines from the Finger Lakes that have been made in a controlled environment, using cultured yeasts to begin a clean and predictable fermentation, rather than the traditional method of letting the ambient yeasts of the environment begin the process.
“Cultured yeast will always show its face in any wine it’s used in,” says Finger Lakes winemaker Nathan Kendall (who works with both ambient and cultured yeasts), of Nathan K. Wines and Hickory Hollow Cellars, remarking on the sometimes obvious flavors that can occur in a wine that was inoculated with cultured yeast.
But spontaneous fermentations from ambient yeasts can be problematic, making every previous, detailed step from the vineyard to the cellar that much more important. Winemakers who favor inoculating with cultured yeast do so because they like reliable results. Those who favor spontaneous fermentations will have their work cut out for them in monitoring the process from start to finish, which can sometimes take months. Spontaneous fermentations promote a purer representation of vintage and grape profile in the eyes of some. As drinkers we can decide for ourselves whether the use of cultured or ambient yeasts affects our enjoyment of a wine. Viticulture and vinification aside, Lepeltier’s listing of Finger Lakes wines was a unique aggregate — an idiosyncratic extension of her palate. I admire both her ability to assess quality in any wine, and her fearlessness to push a wine that she believes was made with the best intentions, even if at the time it lacked structure, or greatness. She can taste when someone’s on to something.
As for producers, there were three in particular whose wines made the strongest appearances: Bloomer Creek Vineyard, Shaw Vineyards, and Eminence Road Farm Winery. Bloomer Creek, owned by husband and wife grape growers Kim Engle and Debra Bermingham, farm their west Cayuga and east Seneca Lake vineyards organically in most vintages and are steadfast about adding little to no sulfur to their wines. They produce some of the best riesling and cabernet franc in the region, as well as excellent gewurztraminer, delicious pétillant natural sparkling wines; at any one time, there were as many as eight different selections from Bloomer Creek on Lepeltier’s list. Opportunities to taste wines from the Finger Lakes with more than one or two years of age are rare and expensive in New York City. This year at Rouge Tomate (full disclosure: I worked as an assistant sommelier under Lepeltier for one year) I was able to taste riesling, cabernet franc, and pinot noir from the 2008 Boomer Creek vintage, all of which had aged gracefully, and deliciously.
Steve Shaw, with vineyards on both the west side of Seneca and east side of Keuka Lakes, is probably the Finger Lakes vigneron with the most discipline for bottle aging his wines. His current vintage chardonnay is a 2003, and was listed at $59 on the Rouge Tomate list. A stunning wine, it reminded me of a classic village wine from Meursault with an equal amount of age. There is not nearly as much sauvignon blanc planted as riesling or chardonnay in the Finger Lakes, but Shaw’s is richly textured, intense, and memorable. Cabernet Sauvignon makes cameo appearances here and there throughout the Finger Lakes, usually grown for blending purposes or varietally produced in only the ripest growing seasons. Shaw’s 2010 cabernet sauvignon is as good a dinner companion as there is for both trophy wine drinkers and those who like leaner, more elegant expressions of the grape. Ripe and lengthy, with tannins driving the structure, it’s a wine that would appear in more steak houses if only it didn’t cost so little ($60 on Lepeltier’s list).
Eminence Road Farm Winery, run by Andrew Scott and Jennifer Clark, is located in the Catskills, with fruit sourcing from the Finger Lakes. I can barely recall a moment when Lepeltier wasn’t pouring one of their wines by the glass, notably their gamay noir. Gamay noir is a funny cat. It thrives in the lakeside vineyards of the Niagara Peninsula of southern Ontario, but no one seems to be able to get it right in the Finger Lakes, except Eminence Road, and I don’t know why that is. I’ve spoken to winemakers from both New York and Canada at length on this topic, and no one gives at best more than a half baked answer as to why. Firm, refreshing, proper gamays are being produced in Ontario but not the Finger Lakes just a couple hours south and with nearly identical wine and grape growing histories. Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario, who also consults in New York, told me there’s no reason that gamay noir shouldn’t work in the Finger Lakes. Peter Bell, a Canadian who has made wine for Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes for decades, told me that the soils throughout southern Ontario are better suited for gamay noir. Bob Madill, another Canadian winemaker and sommelier in the Finger Lakes believes the wrong clones were planted there. I continue to scratch my head while Eminence Road makes their highly enjoyable gamay noir, sourced from vineyards around Cayuga Lake. The 2014 was a staple of Lepeltier’s by-the-glass selections for almost an entire year. Light, reminiscent of a simple entry level gamay noir from its benchmark of Beaujolais, France, it was a favorite of hers to pour for French winemakers when they would visit the restaurant. It was also one of the cheapest bottles on her list, at $39.
Did this approach with its emphasis on farming and natural winemaking practices make Lepeltier’s Finger Lakes selection the best in New York? When we factor in the long list of additional worthy producers not mentioned above — Ravines, Hermann J. Wiemer, Nathan K., Silverthread, Bellwether, Element — I think we can at least agree that the selection had an innovative focus, and there were no weaknesses. In that sense, Lepeltier’s list made for a gateway into the category for first-time New York state wine drinkers, of which there were many to walk over the granite floored entrance of the restaurant (granite is the soil-type on which the gamay noir grape thrives).
There has never been a better time to seek out the wines of the Finger Lakes, where a reputation for high quality is erupting, so do it now before prices climb. Luckily, the future has been laid out for young sommeliers by forward-thinking ones like Lepeltier, who always seems to find those producers, young or seasoned, whose wines are still reasonably priced . . . who are onto something.