Vineyard Designate: Sawmill Creek Vineyards (New York)

Editor’s note: Similar to the tastemakers series I write for the site, Carlo DeVito is going to showcase some of the best and most important vineyards sites on the East Coast and Midwest. We’re calling this new series “Vineyard Designate.” 

Growers rarely get the headlines. It’s the winemakers who seem to set fashion and quality and grab all the headlines, feature articles, and photo ops. But there are growers who have become brand names in and of their own right.

A vineyard designated wine is a wine produced from grapes grown in a single vineyard with that vineyard’s name appearing on the wine label. Under United States wine law, if the name of vineyard appears on the label at least 95% of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that vineyard. According to columnist Dr. Vinny at Wine Spectator, “they certainly indicate a confidence that the wine is at least distinctive.”

The concept was best surmised by Stett Holbrook in the Los Angeles Times, who wrote, “In France, terroir is taken as gospel. Over the last two decades, California winemakers have also embraced the notion, and it’s become more and more common for wines to be marketed with a “single vineyard” designation. Winemakers have been talking less about winemaking and more about soil and microclimate and the uniqueness of vineyard character. You don’t often find the word on a wine label, but when the label touts a particular vineyard, that’s code for terroir.”

Heitz Cellars seems to have led the way with the Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvingnon. And St. St. Jean pretty much lead the way with their Chardonnays. These were the leaders in single-vineyard or single-vineyard designations. There are two kinds of single-vineyard designations. The first would be the single vineyards of a particular winery. And there are the single vineyards of professional grape growers. The later is more rare.

This is the first in a series of articles about the development of single-vineyard wines outside of the West Coast. “It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines,” wrote Steve Heimoff. “As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential.”

We happen to think it’s about terroir, first and foremost. Single vineyard designations offer the ultimate in terroir. And the concept has not only gained ground in the eastern winemaking regions as well, it has made headlines.

Possibly the most famous single-vineyard designate, professional, independent grape growers whose name has become a brand is Dutton Ranch of Sonoma Valley, California. The moniker “Dutton Ranch” vineyards now appears on the labels of some of the most coveted wines in California. Some of the highest-rated California chardonnays and pinot noirs have come from Dutton Ranch, but via such storied labels as Kistler, Patz & Hall, Duckhorn Vineyards Migration, as well as other quality producers such as The Calling, Davis Family Vineyards, Lost Canyon, Sonoma-Loeb, Chateau Boswell. And of course, there’s Dutton Estate and Dutton Goldfield as well.

On the East Coast the southeastern most portion on the shores of Seneca Lake seems to feature two such budding independent grower vineyards. The most ubiquitous of these, that has a growing reputation of collectible clout — with both winemakers and wine collectors — is Sawmill Creek Vineyards. Sawmill Creek Vineyards’ moniker appears on such prestigious labels as Red Newt Cellars, Billsboro Winery, Bellwether Wine Cellars, Forge Cellars, Damiani, Hector Wine Company and Dr. Kostantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars.

Sawmill Creek Vineyards was established in 1852. David Hazlitt, who had been farming almost 20 years by that point, bought a 154-acre peach farm on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake in Hector, New York. By the 1860s grape growing had become the thing in the region. The vineyard was planted with Catawba, Concord, Niagara, and others. Subsequent generations farmed the property and added to it. More vineyards and orchards were added.

In 1980 the two controlling brothers, James “Jim” Hazlitt and Jerome “Jerry” Hazlitt saw an opportunity. They split the farm. Jerry moved forward with half the farm and created Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards. Jim also founded a Hazlitt Vineyards. But in 1995 he changed course and founded Sawmill Creek Vineyards naming it after an historical marker that recounts the historical significance of the site.

Jim eventually retired, and Sawmill Creek Vineyards is now managed by the husband-and-wife team of Eric and Tina Hazlitt. Eric has been farming premium wine grapes on his family’s vineyard for decades and Tina manages the business. In the last two decades Sawmill Creek has become one of the most recognized leader in the industry.

Sawmill Creek Vineyards is now in the hands of fifth and sixth generation Hazlitts. The current team includes Eric and Tina Hazlitt, Jason Hazlitt, Ryan Yaskulski, and Courtney Griffin. The 85 acres under vines is planted 20% to the older grapes, and 80% vinifera. The vineyard produces such regional classic vinifera as riesling, pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet franc. But it has in the last 15-20 years continued to experiment in growing other varieties.

“He’d try wines and come back and plant one or two rows to see if it would grow here,” Eric Hazlitt said of his father Jim.

“It was out of survival,” Jim Hazlitt shrugged. Jim pointed out the drop in ‘Concord’ prices and the increased demand for quality wine making grapes. They also grow Sauvignon blanc, mousseux, cabernet sauvignon, gewurztraminer, syrah, and more.

It seems like the whole family farms. And when they are not farming, Eric and Tina spend about as much time out on the lake in their boat as seems humanly possible. They are sun drenched, either by dint of labor or love. Pictures of harvest about on Tina’s personal social media pages, accompanied by farm life, and plenty of shots on deck with the lake’s water stretching out behind the two of them.

There is no question that the location is the prime driver. Sawmill supplies a large amount of grapes for standard, inexpensive wines as well. But many of the premium wines made from their grapes come from caring winemakers. Some winemakers go so far as to actually work their own vines in order to keep them up to their own specifications. The vineyard sits atop a series of rolling hills that slope down the eastern shore at the south end of Seneca Lake. They get lots of sun, from just after sunrise, to the last rays of sun before it goes down beyond the horizon. It is a premium growing spot.

Sawmill Creek Vineyard is the vineyard with the most number of labels featuring its name. But, are there any challengers in the east? There are several — and we’ll explore some of them in upcoming editions of “Vineyard Designate.”

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