Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Bedside Diagnostician Contemplates Curative Wrestling

I just returned from what I shall refer to as ‘a place that is not the USA’, and while there I found the time to stop in at a few tasting rooms in one of that country’s up-and-coming wine regions. This particular destination, home to a dozen and a half wineries, is closer to the equator than is the Finger Lakes, and I was hoping to taste some wines that were, if not rich and alcoholic, at least tasty and expressive.

Alas, no such luck. At one winery in particular, things got off to an especially bad start. The very first white ‘poured’ a deep bronze color. (I am stealing here from the lexicon of beer writers, who have made a bold semantic leap and given free will and animism to the liquids they scrutinize.)

While it’s fine for beers to ‘pour’ a bronze color, white wines normally prefer to ‘pour’ a pale gold color. Was I disappointed? Not really, because moments before, my niece Lydia had asked a very good question: “How exactly can you tell if a wine is bad?” I’d told her that she’d have to wait until we came across one, and then things would fall into place. I had no inkling that that moment would come so soon.

There’s nothing as satisfying as a good object lesson! Lydia now knows all she needs to know about oxidation in white wines, given that she is studying to be a mezzo-soprano. My son Justin was also along for the ride, and he too was able to see the good in this experience, since his friends often tell him that he has a filial obligation to pontificate on the wine they happen to be drinking.

The second, third and fourth wines all followed suit, and then we moved onto the reds.

These wines ‘poured’ a good enough red color, but when it came time for them to ‘taste’, they didn’t fare particularly well. Lydia’s object lesson number two came rapidly, in the form of a 2006 Pinot noir. Our server had given us a carefully worded preamble – or was it a disclaimer? – along the lines of, “This one’s not from the ripest of years, but it only costs ten units of the currency we use in this country.” I hope I’m translating that correctly.

Well, if the wine’s only problem had been a hint of under-ripeness, that would have been fine. But what we had in our glasses was a full-blown example of what’s called ‘mousiness’, a type of bacterial spoilage that gives the affected wine an indelible flavor of mouse urine. It’s an aroma, actually, but an aroma that only becomes apparent when the wine heats up in your mouth for a few seconds, so you can’t use your nose in the regular way to warn you to steer clear.

I got back home several days later, and immediately drove out to the winery to hang out with my own wines for a while, in the same way that youngsters rush up to their bedroom after a vacation to spend time with their stuffed animals. Not that I was the least bit worried, but I was nevertheless happy that all the whites ‘sample-valved’ a nice pale shimmery color, and their attendant aromas were clean and fresh.

Things can and do go wrong with wines at this time of year, though, and it is one of the most crucial tasks of winemakers to take steps to prevent mishaps. A partially filled tank of Chardonnay with the top manway left open for a few days will begin to show signs of distress, and a barrel of Pinot noir which didn’t get a little dose of sulfite can start down a microbial path that will probably not end well.  

Some wise aphorist -- or maybe it was my grandmother -- once said, “Prevention is the something something of something”, and I keep that in mind all the time. It couldn’t be more true than in the realm of winemaking. Kelby wrote in an earlier blog of the House Palate phenomenon, wherein practitioners lose the ability to spot problems in their wines because of a creeping acclimation. Avoiding a house palate is our first line of defense against the appearance of aroma and flavor defects.

We need not only to be alert to all kinds of potential problems, but also to know what to call them, how to prevent them, and in a worst-case scenario, how to cure them. And this is where we are wise to look across the sea for guidance, to that ‘formidable’ nation that is synonymous with great wine.

The charming, inscrutable language of wine spoilage in French counsels us to think of defective wines as having an ‘illness’. The names of these illnesses predate the actual understanding of their cause, and so we have a collection of maladies that sound as quaint as Ague, Consumption and Glandular Fever do to modern medical practitioners. In French wine handbooks we come across terms such as Tourne (literally, ‘a case of the sniffles’), Graisse (literally, ‘I need to go lie down in a dark room for awhile’) and Acescence (literally, ‘What the hell are we going to tell the boss, Marcel?’)

This approach to wine maladies is in keeping with the French conviction that wine is a living thing, with a heartbeat and everything, as vigorous and fecund as the head lice in a third-grade classroom. And just like insects, wines can’t talk, so we can’t count on being able to coax anything out of them verbally when something goes wrong. Neither do they have foreheads, for that matter, so even seeing if they are feverish takes a whole lot more effort than it ought to.

Flow charts and the Internet to the rescue! This French website not only helps winemakers diagnose and treat wine illnesses, but it does so with a level of aplomb worthy of France’s über-hero Jerry Lewis. Here is a prime example, which I reprint verbatim:

So there you have our lives at the moment. We’ve rolled out the practice mat and are busy getting our wrestling skills up to scratch, all the while hoping against hope that we won’t have to resort to any mecanic beating of the wines. Life is beautiful.

By: Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • Jean Ferrat - "C'est Beau La Vie":

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Nature's Air Conditioning

After writing about the vineyard selection riesling last week, it is almost as if the ears of our small drum of pied de cuve fermentation were burning! That fermentation had been slowly winding its way from a massive amount of sugar towards our target mark of somewhere around 63 grams per liter. Against all expectations and signals to the contrary, however, it decided to hit that mark well ahead of schedule last Thursday.

Following the initial burst of fermentation when we first inoculated the juice in October, we only checked in on the progress of the fermentation periodically to see that everything was continuing without major problems. Compared to entire tanks that we inoculated normally this would seem like a stunning lack of oversight. Our standard fermentations normally wrap-up in one to two weeks and thus require near-daily checks on how far the fermentation has progressed so we can stop it in time for the style of wine being made.

The small drum of the riesling we decided to ferment in this manner, however, was only dropping around 3-5 grams per liter of sugar per week.  Carefully monitoring the fermentation on a day-to-day level was therefore not entire helpful and rendered useless; the changes over any 24 hour period were too small to be reliably measured.

Never having experimented with this style of fermentation before, we were under the impression that the rate of fermentation would brake even further to a near standstill over the dead of winter.  Peter and Tricia became concerned last week that the fermentation had entirely halted and the drum needed to be moved to a warmer place from our winery into our warehouse.  Nevertheless, over the previous few weeks the rate of fermentation - at least in terms of how quickly sugar was being metabolized - had held steady and perhaps even increased to 6 grams per liter per week.

On my last day of work last week I decided to check on the riesling as well, both in taste and numerically, given Peter and Tricia's concerns that the fermentation may have finally halted.  To my surprise (and Peter's as well, when I called to confirm the course of action with him), the fermentation had actually sped up in the last week and we were dead-on the sugar level we hoped to stop the wine at. As opposed to the tanks of wine back during harvest that require artificial cooling via glycol jackets to halt a fermentation, the timing of this riesling could not have been much better.

At the end of the day, I simply rolled the drum outside onto our crush pad and am letting the icy temperatures we are (sometimes) fortunate to have here in the Finger Lakes do their work.  Frankly, the only question was what to write down in our record-keeping book.  Normally we write in "Cooling On" for a tank that we are chilling; this time I just wrote down "Moved Outside."  I think it speaks for itself.

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • Giacomo Puccini - Turandot; "Nessun Dorma" (after the version in Tricia's last post, this one comes from Aretha Franklin who performed it at the same pitch, without any rehearsal, and with 15 minutes advance notice when her friend Luciano Pavarotti was receiving an award and found himself too ill to perform):

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Wishes and Excited Children

Hi there, and Merry Christmas.  
I’m writing to you from the sanctuary of my room.  
Outside, white lights are twinkling, carols are playing, a fire is burning brightly and two nearly delirious children are chanting, “Come on, Mom.  Can’t we open one?  Just one?   Mom?  Come on.  Please?  Mom?”  I hope the dresser I pushed against the door will keep them away. 
Just kidding, of course.  About the dresser, that is.  
We’re having a fantastic day, and I hope that you are as well.  In a few short hours, we’ll head over the river.  Two of my sisters are in town, one with husband and two year old little boy, Noah.   We’ll join my parents at their home where we’ll talk too loud and eat too much, and will certainly have some delicious wine to drink.
Kelby’s suggested pairing of lobster ravioli from the Ravioli Store matched with Fox Run Reserve Chardonnay sounded too tasty to pass up, so that is what we’ll be eating tonight—can’t wait.  We’ll also have some Fox Run Sparkling wine, which should pair well with the lobster because it is made from Chardonnay, and because according to immutable laws of nature, lobster and sparkling wine love each other.  
That’s all the news for today.  Sorry to be so brief, but it is a special day, and outside my barricade, two fabulous girls are waiting for me to spend it with them.  
To you and yours, from me and mine, and from all of us at Fox Run, we wish you the happiest holidays.  

Music of the Day:
  • Giacomo Puccini - Turandot; "Nessun Dorma" (as performed by the one and only Luciano Pavarotti):

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wine Description: Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself

The following are two verbatim wine reviews from separate publications:
First Wine:
“A full, warm and seductive wine with flavors of sweet berries, damp earth and chocolate. Another wine with loads of honest flavor.”
Second Wine:
“Color: ruby. Nose: Black cherry aromas with unattractive medicinal/rubbery overtones. Palate: better than nose – ripe though not intense fruit – minty/medicinal flavor – tannins are on the harsh side – hard to see it improving.”
Reading these descriptions, it would be easy to discern which is the better wine. Or would it? It turns out that both reviewers were tasting the exact same wine, an inexpensive Australian red, at about the same time. Notice that there is almost no overlap in the two reviews. The wildly diverging descriptions are a reflection of differences in the tasters’ perception, something that cannot be standardized from one taster to another no matter how much experience or training they have. The same wine elicited a favorable response in one taster, and a very unfavorable one in another.
Here’s another example, in this case the same sparkling wine, written up in two different wine magazines: 
“This well-integrated, perfectly aged brut is still crisp and showing hints of fresh apple, along with beeswax, citrus and gooseberry. It shows off with a gorgeous mousse, and persistent flavors that linger without cracking up.” 

“Has mature aromas and flavors and enough freshness to carry the day. Offers toast, pear and white pepper flavors that grow nicely in the mouth. Finishes with persistence.” 
Here we see that the two reviewers had some commonality in their experience with this wine: both rather liked it, and both noted its ‘developed’ character (perfectly aged/mature) and its length (persistent flavors that linger/Finishes with persistence). [Fellow linguistic pedants, please ignore the blatant tautology contained in the phrase ‘persistent flavors that linger’.]
But what’s notable is the lack of any overlap in the ‘smells like/tastes like’ terminology the two tasters used, those descriptors I’ve put in boldface. Is one taster nailing the description, while the other is just grasping at straws? Are they both just making stuff up? I would say neither is the case. Each taster ably described what he or she perceived to be the attributes of the wine, but they happened to come up with completely different words.  
We run into this phenomenon so often in the wine community that it no longer has any capacity to surprise or perturb. 
“I’m getting smoke, plum and dried herbs”, says one taster. 
“I’m getting woolly-mammoth notes,” counters another fellow, who happens to be a visiting caveman. 
The first taster could take the obnoxious route, with a response along the lines of,  “Well, if only you’d taken xyz wine course/visited the region/met the owner, you’d agree with me,” or he could just say, “Huh. Isn’t that interesting,” and leave it at that.
“Wine writing is … a series of elaborately plausible compliments paid to wines,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.The real question is not whether…wine writers are big phonies but whether they are any bigger phonies than, say, book reviewers or art critics. For with those things, too, context effects are overwhelming. All description is impressionistic, and all impressions are interpretive.” 
This, by the way, encapsulates one of the three great challenges in coming up with back label text: by definition, the terms we use to describe the wine inside the bottle are wrought from the personal sensory experience of one or two people. Expecting customers to experience the wine in the same way is asking a lot, though we do it anyway. (The other two challenges: condensing a lot of thoughts into a few well-chosen, cliché-free sentences, and avoiding terms that most people won’t understand.)
This week, Tricia and I engaged in one of our regular reviews of the 2010 Rieslings in tanks (Kelby is away for a few days). Each of us smelled and tasted independently and made notes. I reproduce those notes here to show that two very qualified individuals, who also happen to have actually made the wines they are tasting, will still describe them in different ways. I also thought it would be fun to commit the notes to this blog, and then do it again in a few months’ time, to demonstrate how these suckers can evolve in the tank.
Please note that what you are about to read was not meant to be anything more than internal-memo-style jottings. Writing for an audience is an altogether different exercise. The // slash marks are our shorthand way of separating aroma notes from flavor and mouthfeel notes.
There are seven individual tanks of Riesling in the winery, whose volumes range from 55 gallons to 2500 gallons. Rieslings 3,4,5,7 and 8 have been subsumed into larger blends, so you won’t see them listed here. Here we go:

Riesling 1 
Tricia: Smoke, camphor, lime, sandalwood // Lemon, toasted marshmallow, smoke. Finish is very tropical: mango, guava, passionfruit. Mouthfeel very plush but acid keeps it lively.
Peter: A little reduced. With aeration, faint fruit cocktail and marigolds. Not opening up yet // Much better in mouth. Perhaps balanced a little too dry for this style [semi-dry]. Some phenolics.
Riesling 2 
Tricia: Lemon curd, bay leaf, roasted fennel, banana, papaya // Creamy, banana, lemon, vanilla. A little broad. Love the lime fruit. Needs a touch of acid.
Peter: Forward tree fruits, apricot, mandarin orange. Clean // Bigger mouthfeel than normal for a dry style. Very clean. Balance almost perfect. No phenolics. Long. Wants some minerality.
Riesling 6 
Tricia: Pineapple, lime, tangerine, juniper // Juicy mango and lime. Some electricity here. Mouthfeel lush. Acid nice through midpalate. A touch heavy in finish? Try touching up acid. Long tangerine finish.
Peter: Still quite yeasty. Fennel, mint, smoke. Almost no fruit yet // Tight, slatey, lime peel, archetypal Fox Run dry style. Flavors explode midpalate. 
Riesling 9
Tricia: Apricot, banana, pear // Oily shale, salt air, banana and lemon zest.
Peter: Raspberry starting to show // Very lean, tense; acid dominates and wraps around other flavors. The most austere. A little too much wood smoke.
Riesling 10
Tricia: SO2, lemon, peach // Peach and lemon, tea. Lemon ice persists. Very long and clean.
Peter: SO2. Very clean tree fruit – apricot and peach // Flavors build. Very soft, but acid’s almost perfect. Long. These tree fruit flavors are not typical of a dry style.
Riesling 11
Tricia: Brioche, peach, mango // Burst of tangerine, mango, raspberry. Electricity happening here – rich but also intense; bright spine of acid. Long finish of mango, lime and honey.
Peter: Germanic. Cantaloupe rind, honeydew melon, some funk // That German smell, juicy, lots of fermentation flavors. Still progressing.
Riesling 12
Tricia: Lemon, apple, ginger // Peach, honey and jasmine. Also Golden Delicious – finishes golden apple, lemon, vanilla, tea and blackberry.
Peter: Apple skin, spice, mango, papaya, a little marmalade // Apple skin, cinnamon, marmalade. Acid’s high but meets the sugar.
Kelby was not able to participate in this tasting, but you may have read his descriptions of three of these wines in Monday’s post. If you’re up to the task of cross-referencing, the wines he writes about are our numbers 12, 11 and 10 respectively. Guess what? His descriptions are different again.
- by Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Late(r) Harvest Riesling Update

For those who remember Tricia's post on the late(r) harvest, block selected, riesling that we are making this year, I wanted to give a quick update on the progress of the wine.  This wine is a bit of a challenge to analyze given that we have never before made one in a low alcohol, higher sugar style, and thus do not have memory guideposts for how what we are sensing now will evolve down the road.  With that as forewarning, however, we hope others will share in the discovery of this wine with us as we explore how it goes in the Finger Lakes.  Here's where things stand as of last week:

  • Low Alcohol, High Sugar, Standard Fermentation:  This riesling finished fermenting to the point we desired quite awhile ago, at which point we put it in a small tank outside and threw on the chilling to arrest the fermentation.  When we had hit a certain level of sugar fermented in the wine, we began regularly checking the percent alcohol to make sure we hit a provisional target somewhere between 8% and 8.5% ABV.  Our belief is that we would have somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 grams per liter of sugar left in the wine left at those alcohol levels, which would hopefully be balanced out by the wine's natural acidity.  After halting the fermentation (back in early November) and then hitting the wine with sulfur to kill the yeast, we tested the sugar content and determined that our final amount in the wine was right at 63 grams per liter.  This wine is phenomenally exciting to us all at the moment; it has stayed pristine and clean, but the aromas and flavors are out of this world.  Crushed pineapple, blood orange, hyacinth, sandalwood, bergamot, and a whole range of other descriptors come to mind when we taste this to see how it is progressing.  Given the low alcohol and high sugar content of the wine, it naturally still tastes very much like juice at this stage - a reality we were expecting and prepared for.  The question will be what this becomes as the wine ages and the juiciness recedes!
  • Low Alcohol, High Sugar, Pied de Cuve Fermentation: Same fruit as for the wine above, but a small amount in a stainless steel container that we decided to ferment in a decidedly more Old World style.  Rather than inoculating the juice with a substantial amount of commercial yeast and then providing the yeast with nutrients to keep it fermenting happily away, this wine was inoculating with a much smaller amount of active yeast cells by transferring several gallons of an active riesling fermentation into the juice.  The result is a fermentation that takes much longer and that we intentionally chose not to feed; resulting in a different aroma profile and mouthfeel.  Believe it or not, this wine is still fermenting and is likely a week or so away from the target sugar/alcohol level we are aiming for (given the weather this time of year, however, it means that we will simply have to take the drum outside and let it sit for the temperature to fall low enough to halt the fermentation)!  In comparing it side-by-side to the wine above, it is certainly clear to us that the fruit for the two wines was the same.  Having said that, this wine is distinct and has complex aromas that we are still unsure about.  Are they a good sign?  A bad sign?  Simply a new sign due to an unfamiliar fermentation practice for us?  That remains to be seen, but it is certainly different.  
  • Dry Riesling:  From the same block of very special fruit, we decided to let a portion of the fermenting juice from the standard fermentation go all the way to dryness to see how the fruit lent itself to this style.  There is no way to get around the fact that the riesling was spectacular and, frankly, is not going to look bad in any style of wine.  Nevertheless, this dry version of the wine (which finished fermenting in mid-November, a week or so after the first wine mentioned above) is a fascinating comparison and could very likely become the Fox Run component of Tierce 2010.  The spice notes are still there, as are some of the orange fruits, but the crackling acidity and citrus profile of this dry riesling style simultaneously remind us of what we look for in Finger Lakes dry rieslings and remind us of flavors we have never associated with that style.  There is a breadth and weightiness to the fruit flavors that goes against the mineral driven and fleet style of what we usually consider a Finger Lakes dry riesling, but not in an unpleasant way.
The three wines coming from this small block of fruit that we were fortunate to be able to let hang this past autumn are distinct from one another, distinct from most anything else we have ever had in the Finger Lakes, and have only passing resemblance to riesling styles from elsewhere in winemaking world.  How will the low alcohol style progress as it ages from the beautiful, yet young/juicy, stage it is at now?  Will the pied de cuve fermentation be interesting or too interesting?  Is the dry riesling style a success or clumsy?  We were excited about starting this riesling project back during vintage, but the fact that it is spawning more questions than answers at this point makes us even more excited.

By:  Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas; "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (featuring the original, and far better, lyric of "Through the years we all will be together/if the fates allow/until then we'll have to muddle through somehow."  How the "hang  your shining star upon the highest bow" version gained popularity boggles the imagination, it is almost a non sequitur in the context of that verse and takes away from the emotional punch!):

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

They Grow Up So Fast

So, on Tuesday, the first of our babies moved out of the nest.
Hard to believe, isn’t it?  Just a few short weeks ago, these grapes were still on the vine.   Picked, crushed, pressed, settled, racked, fermented, racked, blended, coarse-filtered, cold-stabilized, sterile-filtered, and bottled all in record time.  Who is this star performer?  None other than the lowly Cayuga.
This mighty little Engine-That-Could is the end-product of a long and complex lineage.  Boiled down it would make a frightening beast of a flowchart, but all this careful crossing resulted in a grape variety which is vigorous, achieves ripeness during a relatively short growing season, and produces an abundant crop without negative consequences in terms of grape quality.  Cayuga is also moderately cold-hardy; it can withstand temperatures as low as -10 to -15°F.  To top it off, it is only moderately susceptible to crown gall and downy mildew and just slightly susceptible to black rot, Botrytis bunch rot and powdery mildew.   
Why is this important?  Macroclimate vs. weather, my dears.
In general, the macroclimate of the Finger Lakes provides growers the requisite conditions to successfully grow a wide range of grapes.  Specifically, we need 2400 or more growing degree days (we typically see 2400 to 2600), a minimum of 180 frost-free days (we average from 190-210) and winter low temperatures which do not typically drop as low as -15°F (yep).  
We’re lucky –we are one of only a few regions in New York whose macroclimate affords the opportunity to grow wine grapes.   Most of the state is just too cold.   
It’s largely our lakes which make our region not only beautiful, but suitable for grape-growing.  The contour of the land, i.e., sloping shores, provides vineyard sites with good air drainage.  Additionally, the lake waters have a moderating influence on temperatures; a degree or two of additional warmth can have a profound effect on the survival of a vineyard during a winter-low event.  
On paper, the Finger Lakes is the ultimate wine growing region.  Disregarding momentarily my opinion of this region as the ultimate place to make wine in terms of both wine quality and inter-winery camaraderie, there are a few realities which need to be faced.  
Namely, while we typically achieve 2400 degree days, some of our summers are downright chilly.  Or, sometimes we have sufficient heat, but very little direct sunlight.  Sometimes we have steady rain followed by gloomy skies for extended periods of time.  Perfect conditions for growing molds and mildews, wouldn’t you say?  
In winter, we occasionally fall below our grapes’ temperature threshold.  Depending on the duration of the extreme cold, one single dip below -15°F can result in significant winter-kill.  
Obviously, a grape variety which has intrinsic resistance to winter-kill will need less springtime replanting than other, tenderer varieties.  Cayuga’s natural defenses against attack from molds, mildews and bacteria (at least, Agrobacterium vitis) mean that it will require less vineyard intervention than more-susceptible grapes during the growing season, even if the weather is damp and chilly.
This is all good news—not only for growers, but for consumers.  Because we typically don’t need to invest as much capital and labor into maintaining Cayuga as we do some other varieties, we can pass the cost-savings on to you.  That makes everybody happy.  
Did I forget to mention that Cayuga tastes great?  
To be frank, Cayuga will never match the beauty of Riesling, although the two are often compared.  Or, rather, Cayuga is often offered up as being “similar to Riesling”.  In some ways, it is.  Wines made from Cayuga often display lemon and melon aromas and have firm acidity, however, they lack complexity and length.  They tend to be simple and tasty—nothing wrong with that, especially at Cayuga’s customary bargain price.  
Furthermore, Cayuga grapes which are left to hang on the vine late into the season often show their labrusca heritage, and display aromas particular to native varieties (think of the grapey-grape flavor of Concords.)  The aroma compound is called methyl anthranilate, and should never be present in Riesling.  As such, this marker is another difference between the two varieties.   If you want to impress someone at your next party, holding a glass of Cayuga, swirl, sniff, and pronounce, “I detect melons and lemons, naturally, but also just a whiff of MA.”  OK, you run an equal risk of annoying said someone, but you’ll undoubtedly get his or her attention.
Because Cayuga grows so nicely here in the Finger Lakes, and because it is such a tasty little sucker, most wineries have at least one Cayuga offering.  
Fox Run’s incarnation, Arctic Fox, is semi-dry and very fresh.  Don’t be afraid of the small amount of sugar in this wine—it works much like sugar in lemonade.  Light delicate flavors and bright acid tempered by sweetness, all packaged in a cobalt-blue bottle with a captivating depiction of a white fox on the label--fabulous.  Because it’s inexpensive and delightful, we call it our “cheap and cheerful wine”.
That’s not to say there’s no place for Cayuga in fine dining.  We recently had the opportunity to taste Lucas Vineyards’ Extra Dry Finger Lakes Sparkling Wine, which winemaker Jeff Houck makes exclusively from Cayuga.  It was pale gold, almost straw-colored, with intriguing fruit aromas and nicely textured bubbles.  Is it as complex and alluring as sparklers made from Chardonnay or Pinot noir?  No.  Was it fresh and delicious?  Yes.  And we aren’t the only tasters to applaud their accomplishment.  Check out this link:  
For those who don’t want to jump just yet, it explains that at the 17th Jerry D. Mead’s New World International Wine Competition, Jeff’s sparkling Cayuga was crowned “Best New World Sparkling Wine”, beating out more than 2000 entrants.  Congratulations!  
So, Cayuga’s not a serious wine.  Big deal.  It’s scrumptious.  In fact, we bottled our fledgling wine so soon because we can’t keep it on the shelves.  People love this stuff.  
We’d never treat Riesling this way—it needs time to mature, and time to recover from the winter doldrums Kelby recently described to you.  
Cayuga’s not so persnickety.  It’s never going to develop complex layers.  It’s fresh and youthful now and it will be fresh and youthful in a few months when we bottle another tank.  
One note of caution:  if you buy our newly bottled Cayuga, try to keep your mitts off it for a little while.  The poor darling is going through a brief period of bottle shock—but that’s a topic for another blog.
If you’re looking for more information on Cayuga, these websites will surely be as useful to you as they were to me:

By: Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • John Coltrane - Ballads; "Too Young To Go Steady":

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On Bliss, Rankings, Awesomeness and the Allure of Perks

The framers of the American Declaration of Independence were onto something quite remarkable when they codified not only happiness, but its pursuit, in their document, even if they did refer to it as The Purfuit of Happineff, the sly jokesters.

Achieving happiness remains an elusive goal, though, and countries like Finland, New Zealand and Canada regularly trounce the U.S. in measures of overall societal bliss. Pundits jump to point out that one of the reasons that Americans are well down the list is all the time they spend at work. 
The website recently came out with this list of ten careers that are particularly apt to make people unhappy. Of 21 major job categories surveyed, here are the ones in which full-time workers are most likely to report an episode of major depression in a given year:
  1. Nursing home/child care workers
  2. Food service staff
  3. Social workers
  4. Health care workers
  5. Artists, writers and entertainers
  6. Teachers
  7. Administrative support staff
  8. Maintenance and grounds workers
  9. Financial advisors and accountants
  10. Salespeople

Okay, so all kinds of questions arise from a list like this. For example, do writing and entertaining tend to attract people with an inherently gloomy disposition? Perhaps, but let’s leave aside this layer of complexity and assume that there is, in fact, something about those jobs themselves that induces what we used to call ‘melancholia’. Good enough for me. Tricia, Kelby and I regularly muse that spending all day trying to convince people to buy stuff (#10) would turn us into emotional basket cases by about week two.
I don’t know how long the list of job categories would have to be before you came to ‘Winemakers’, but given that there a lot more, say, donut makers in America than winemakers, it would have to be pretty long. This is why one’s not likely to be able to find some official gauge of the satisfaction level of people who ‘vint’ for a living. So perhaps we will never know how happy a group we are by any standard metric.
A different approach might be to find out if winemakers make it onto a list of jobs with astronomical job satisfaction. A Google search on that subject yields a single, very nonscientific, article that is at least kind of fun to read. The author names some AWESOME!!! jobs that people can also putatively make a good living at:
  1. Ferrari driving instructor
  2. Astronaut
  3. Winemaker
  4. Chocolatier
  5. Pilot
  6. Magician
  7. Park Ranger
  8. Video game designer
  9. Florist
  10. Standup comedian

I wrote “AWESOME!!!” because I was tipped off to the highly subjective, jokey nature of this list as soon as I saw ‘video game designer’ (#8), something I believe every teenage boy entertains serious ambitions of being as soon as he gets to the bottom of that last jar of Clearasil (“You get to play video games all day and get paid for it? So long, mother and father!”).
All this notwithstanding, readers of this blog will have picked up by now that we are a pretty jolly lot up here at the winery. Tricia “I am Deliriously Happy” Renshaw has been especially prolific on that subject. If we were the types who are disposed to smugness, we could really run with this, especially since true happiness in one’s job is thought be pretty rare. Jobs equal drudgery, right? They’re what we do to make the money to buy the things we need to bring happiness!
But now comes evidence that people who complain about their jobs might just need to recalibrate their view of the value of work. Toronto journalist John Allemang* suggests that work ought, in fact, to be considered essential to a balanced, happy life:

What a bunch of whiners we’ve become. Work is destroying our life, cry the proponents of greater equilibrium, and stress has become the 24/7 routine. Woe is us, responds the oppressed labor force between frantic Facebook postings – we demand in-house corporate pedicures to alleviate our unparalleled suffering. 
But maybe it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe it’s our endless negativity about the work-life balancing act – based on a refusal to see our behavior as an enlightened personal choice rather than a forced sacrifice of self – that’s put [our] fragile psyche so pathetically out of whack. 
“Don’t denigrate work,” advises Thomas Hurka, a University of Toronto philosopher and author of the forthcoming book The Best Things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters
Work matters, Prof. Hurka says, much more than its life-loving critics care to acknowledge. “If you ask what are the things that make life worthwhile, one of them is pleasure, satisfaction, feeling good. But another one is achievement. If you have work that is challenging and calls on your abilities, and then you succeed at it, that’s worthwhile in itself. So it’s a mistake to talk about work versus your life – work is a valuable element in your life.” 
The dichotomy is false to begin with: Take away too much work and you almost certainly won’t be left with enough of a life. By recognizing the pleasure and sense of accomplishment work can provide, we might already feel less conflicted.
Do winemakers understand intuitively that this should be the case, and approach their task accordingly? Are we one step ahead of the general population, having made that leap at a nascent stage in our careers? Nice ideas, but I think not. More likely, we are just lucky enough to have found something remunerative that is also enormously challenging and seriously fun.

“Wine is the only thing that makes us happy as adults for no reason,” wrote The New Yorker cartoonist and all-round smart guy Saul Steinberg. He was writing about the drinking of it. How AWESOME!!! it is that making the stuff is so good at bringing us happiness, too.

But I am intrigued by the likelihood that in-house pedicures would ramp things up even higher...

By: Peter Bell, Winemaker

What Makes Us Happy (Smuckers Product Placement)
Alcohol is off limits for winery dog Max, so he gets the canine 
equivalent of a Shirley Temple Cocktail.

*Allemang can write pretty cleverly about wine, too. In the course of a recent email exchange, he coined the term airoir to describe the flavors that wines get from the winds that pass over the grapevines (“The gentle, limestone-infused summer breezes on our estate give this delightful Pinot Grigio a distinctive sense of airoir…”). You heard it here first.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

What Is A "Holiday Wine"?

It was only a few weeks ago that anyone and everyone connected to Fox Run started getting bombarded with questions regarding what wines pair well with Thanksgiving Dinner.  As you could see in my post on the subject, the broad answer with a meal that diverse and with a main entree so versatile was to drink any wine that wouldn't tire you out (due to too much alcohol, tannin, etc.) and especially to make sure it was a wine you enjoyed (because that is what really matters).  Now as we approach and immerse ourselves in other major celebrations of the season, each of which marries gaiety with some form of excess, the questions of "what wine" are no less important.

To me, the most interesting part of wine pairing questions during the holidays is the larger premise behind the question: that a distinct set of wines exist that are appropriate for the holidays.  Even if we cannot place our finger on what exactly makes a wine a "Holiday Wine," we all seem to have some understanding that it deserves special attention (and capital letters).  Frankly, I'm most interested in what all of you and consumers in general think of when they approach a holiday wine selection - and hope to see some ideas in the comments below.  In the meantime, here are a few attributes that I tend to weigh and juggle for these special wines:

  • Pairing Food:  The most obvious factor that might go into designating a wine as a Holiday Wine is that it pairs well with traditional foods of the season.  Thanksgiving brings to mind zinfandels for many who read American wine writers anytime after the 1980s, because it seemed appropriate at one time to serve an American wine with an American holiday and now is rooted like tradition (regardless of suitability to the meal).  For those who have a standing rib roast for Christmas or New Year's, a classic claret-style red might beg for Holiday Wine consideration.
  • Pairing Mood:  No less important when it comes to wine pairing, is how the wine seems to pair with the mood of the season.  Excepting its most ardent proponents, most wine drinkers would not readily think of a crisp, dry rosé during the depths of a cold and snowy January.  On the flip side, dark and sticky port wines feel perfect by the fireplace and a sparkling wine is as de rigueur at a New Year's Eve party as the midnight kiss.  Fortunately, sparkling wines are excellent partners for the hors d'oeuvres present at most such gatherings - but regardless of that the mood fits the wine so perfectly that food pairing might be cast aside (see: Zinfandel, Thanksgiving).
  • Price:  There is no way around the fact that all consumers, including everyone in the wine industry when they are out shopping, use the price of a bottle as an indicator of the quality within the bottle.  These assumptions may be entirely off base, perhaps the wine just has better marketing or an artificially low supply, but nevertheless they are still made.  And when it comes to the holidays, similar to how everything else is treated from food to spending, excess (high price) is often rewarded as being correct for a Holiday Wine.  This isn't to say that the fun gatherings this time of year do not deserve expensive bottles of wine, but neither does it mean that just because a wine is expensive it should be considered a Holiday Wine.
  • Tradition:  Relatively straight forward, I suppose.  If you always have a nice Chianti Classico on Christmas Eve with a big Italian-American feast, that style of wine is always going to be a Holiday Wine for you and yours.  It may even come down to a specific producer or bottle if it has really entrenched itself.  For better or worse, when it comes to this signifier of Holiday Wines I am still in my early 20s and struck hard by wanderlust, so I'm far more prone to experimentation even within the context of tradition.
  • Sensory Analysis:  This comes surprisingly far down my list, but I don't think that is inappropriate given how important the first three are in most of our decisions on wine during the holidays.  To some extent, there are simply wines that can call to mind images of the holidays simply by their aromas and flavors.  Whether these be aromas of cloves, cinnamon, red fruit, or anything else that we associate with the holidays, a wine can certainly vault itself into being a Holiday Wine if it suddenly serves as a Proustian portal to holidays (real, imagined, or idealized) gone by.
  • Connection:  This word may be as nebulous as terroir is, in that giving a precise definition is as frustratingly difficult.  Instead, by way of example, here is what caused me to think of this entire topic.  While I was in New Zealand I purchased about a case-worth of wine, bottle by bottle, from small producers I was impressed by and wouldn't find elsewhere.  Now when I look at these bottles and contemplate opening them for a meal, I am drawn back to beautiful landscapes and my remarkable experiences traveling through that nation in the spring.  This may not have a direct connection to anything relating to the holidays, but to the extent that it brings me back to these special memories it feels right for the joy and reflection of this season.

So there you have it, a partial listing of categories that help make a wine become a Holiday Wine.  As I said at the beginning, I am more interested in what other people think of when they pick out wines for the holidays.  Every such bottle tends to have as fascinating a story behind it as the person who selects it.

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Torturous Path

Hi there, blog fans. 

I’m back from the fantasy world that we like to call the monthly Bulk Inventory Report, and I have to confess that I am thrilled to have the paperwork part of my job done for a few weeks.  While it’s important to regularly keep an eye on volumes and the whereabouts of our wines, what this exercise really does is inspire a nearly rabid desire to get my hands dirty.  

In truth, the extraordinary variability of this job is one great aspect of making wine for a living.    

When I’m asked how I found winemaking as a career, I’m forced to sheepishly admit that I was that kid –the one who had no clear direction in life.  Most of my friends knew by mid-way through high school that they wanted to be doctors or lawyers or teachers, but I was never sure.  I liked elements of every job, but could never pick one path without fearing that I would feel trapped or that I would miss out on an integral part of who I should be.  I kept thinking that surely by the time I was a senior, I would know what I wanted to do.  I was wrong.  

After high school, I spent a year in Belgium as an exchange student—plenty of time to figure out my future.  Unfortunately, aside from realizing that the world is both bigger and smaller than I had ever imagined, and that I love to experience other cultures, cuisines, and languages, I had not come to any useful conclusions.  

Enter college.  Freshman year, I was a math/computer science major.  I poured myself into AP Calculus, Pascal (it was a long time ago), and Number Theory.  Sophomore year, I became an art major.  Pause a second, and imagine that conversation.  “Hi, Mom and Dad!  Guess what?  I dropped math, and I’m taking art.”  Junior year, I transferred to a local college (no need to drive to Indiana to take art classes, dearie).  By the second semester, I’d had enough art, and took off to France for a semester abroad (OK, so maybe they had a point).  Senior year, panic set in.   Still no reason to believe that I was meant to do anything in particular, yet I had a strong hunch that I was, and I couldn’t guess what that might be.  

I didn’t think I had the patience and tenacity to teach (I was right—teaching is a gift, and I don’t have it).  I couldn’t imagine crunching numbers inside an office for more than three consecutive days.  Art was too fleeting—what if I lost my muse?  Or worse—what if an art director wanted to change something in my work?  I considered science, because I enjoyed that so much, but doing what?  Biology and chemistry were fun, but I didn’t believe I’d find myself in a lab coat.  I was fascinated by astronomy, but everyone, and I do mean everyone I told, said “No way—you can’t make a living watching stars, even if it is interesting.”   Astronaut was out—I’m afraid of heights, and I’m claustrophobic. 

Actually, I wasn’t claustrophobic until I went to Belgium.  My class (teacher and all) took a senior trip via bus to Czechoslovakia.  On our way home, we stopped in Germany to walk through a concentration camp.  It was a holding camp rather than a death camp, and we were treated to the agonizing experience of being closed inside a holding cell.   There were approximately 70 people crushed inside the cell, and I was toward the back of the crowd.  Our guide explained that there was typically twice that number of people interred in these cells when the camp was in use.  He looked in at us from outside the doorway and said, “There was no way to sit down, or lie down.  People relieved themselves in place.”  He gave us a moment to think about that, then concluded, “Many died and were held upright by the sheer number of bodies.”  He swung the heavy door shut and locked it.  The reality of 70 people in that cell was terrible.  140 people in that cell would be unimaginable.  I clawed my way to the front of the crowd and pushed furiously and fruitlessly against the door.  That moment will never leave me.  

That experience made me a more considerate person.  I’m careful to treat people well, because even on a small scale, it matters.  

It also left me a high-functioning claustrophobe.  I hadn’t fully ruled out astronaut until I returned from my year abroad, but it was definitely off the list.

So, there I found myself, well past the age when I was sure I would know what I wanted to do with my life, and I had still not found my way.  With graduation looming in the all-too-near future, I had to force a decision. A perusal of my résumé and a visit to my advisor indicated that my major had to be French to graduate on time.  

I finished up my Lit classes (17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Century French Literature—loved every minute of it, not kidding), and was loosed upon the world.  

By the time I had graduated from college I had collected a long list of things I didn’t want to be.  I soothed myself by repeating over and over, “It’s OK.  Finding out what you don’t want to do is nearly as good as figuring out what you do want to do.”  Nearly being the key word, of course.  

I knew I could make a living, because I liked so many things well enough, and I was lucky enough to be good at most of it.  I ended up working in a bank—I really liked the idea of money, and my math, language and culture skills were sought-after by the international banking department.  

Life unfolded, and my career, such as it was, gave way to motherhood.  What a gift my girls are.   What a gift staying home to raise them was.  

In the course of things, I discovered wine, and eventually winemaking as a career possibility.  It’s funny, I wasn’t even looking, and I found exactly what I was meant to do:  raise these two girls, and make wine in the Finger Lakes.  

August 2, 2005, Peter interviewed me for my first winemaking position (on the bottling line).  He said “You can’t be claustrophobic, or afraid of heights.”  I am not making this up.  I told myself, “Well, I’m both, but for this job, I won’t be either.”  And it hasn’t been a problem.  

He also said, “You won’t make a fortune making wine, at least not in this part of the world. But,” he went on, “for those people who are truly passionate about making wine, job satisfaction is off the chart.”  

Was he ever right!

I went from that kid, the one who couldn’t imagine doing anything for a lifetime, to that woman, that winemaker, who can’t imagine doing anything else.  

Every day, I use math, and science, and art, and my creativity.  I work alone some of the time, and in collaboration most of the time.  The work can be physical and demanding or slow and even tedious at times (yes, bulk inventory, I’m invoking you).   I pour my passion into the wines we make, as do Peter and Kelby.  

I do a job I love, with people I admire wholeheartedly, for a company we are all so proud to say we belong to.  

Sure, I took the long route, but it was the road that led me home.

Smiles From Above
The Chesire Cat has nothing on Tricia.

By: Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker

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