Tastemaker: Rick Rainey | Forge Cellars

Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but I’ve been writing about wine for nearly 15 years now. Along the way, I’ve met some incredible people both in and around the wine industry and I’ve tried to learn something from each and every one of them.

Even the ones that I haven’t exactly gotten along with.

This month’s “Tastemaker,” Forge Cellars‘ Rick Rainey, is among a select few that I’d say I’ve learned the most from. I guess you could even call him a mentor in some ways.

Rainey, along with French winemaker Louis Barruol of Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas and Finger Lakes winemaker Justin Boyette of Hector Wine Company, established Forge in 2008. Three years later, the ternion released its first wines. Just this year, Forge Cellars opened its tasting room.

While his partners are both winemakers, Rainey has worked for a large international wine importer-distributor in sales and education for nearly 20 years. That experience navigating the intricacies of the wine business has proven invaluable, but Forge has also forced Rainey to stretch and expand his knowledge. He serves as general manager for Forge Cellars, but he also serves as de facto vineyard manager.

What has always impressed me most about Rainey is his long-term vision for Forge and his ability to avoid any distraction that might keep him from realizing that vision. Other Finger Lakes producers might get more attention from New York City sommeliers or writers at glossy wine magazines, but that’s not Rainey’s goal.

He wants to make great riesling and great pinot noir with his great friends — Barruol and Boyette. He wants to build a sustainable business that provides good, well-paying jobs to people in his local community. He wants to build a life with his wife and son that is filled with good food, good wine, good friends and a lot of happiness.

Who can argue with any of that?

Get to know Rick Rainey — he’s a true tastemaker who has a vision for what Finger Lakes riesling and pinot noir can be.

Location: Trumansburg, New York

Current Job: Managing Partner, Forge Cellars. I focus on vineyard management and acquisition, grower relations, and planning as well as painting, mowing, rolling up hoses, pump overs and cleaning out the fridge at the winery.

Wine/cider/beer of the moment: Currently beer (session..not too heavy) as it is harvest but typically it is usually French (Rhone), Austrian white and white/red Burgundy. I drink more white than red. In the summer I live on rosé. I have a love of Calvados and Louis Roque la Vieille prune/plum brandy. It is a “habit” actually and I need to keep La Vieille prune many steps away to prevent over-indulgence.

My winemaking style in 1-5 words: Riesling:L pure, rich, textural, dry, different
Pinot: earth, mineral, refreshing, joyful

First bottle of wine I remember drinking: My great grandmother’s (Hungarian) blend of several jug wines. My great grandmother and great grandfather lived in a little trailer next to my grandmother’s house in Florida. She was an amazing cook and I distinctly remember that when my grandfather would raise a pig the joke was my great grandmother would come out with her bucket and use everything but the squeal. Yeah, I snuck a sip or two when nobody was looking. First

My first “grown-up” wine (does Mad Dog count?) was white Zinfandel (Berringer) and Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir. Trying to impress a girlfriend at dinner. I remember I even ordered the white zinfandel by the “bin number.” I think I was probably underage and thought it would make me look sophisticated.

How I got here: 22 years ago I worked at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia and fell in love with wine. I didn’t have the money to go to U.C. Davis and at the time I was dating someone from the Finger Lakes. After talking to a Califronia producer, he told me the basics of making wine are the same nearly everywhere — so I pointed my VW Golf north to the Finger Lakes and voila.

My winemaking style — in more words:  Actually it’s “our” winemaking style. There are three of us — Louis, Justin and myself. I think collectively we approach wine in a similar way. First, select great vineyards and pick precisely. Second, do everything in the winery possible to do as little as possible. Third, stay ahead of the wine and not behind it. And fourth, discipline first and artistry second…that is a quote from Louis’ dad and I think about it every day. We like wines with a lot of relief and purity and that is what we try to bring. Not many tricks or bells and whistles but lots of paying strict attention and always having eyes (nose) wide open.

Mentors: Louis Barruol is the most obvious. I have learned more from him than I can even say. It is as if he has 500 years of winemaking knowledge rolled up inside his head somewhere. I really respect Olivier Humbrecht for his forward thinking. Jean-Marie Guffens for his rebellious nature but he backs it up with great results. Kermit Lynch for his palate and consistency with respect to tradition. Bruce Neyers for his direct nature and business acumen.

It takes a village I suppose because I have more.

Music playing in the cellar right now: Personally I like Bach (Glen Gould) but I also love Eminem and Alabama Shakes/Black Keys style of music. It depends on the day, who is around and how I feel. If it is just me in the cellar I listen to Bach….loud.

Favorite thing about the local wine industry: I kind of live in a bubble. I have a family. I have a day job. And I am responsible for Forge so that does not leave me a lot of time to spend time with others, other than probably Phil Davis from Damiani because we look at vineyards together and both enjoy a good bottle of wine or cold beer afterward.

I will say that I like the sense of adventure that seems to be a part of our DNA in the Finger Lakes. In Hector, where Forge is, we have a distinct culture that is really something to behold. Everyone is very kind, loves to laugh, takes care of each other and hugs. Hugging is very much a thing in Hector.

Least favorite thing about the local wine industry: I wish we had more resources for equipment, tools and frankly got more from New York State. We could really improve our warehousing and transportation options to make us far more accessible to wholesalers. We (New York) are spending money on so many things and I think infrastructure is essential to becoming a sustainable wine region. I would also like to see us making moves to protect land suitable for grape growing. Planting houses gives a return for a short period, grape vines can “give” for a very long time.

One surprising thing that I’m really good at: I am frankly not great at any one thing. Perhaps that is my skill? I can generally do a lot of things but I am pretty mediocre at most of them. I know that sounds nuts but as I have become older I think I realize I am a pretty good generalist. Louis says I have a knack for surrounding myself with smart people…perhaps that is it? If I had to choose, I think I excel at two things — cooking and my understanding of wine

What I drink: I only drink Forge wines Friday and Saturday when I do tastings. I avoid them like crazy the rest of the week because it keeps me sharp and critical. My wife owns a great wine shop and of course, I am in the business so we have many options to choose from and I try and take advantage of that. At home, I drink precisely what I want…it is my own personal time and so it tends to be mostly French with smatterings of Austrian, Italian, Oregon and lately, Canary Islands. My go to pre-dinner beverage is Eve’s Cidery.

My “Desert Island Meal” — wine/cider/beer included: Roasted Bresse chicken w/ truffles under the skin stuffed with herbs, crunchy bread, and pata negra ham pieces. I would probably drink Cote Rotie or Chambolle-Musigny. I would drink Chambolle if my wife was with me because it is the most beautiful wine to have with someone you love. You can drink Cote Rotie by yourself and it is okay..ha!!

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