Monday, January 31, 2011

What's In The Bottle: 2007 Pinot Noir

In several winemaking regions across the globe, the winter is a time for an annual ritual known as "the burning of the canes."  Given that the winter in a vineyard might otherwise be quite a bleak proposition, what with the standing outside in the cold for hours to carefully prune all the vines, having a festival of some sort only seems fair.  As such, the burning of the canes usually involves the collection of many of the trimmings from the pruning process for the creation of a bonfire for the pruners and assorted friends and family to gather around, cook over, drink wine, and be merry.  Or so goes the idyllic and romanticized view of the event which, it can not be forgot, occurs in the bitter cold.

In the Finger Lakes, the burning of the canes is not a tradition that we really partake in.  Perhaps this is because of the snow we have to deal with, the lack of people around in the off-season, or because it gets truly, arctic cold in these parts in January and February.  Instead, at Fox Run we have a small event we like to call "Sleds and Reds."

Sleds... (see the last photo)
To our safety manager's chagrin, the revelers quickly realized
that the packed snow in the driveway was much slicker than the
path he forged in the middle of the hill.

Some people might look at our winters and only see things to dread in them, thankfully we decided last year to embrace what our winters are.  If it is going to be snowy, we will make use of our wonderful slopes to undertake some epic sledding.  If it is going to be cold, we'll still have a fire, but we'll also stay warm with red wines, red hotdogs, chili, and any other treats that folks decide to bring along.  If it is a time of year when we don't see many people, we'll get as many of our winery and tasting room staff, friends, and family together to keep warm outside, have a great time, and laugh with (and at) one another as they navigate down the hill.

The Real Attraction
The fire was an exceedingly crowded location on the hill.

The kids who come out absolutely love the chance to sled down the hill (if not walking back up) as their parents listen to music, chat with one another, and watch for hours on end.  The dogs have a great time playing in the snow and just trying to figure out what all the crazy people are doing hurtling down a hill, over ramps, laughing, and then running back up the same hill again.  Being neither, my guess is that the parents and the dog owners are also appreciative of how much the afternoon takes out of their respective charges while being so much fun.

Is This Fun?
Maya watches over us quizzically as a child hurtles by on a sled.

In all of this, I did find time to pay attention to our 2007 Pinot Noir.  Unlike our first two "What's In The Bottle" posts, this wine is the current release you can find at our tasting room or in retail outlets and that is a reason why I wanted to write about it.  Yet another reason, however, is the interesting journey this wine has taken since it was produced and bottled.  In full disclosure, this is a wine that we found entirely distasteful only 16 months ago.  In a blind tasting, Peter described it as smelling medicinal or like a bandage.  Tricia and my descriptors were not any pleasanter.

If working in the wine industry has taught us nothing else, however, it is to trust what has been done in the vineyard and winery and let a wine resolve itself.  2007 was a peculiar year meteorologically in terms of heat, so peculiar that none of us had a blueprint for what a standard Finger Lakes "cool" climate Pinot Noir would look like from that year or certainly how it would evolve.  In retrospect a large number of the other Pinots we tasted from the 2007 Finger Lakes vintage at that time also were underwhelming, but hindsight is 20/20.

Regardless, we started tasting this wine seriously again about six months ago and discovered a lovely thing: the wine was aging beautifully.  Gone were the awkward candy aromas or worse from its acne-ridden bottled adolescence, it was coming into its own as a Pinot Noir.  Tasting it yesterday revealed a Pinot that continues to pick up beautiful cherry aromas on the nose that are balanced by a velvety texture and the flavors of mushrooms intermingling with red fruit we hope for in our Pinots.

...and Reds
I promise there were hotdogs and chili in the hot pots
as well, it was just too cold to get them out.

To me, the wine may have seemed a tad bit flat - I would have liked a touch more acid.  But as a winemaker working in the Finger Lakes, that is a regional bias that I doubt applies to the wine drinking public in general at all.  Regardless, it is a wine that is very pleasant and engaging in its mix of cherries and mushroomy earthiness at this moment.  Frankly, it is probably at its peak now and will keep if for another couple of years given that the flavor density is on the lighter side.

Most importantly, it should certainly be enjoyed as I enjoyed it yesterday: with great friends and in the best of surroundings (although I wouldn't suggest hot dogs as a pairing!).

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf; "No One Knows"
  • You might think that sledding would involve some beautiful and evocative soft music, Satie or perhaps Guiraldi.  If you are thinking about sledding from inside the comfort of your house, yes.  Out in the cold, however, some strong uptempo music fit the mood much better of moving to stay warm!

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Escape of - or from? - Bottling

Morning breaks soundlessly.  The sun, pink and dazzling hovers just above the horizon and casts long purple shadows on the frozen ground below.  It’s a world devoid of heat.   A shatteringly cold breeze burns my face as it passes, and I draw further into my fleece jacket.  I’m grateful for the scratchy wool swaddling my head and hands.  It hurts to breathe the brittle air.

Inside my car, it’s not much warmer; I can still see my breath.  My windows and glasses fog and I think about the immutability of thermodynamics.  Snow beneath my tires crunches and squeaks.  I don’t mind the crunching, but the squeaking hurts my back teeth.  Cold air assaults me from the dashboard. Annoyed, I turn off the fan.  Why did I turn that on?  The engine won’t be warm for miles yet.

By the time I reach Fox Run, the car is toasty.  I’ve nearly forgotten how cold it is outside. I open my door and arctic air tears my breath from me—I remember now.  I race along the path to the winery.  Here, the ice-crusted snow has been packed hard.  It lies treacherous and shining.  Sun and snow conspire to blind me.  I reach the building without falling, open the door, and turn for one last look at this cruelly beautiful morning.  It hurts me to look at it, and I am overcome with awe.
Inside, it’s so dark and quiet.  Peter Howe makes final adjustments to the bottling line.  A pump hums softly as it idles.  Peter Bell has already sterilized the line.  How did he get the pressure washer around the building today?  That must have been a beast of a job.
Kelby peels front labels off a roll and applies them to cases holding empty blue bottles.  He stamps the boxes with today’s date, and flips the bottles onto the line.  He reaches across the alley between us, and puts the empty carton on my table.  

I fuss with my earplugs.  They’ll be uncomfortable until the foam expands and fills my ear canal.  Now sounds are muffled on one side of my head, and clear on the other—the disparity affects my equilibrium.  At last, noises are dampened evenly, and I settle into the quietude.  

A loud crash penetrates my auditory defense system as Kelby loads another case onto the conveyer.  Sapphire bottles are ferried single-file into the machine.  The bottler creaks and pops and exhales as the bottles wend their way through the U-shaped contraption.  Finally, they come to me.  I’ll be the last one to touch this wine before it goes into protective boxes and out of the winery.  This send-off is momentous and anticlimactic at the same time. 

Fill Height right?  Capsule?  Labels?  Check, check, check.  Then, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk as I plunk the full bottles back into their cases.  Peter Howe waits as I finish filling the box.  I tape it shut, and he carries the now heavy case to a pallet which lies nearby.  

It’s too hard to talk over the machine and through the earplugs, so we just smile at one another when we catch an eye, and we succumb to the silence.  

The chugging and sighing of the machine is percussive and rhythmic; it comes through the earplugs as though from far away, like the noises of a distant train on a foggy morning.  The cadence lulls us further down inside ourselves.  

Some people hate this isolation and monotony, but I welcome it, at least from time to time.  A keen perception of textural and aromatic nuances allows me to make wine, but this sensitivity comes unbidden.  And it doesn’t go away when I’m not tasting wine.  My senses are tuned to overdrive most of the time, and I experience the world as a cacophony of flavors, aromas, textures, colors, sounds—all loud and all competing for my attention at once.  Sometimes this way of sensing is exhilarating and sometimes it’s overwhelming.  Given the opportunity, I would not change any of it—I would sorely miss the intensity.   But, sometimes I like this sensory muting, this forced quiet.  

I’m aware of Peter waiting for the next case—the last one on the pallet already.  I try to tape the case shut, but leave a swath of sticky, mangled cellophane instead of a smooth closure.   I am a terrible taper.  Peter just smiles and shakes his head.  I re-center the roll and tape again.  This time it works a little better, and he makes off with the case.  In a wink, he has the pallet on the forklift, which he maneuvers with near-balletic grace. 

I remember when I first discovered that I’m an inadequate taper.  It was a hot and sticky day in August of 2005.  I had just begun to work at Fox Run, and I was immeasurably ecstatic to be working on the bottling line.  “It’ll wear off”, Peter Howe cautioned me.   He was right—it‘s not the pure thrill it used to be, though I still enjoy it on occasion.  I was doing the job that Kelby is doing today, and all was going smoothly.  Then I was put on the packing end, and things fell apart.   Each closure took multiple tries, and I recall thinking that of all the things which could keep me from becoming a winemaker, I never dreamed that taping would be my undoing.  Luckily, my career didn’t hinge on my taping skills.
A snafu draws my attention to the present.  A few bottles come to me pasted with multiple labels.  I cull them, and sequester them in a box marked “TRO”, for Tasting Room Only.  When I stand up, Peter is closing a case.  With a deft motion, he snaps a line of tape smoothly across the carton and grins at me as if to say, “some got it, some don’t”.  

Time is subsumed by process, and an hour slips away unnoticed.  1200 bottles have passed under my hand, and at last, I have my taping chops up.   

While part of my brain keeps up the watch (Fill height? Capsule?  Labels?), the rest of my mind is free to meander.  

I recall another sticky August afternoon at Fox Run, this one in 2004.  I had come for the annual Glorious Garlic Festival.  I remember seeing a lovely young woman bustling about, and I assumed she must be the daughter of the winemaker.  At that time, I thought winemakers were necessarily winery owners, and that the position was handed down like a monarchy.  She was slim, with red hair and a fresh complexion—exactly how I imagined a girl growing up on a vineyard would look. 

I remember that August day so well because that’s the day I fell in love with this place.  I stepped into the vineyard, and knew I was home.  Too bad, I thought, that we weren’t all born daughters of winemakers.

Eventually, I learned that the science and art of winemaking can be taught, that it is not always passed down from generation to generation.  The young woman whom I so envied?  Her name is Susan, and she is not the owner’s daughter.  Her confidence was the product of competence and long experience—she had worked in Fox Run’s tasting room for a number of years.  And if she appeared to be at home, well, that’s because Scott and Ruth Osborn treat their employees as though we are family. 

I spend the next few hours reminiscing about the people who have worked with us, and some of the projects we have worked on.  The memories are amorphous, flowing through my mind without regard for chronology.  It’s a pleasant way to pass the time.  

Peter Bell rounds the corner, and taps the back of his wrist, pulling me from my quiet contemplation.  It’s time for me to go—I need to get Meghan from the middle school.  He’ll take over my spot as he and Peter Howe and Kelby finish the bottling job.  

I pull the plugs from my ears a little reluctantly, and come back into my space.   I slip on my jacket, hat and mittens, and step out into the brightly lit afternoon.  The snap of cold air fully restores my senses, and I’m ready for the onslaught.   

My afternoon of reverie was restorative, and I’m buoyed by my newly enlivened nerves.  I climb happily into my frigid car, and shiver as I drive into the arctic scene before me.   Heading down the road, I think about how much I enjoyed my day, and can’t wait for the happy chatter of my twelve-year-old as she tells me about hers.  

By: Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

By God, Lord Beaverbrook, You Were Right, Old Chap!

 “I don’t ask for much,” Woody Allen once wrote, “but what I do get should be of very high quality.”

Yesterday we finally got around to tasting a couple of Stilton cheeses that Kelby had procured at his favorite fancy food purveyor in Boston. You know the kind of place – customers there are either insanely wealthy and pick up stuff to eat and drink all the time, or they are like you and me, and go there once or twice a year as a special treat. The common thread is that this establishment caters to people who are super serious about food and wine.

The cheeses they stock are only offered when they’re at their peak of ripeness, which in some cases means that they’re soft, runny and pungent. (We’re not in Kansas anymore.)

Our first cheese, a beautifully ugly wedge, was called Stichelton. They keep it under the counter and sell it to their best customers only. A pound will set you back about thirty bucks. Being made from raw milk, it cannot legally be called Stilton, because some time ago it was decreed that all cheeses with that name had to be made from pasteurized milk. Never mind: it’s Stilton.

Because we’re winemakers and we smell stuff all the time, it was de rigueur for us to plant our noses over the cheese before tasting it. The Stichelton delivered a faint hit of ammonia, which is technically an indication of over ripeness, but in this case it just added some nice complexity. Most of all we picked up the beautiful pungent aroma profile typical of a blue-veined, full fat cheese. A small taste delivered a parade of flavors and textures: salty, tangy, buttery, bacterial, slightly gritty.

Our second cheese, called Colston Bassett, retails for $28 a pound, though as with the Stichelton, a good time can be had with a much smaller quantity than that. Here we had a slightly less necrotic looking wedge that delivered the very silage and barnyard aromas that many people find so off-putting in cheeses of this ilk.

The Colston had a more cheddar-like texture, being a little firmer than its partner; and seductive hay and clover flavors dominated, along with the pungent creaminess we expected. Fascinating.

Then it was back to work.

Well, not quite. After securing permission from our bottling line manager Peter Howe, we decided to delay a return to the day’s real order of business to see what we could learn about one of the world’s most fabled food and wine pairings: Port and Stilton. I located a library bottle of our Fine Old Tawny, the longer-aged of the two Ports we make, and the one that is chronically out of stock.

The long and the short of it is that these two commodities deserve every bit of their reputation for playing well together in the sandbox. Tricia, Kelby and I tend to exhibit a streak of iconoclasm in our approach to food and wine, preferring empirical discovery to accepted wisdom. (Using this approach, we’ve concluded that another well-known wine/food duo, Vin Santo with Biscotti, is downright stupid: sweet and sweet provide no tension or resolution, even if one is liquid-sweet and the other crunchy-sweet. The more diplomatic Tricia might call this match ‘overrated’.)

But oh my goodness: Port and Stilton. Tricia, our deepest thinker about Port, was uncharacteristically quiet during this tasting, making only the occasional satisfied grunting noise.

There was certainly a lot to ponder and enjoy here. The really interesting thing was that the two cheeses, as close in style as they were, nevertheless brought out different flavors in the wine.

A taste of the Stichelton, followed by a thoughtful pause, followed by a taste of Port, yielded flavors in the wine that started out as bright red fruit. A full ten seconds elapsed, and then we were slammed with a burst of rancio, that difficult-to-define flavor that I promise to write more about sometime soon.

The other cheese, the Colston Bassett, had a way of making the Port taste more classically like a tawny: the flavors were all about raisins and toffee, more harmonious, and superlatively tasty.

Surroundings Fit For A King
Two Stiltons and one Tawny Port?  Escoffier eat your heart out!

As you can see from the photo, we were not very successful at creating the classic setting for this kind of escapade, namely a dark room with some overstuffed leather chairs, hunting trophies and a roaring fire. So we’re not a Gentleman’s Club! No one was complaining.

- by Peter Bell, winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • Julie Fowlis - Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe (As My Heart Is); "Mo Bhean Chomain" (Singer Julie Fowlis comes from the remote Scottish island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. She sings in her native Gaelic):

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Lasting Concerns of Winemaking on the Edge

Full disclosure, I am not the person at Fox Run most qualified to speak about the following topic.  That person would be John Kaiser, our fantastic vineyard manager, who I also hope will contribute some blog posts in the future about the crucially important and often publicly overlooked work he is responsible for.  Nevertheless, the arctic air mass that settled over us this weekend and through tomorrow is what prompts the conversation and posting today.

By some accounts, the air over us and that radiational cooling last night represent the coldest temperatures this area has seen in five years or more.  No doubt these are dangerous temperatures, it does not take more than a few minutes outside for exposed skin to be frostbit, but for most of us it would be an exaggeration to say that it is much more than an inconvenience.  Here at Fox Run, however, we are talking about the weather and cold in far more serious terms - as is so often the case in an agricultural enterprise.

In the vineyard it is not just a question of how the low temperature will impact production for the 2011 vintage (a topic for another post entirely), but how the cold will immediately damage vines.  The real concern with low temperatures like those we have been dealing with is vine death, as lost vines become a mounting issue when the temperature drops below -5 degrees Fahrenheit.  Thus, where for most people this cold snap is bothersome for a few days and will be forgot with the next storm, in the vineyard temperatures this low are a serious concern into and beyond the spring.

Needless to say, we follow the forecast and temperature very closely this time of year when arctic air like this is descending on the region.  After emailing Peter midweek about the low temperatures predicted for this past weekend, I asked the same question many of you are probably thinking, "Can anything be done?"  The long and short of it is, frankly, no.  In some densely planted wine regions of the world, they use fire pits or even helicopters during harvest time to change the temperature by a few degrees to stave off an early-frost.  But when it comes to temperatures this cold, there is no real template and the heat would dissipate absurdly quickly.  This is truly winemaking on the edge.

Here at Fox Run we are fortunate to have some snow that will act as insulation against the worst of the cold, and also have hope that the brief cold snap two weeks ago completely shut down the vines so they are less vulnerable now.  Beyond this, however, Peter suggested praying to the deity of my choice as the only defense we have.  So the next time you are at Fox Run or elsewhere around the Finger Lakes for a visit and to see vineyards, take a look at some of the areas that are unplanted and bare of vine.  More likely than not, you're looking at a hollow where cold air gets trapped and settles during the nights.

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem; "Losing My Edge" (one of the most important, influential, and hilarious songs of the 00s for exposing the joys and troubles of the new music/information world the internet brought to listeners and hipsters):

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

Friday, January 21, 2011

What's In The Bottle: 2006 Reserve Riesling

We’ve been discussing this wine quite a lot recently, because we’re tasting our 2010 Rieslings, and are wondering if Riesling 6 will merit our Reserve designation.  
Unanimously at Fox Run, we agree that in order to be called “reserve”, a particular wine or blend has to be more than unique and of particularly high quality; it has to say something about Fox Run.  That is, our reserve wines are incarnations of our wine fantasies—they are the epitomization of our ideal Fox Run Vineyards’ wines.
In the case of Riesling, we are talking about aroma complexity, the coexistence of intensity and delicacy, silky mouthfeel, and most importantly:  balance.  We’re not talking about garden-variety balance here.  Simple harmony is not enough—we want a racy undercurrent which doesn’t compete with the rest of the wine, but manages to support it, and to lend an edge without compromising deliciousness.
Is it a tall order?  You betcha.  But we’re talking about fantasy, remember?  And so while Fox Run has produced beautiful Rieslings year after year, we’ve only called three of them “reserve”.  
Our first reserve Riesling declared itself in 2005.  It was extremely dry and gossamer.  Ethereal lime was softened by wisps of nectarine and mango.  It was a mineral-driven beauty in what is unofficially dubbed the “Finger Lakes Style”.
Rieslings in that Finger Lakes dry, flinty, austere and yes, Johannes, “elegant” style have captured the attention and admiration of serious wine lovers from all parts of the world.  
In 2006, we had to answer a difficult question:  can a reserve Riesling from the Finger Lakes be made in a semi-dry style?
The question was posed by the wine, really.
As is our custom, during vintage, at least one of us tasted every Riesling every day.  Riesling is a transparent wine—low quality grapes or inept winemaking will be painfully evident in the finished product, so we monitor Riesling fermentation health with helicopter-parent vigilance.    
During our daily Riesling reviews, we get to know the character of our various tanks of wine, lovingly referred to as “Riesling 1”, “Riesling 2”, “Riesling 3”, etc.  These aren’t quality designations, but references to time.  
Our vineyard spans approximately 58 acres, and is divided into patchwork blocks.  Each block is planted to several grape varieties, sometimes determined by the suitability of the site, sometimes determined by the need for more of a particular variety as the vineyard expanded to its current size.  
At harvest, each variety is picked at its appropriate time, one block at a time.  The grapes from each block are processed individually, and the resulting wines are kept separate until we are sure we know where the wine belongs:  is it semi-dry material?  Dry?  Reserve?   Our reds remain distinct wines until the following winter when we at last get them out of barrels.
The first block of any variety processed is called variety 1, and, not surprisingly, we go up from there.  
Despite the clinical names, we become intimately connected with these wines during vintage.   This is especially true of our Rieslings.  
The transformation these wines undergo as they mature from brand new baby to gawky teenager is really quite something.  We learn what flavors should cause concern—stalling fermentation?  Act immediately.  A hint of something Vaseline-like?  Well, that’ll turn into rock and smoke—gorgeous.  
When the fermentations have completed, we slow our monitoring.  We still taste all of the Rieslings, but on weekly or twice-weekly schedule.  At this stage, we’re assuring that the predictions we made during vintage are borne out.  And we’re looking for superstars.  
It was about this time in 2007 that I received an early-morning phone call from Peter.  He said, “I think I have found our Reserve, but I want to know what you think.”  I couldn’t wait to get to the winery.
When he showed me the wine, it was instantly clear:  this wine was extraordinary.  But, it was semi-dry.  We wondered if consumers would be confused by the switch from a dry to a semi-dry Reserve.  We wondered if a semi-dry Riesling would be an appropriate choice for a reserve Riesling from the Finger Lakes.  
We asked ourselves if the wine was delicious (yes), and complex (yes) and serious (yes).  Above all, it was a perfect semi-dry Riesling from Fox Run.  That made the decision easy. 
We reaffirmed that we weren’t making reserve wines for critics, but as a personal offering of our vision, rendering the question of appropriateness unimportant.  We couldn’t imagine a more brilliantly balanced, more delicious semi-dry wine.  
And we trusted consumers to understand the reason for the difference in styles from year to year, and to be excited about the expression of vintage in the various wines.  They did not disappoint us.  
Furthermore, the critics loved the wine as well, raving about its explosive flavors and poise, and proving that we alone are at risk of defining our Great Wine with narrow parameters.  
When the wine was bottled in the spring of 2007, it displayed a stunning mélange of apricot, mango and lime with a huge dose of juicy tangerine—a departure from Fox Run’s more typical range of flavors.  Our Rieslings tend to feature lime (juice or zest) and minerals with fleshier, tropical notes tucked in the background.  The rich orange notes here begged for a touch of sweetness and a supple mouthfeel, which were provided by the little bit of residual sugar we left in the wine.  Acid streaked through the lushness, enlivening the rich flavors and imparting true electricity.  It was stunning—that poise, that balance.   What a wine.  
So, tonight, I sit with a bottle before me, curious about the changes wrought within.  I’m pouring a glass, and will share my notes with you.
Nose:  lemongrass, peach, lime juice, bit of orange zest—vivid orange is no longer the dominant aroma.  Rich and golden with a touch of something green and fresh—clover and bay leaf—first signs of petrol?  River rock underneath it all.  Some aged Riesling character showing.  The fruit aromas no longer appear parade-style, one after the other—beautifully integrated and slightly muted.  Developing layers of vanilla nougat and toasted hazelnut and almond.  Entrancing.
Mouth:  Wow!  Acid still prominent.  Very fresh.  Mouthfeel is soft, but not the least bit flabby.  Ah, there’s that tangerine--burst of juicy orange and lime, plus some raspberry notes.  Age is more apparent on the nose than in the mouth.  Some hazelnut creeping in, plus some creaminess towards the finish.  Acid does not persist as long into the finish as I remember, but the flavors linger after the perception of acid fades.
Lucky me, that’s what’s In The Bottle tonight.  
I think I have some rice noodles, scallions, soy sauce, ginger, lime, bok choy and chicken in the kitchen, and I am predicting there’s a delicious food/wine pairing in my very near future.  The slight sweetness in the Riesling acts as a countermeasure to spicy heat, so I may brave a dash of sriracha—yum.
If you bought some of our 2006 Reserve Riesling, thanks, and I hope you held on to some—this baby’s aging beautifully.
We’ll keep our eye on Riesling 6; it’s got a tough act to follow, and we won’t compromise our vision.  As spring waxes, we’ll let you know if 6 will be a delicious component of our semi-dry Riesling, or if it’s destined to be a Superstar.  
By: Tricia Renshaw, Assistant Winemaker

Music of the Day:

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mick and Me (Yes, That Mick)

I have so many wonderful memories from the four years I lived in Australia that I’ve had to mentally file them into categories:

Babies and childrearing
Table wines
Sparkling wines
Fortified wines
Oceans and beaches

Given that one of our current tasks here at Fox Run is making up a new bottling of Port, my nostalgia for Australian fortified wines is in full gear. In one memory, I’m standing in a rustic shed in a hot corner of the state of Victoria known as Rutherglen. This establishment, Morris of Rutherglen, happens to be one of the most renowned producers of a style of fortified wine known as Liqueur Muscat, a drink that really doesn’t have any Old World analogue.

I can’t possibly convey in written form how glorious these wines are to drink, so let me just settle on giving them a numerical score: on a strict scale of one to ten, they rate an eleven. They are true Desert Island wines, because a stranded wretch could take the smallest of tastes once a day and then sit back and enjoy the flavors for another hour or two. And thus the bottle would easily last until that rescue ship finally appeared on the horizon.

In any case, here I am with Mick Morris, the modest and affable winemaker of a company that was established by his great-grandfather in 1859. Mick himself has been at the helm since 1953. We’re tasting from a miscellany of casks, tanks and barrels, all of which will someday become components of one of his fortified wine blends when the time is right. There’s a story behind every one of them, one that is usually borne out over years and decades.

The Man Himself
With some fantastic wine.

As we finish up a conversation about the appropriate hang time for the grape variety Durif, Mick stumbles across a barrel sitting haphazardly on the dirt floor. “I wonder what’s in this one?” he asks. A gentle nudge with his knee indicates that it’s mostly empty. “Oh, right, the ’94. I knew it was around here somewhere.”

Given that this conversation is happening in 1989, I have no choice but to surmise that the wine at his feet was made in 1894. I also deduce that given Mick’s generous spirit, he’s about to offer me a sample. He continues, “I wonder how it’s going!” -- Australian for “how it’s doing.”

“Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Mick locates a long glass wine thief, knocks out the barrel’s wooden bung, and removes a few teaspoons of this nearly-century-old wine.

“Where’s your glass?”

The tiny bit of Muscat I am holding is as dark as molasses and almost as thick. It smells of a very fine whiskey, with hints of raisins and sun-baked soil, and there’s a huge hit of the special old-wine aroma we call rancio.
Mick explains that wines like this are not really drinkable on their own except as a curiosity. They’re just too intense. I take a sip – it takes fully five seconds for the wine to trickle down the glass to my mouth – and an explosion of flavor confirms this. But, Mick continues, a very small amount – maybe one part in five thousand – will infuse a large blend of much younger wines with a discernable measure of complexity, in a sort of flavor-amplification phenomenon.

Rutherglen produced vast quantities of table and fortified wine in the second half of the nineteenth century, exporting most of it to England. The vine louse phylloxera wiped out most of the vines in the late 1890s, as it had in Europe a short time earlier, and another half century passed before things were again on firm footing. The wine Mick had given me a taste of was one of the very last from the pre-phylloxera era.

You pretty much have to go to Australia to taste Liqueur Muscats. The few examples that I’ve tasted on American soil were perilously close to being caricatures of the real thing.

But it’s worth the trip. While I am not qualified to vouch for the life-changing value of, say, a pilgrimage to Mecca, I can say without hesitation that a journey to Rutherglen, and Morris Wines, should be on the ‘Things to Do Before I Die’ list of all serious enophiles.

If you do get there, ask someone how that barrel of 1894 is ‘going’. Mick retired long ago, and the wines are now made by his son, but chances are you’ll still find him kicking around the place. Fortified wines are in his blood.

By:  Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:
  • Daryl Braithwaite - Edge; "One Summer"  (Aussie pop icon Daryl Braithwaite attests to the fact that you can never really recapture the good times):

Support Aritsts, buy the music you like!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Summertime, and the Riesling Is Ready

The end of last summer seems remarkably close in my memory compared to the months it has been; mostly due to vintage beginning with the dawn of September and swallowing up the following two and a half months... which then disappeared into the holidays.  Now that I can think about those halcyon days, I was recently feeling nostalgic for a fun visit from a good college friend back around Labor Day.  There is no doubt that I took a great deal of joy in showing him around our lovely Finger Lakes, and it was as eye opening for him as it was refreshing for me to visit the world class wineries they are populated with.

My friend had just come up from the wonderful wine bar Terroir in New York City, where he had conveniently been inundated and successfully brainwashed by their "Summer of Riesling" celebrations.  Coming from the West Coast, it did take him a few sips to recalibrate his palate to the acid-driven structure of our rieslings, but he was soon very impressed with what he was tasting.  

After the two of us had tasted at a few wineries he made the comment that he was glad to have visited Terroir beforehand because they had put him on the path to realizing "that Riesling is a great summer wine."  This comment was meant earnestly and honestly, and I took it in that spirit without saying another word.  Nevertheless, it is a sentiment that has obviously lodged itself in my brain for several months in the limbo between thought provoking and unintentional, backhanded compliment.  What exactly does that mean?  And what should it mean for those of us who fancy, and fancy ourselves, riesling producers?

As far as riesling is concerned, I hope that the answer is not that riesling is a pleasant, bracing wine for warm weather and sun.  No doubt dry rieslings are spectacularly refreshing and one of the wine world's best and only pairings with refreshing summer foods and salads.  Just because it is a white wine, however, does not mean it isn't a serious or powerful wine for the colder months as well.  In fact, the most logical pairings for riesling in my mind are distinctly cold weather meals linked to the traditional foods consumed in regions that have taken the grape to such great heights; Germany and Alsace with pork and roast birds. 

In the end, I think my friend's comment is merely another step in America's flirtation with Riesling wines.  Even in our most erudite circles, white wines are thought of in terms of femininity and lacking seriousness compared to our Anglo-historical fascination with claret.  Admitting that rieslings are actually quite interesting and fantastic for summer may just be the next step in our romancing of the riesling grape.  Perhaps as American consumers discover that rieslings with sugar can be serious wines (not to mention some of the most stunning wines in the world), they will simultaneously discover the place of riesling at the dinner table that isn't on the patio.

So are Americans romancing the riesling?  As a riesling lover and producer, I think it is probably the other way around!

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds; "God Only Knows" (In the same vein of 'what is appropriate when,' I am more and more drawn to the warm and springy sounds of The Beach Boys as a break during the depths of winter):

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

But I Digress

The need to write a blog post every week or so has inspired me to troll through my haphazard collection of older books on wine, looking for amusing little sources of inspiration. These are mostly books written for the amateur wine enthusiast, which I was at one time, before I plunged into wine as a profession.

One title, published about 30 years ago, includes a very creditable section on what winemaking actually entails, in pictorial form. Titled “The Winegrower’s Year”, or something along those lines, it depicts an older mustachioed gentleman in a series of twelve hand-illustrated panels going thorough the putative cycle of his production year. The guy was certainly a polymath: not only did he make the wine, but he also appeared to do most of the vineyard work, as well as peddle his finished product to appreciative consumers and retailers.

Anyway, January’s picture showed him taking a well deserved break from his travails at a ski resort, presumably in the French or Swiss Alps, his long hand-knit scarf trailing him as he sped down the hill.

A more recent book, the fifth edition of The World Atlas of Wine, has a similar section, but the pictures have been updated, and now the jobs are divided among a number of different people, including women. No ski vacation either: January’s picture shows a warmly dressed fellow out in the vineyard pruning his dormant grapevines, while his counterpart in the winery is described as busily attending to her malolactic fermentations.

Here at Fox Run there continues to be plenty to do, though our tanks and barrels are asking very little of us in terms of intervention. Fermentations are long since finished. Winery staff do well to remember to wear warmer clothing these days, not because we’re outside pruning, but because the heat is turned way down in order to facilitate a process called cold stabilization. Tricia has promised to do an exposé on that subject in a future post, so I won’t talk more about it here (in fact, she tells me that it’s going to be a shocking exposé, so stay tuned).

This is also a fine time of year to pay visits to our fellow winemakers throughout the Finger Lakes, partly as a social gesture, but more importantly to taste their wines and see how they compare to our own. Recalibration of our sensory apparatus is a motivational factor too. Let me tell you: there are some stunning reds and whites out there from the 2010 vintage, led as usual by the illustrious and precocious Riesling.

You didn’t think I could get through an entire blog post without mentioning Riesling, did you? Even if I were composing a treatise on Current Trends in Shoe Polish, I would somehow find a way to work that grape into my narrative. And you must know by now that a near-religious worship of Riesling is not confined to our small band of fanatical winemakers either. Here’s a fragment from an article in a journal called The Riesling Report:

“What are your favorite grape varieties?” someone asked noted English wine critic Jancis Robinson during an on-line chat session a little over a year ago.

“Riesling”, she replied without hesitation.

“And your favorite blends of grapes?” added the persistent interviewer.

“Riesling and Riesling”, she shot back, as quick as a flash. “Riesling blended with Riesling would be pretty good.”

Jancis Robinson is someone whom I would call The Doyenne of Intelligent Wine Writing if I wanted to sound pretentious. (Pretentious? Moi?) She enjoys so much admiration among the winemaking staff here that we call her by her first name only, as if we were close friends:

“According to Jancis…”

“Let’s look it up in Jancis.”


Jancis knows the difference between ‘variety’ and ‘varietal’ as well as the true meanings of the words macroclimate, mesoclimate and microclimate. And she’s not afraid to insist with a gentle imperiousness that these words are not interchangeable. When the time comes for us to get on our soapbox about those terms, you will be hearing from her again.

By Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:

  • Gordon Lightfoot - The United Artists Collection; "Song For A Winter's Night":

Support Artists, buy the music you like!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cold and the Winemaker - Vol. 1

Before I was involved with the wine industry, colds were little more than a major annoyance with the occasional concern that they might become more severe.  The only good thing about colds, if such a thing can be said, were the times they also served as an escape from school - although even this was small consolation given the malaise they cast over a week or more.  All this on top of the boredom of having no one who dared get close enough to speak with.

Nevertheless, colds always seemed like an inconvenience that could only rarely interfere with the necessary work or school of the day.  That is, until last Sunday when I came down with my first head/sinus cold in quite some time.  The common drained feeling and resignation to my fate accompanied my football viewing that Sunday, but then I started to think ahead to work on Monday.  There was no doubt that (at that point) I felt well enough to go into work, but the complications of working in the winery while even feeling moderately ill started to dawn on me.

As my sinuses clogged up and I found myself unable to smell or taste very well, my utility in the winery rapidly dropped off.  Despite the best of intentions, there was no getting around the fact that sensory analysis of wines and tank samples would be fruitless.  With no aromas and therefore no taste to guide me, if a wine so much as tasted notably acidic or sweet to me I was thrilled at the sensation.  Had there been a wine loaded with chili peppers I am sure I would have happily drank it down in the desperate hope of blasting open my nasal passages.  Rare moments of clarity (nasal, if not from the medicine-head feeling) held much in common with the breaks of sun we get through the lake effect snow, clouds, and gray of winter: a weak affirmation of life's possibilities due to a heavy dose of remembrance for what was.

My major concern, however, was that I might spread the cold to others - especially Peter and Tricia who were still healthy and in possession of functioning olfactory systems.  With that in mind, I resolved to keep myself away from them and focus on making the best of the situation.  If I was unable to smell and taste very well, the least I could do was redouble my efforts in cellar work.  With the exception of setting up a filtration, most work in the cellar this time of year requires no direct tasting or even handling of the wine.  Behind a pair of rubber gloves and with nothing to distract me, cellar work became a much needed distraction from how I was feeling and a reason to stay moving and active.

I had never realized how large a problem a cold could be to someone's work, but now that I'm over it that won't be the case again.

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

Music of the Day:
  • Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges; "Judges": (scroll down the page to listen to individual songs, rather than the entire program, it is the third song).
  • I heard this two days ago for the first time, off of the upcoming album to be released in mid-February.  Frankly, this artist is redefining what the saxophone can sound like as well as what genre it belongs to (rock? jazz? classical?).  Keep in mind that all the sounds are coming from the saxophone, even the percussive ones, and this was done in one live take without dubs or looping.
Support Artists, buy the music you like!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Names of Things

It’s fun to look back on your life and recall incidents that were, at the time, acutely uncomfortable, but which after the passage of some years can be valued for their humor content, and for the way they taught you something about your circumstances that was helpful in making an important decision.

I worked for a while at a winery in a country very far from here, more than two decades ago, in my one and only assistant winemaker position. The story I am about to relate ended up being a sort of metaphor for my entire experience there. The people there took to me the way a fish does to crude oil leaking up from the sea floor, and it quickly became clear that a fast exit on my part would be the best strategy for all concerned.

I had only been working there for a week or so when the following exchange happened between the winemaker and me (cue the desperate sit-com style canned laughter):

Him: “While I’m gone, take the yellow pump and transfer the wine in tank 16 into tank 11.”

Me: “Okay.”

I looked all around, but for the life of me couldn’t see a yellow pump. [ha ha ha] There were a few other pumps kicking around, but I didn’t want to hook one of them up without the go-ahead from my boss. Winery pumps tend to have specific uses – one might be good for filtration, one for transferring crushed grapes – and they are not readily interchangeable. I got busy with other tasks.

An hour passed and my superior returned.

“How come the wine’s still in tank 16?”

“I couldn’t find the yellow pump.”

“It’s right there!”

“That’s a blue pump.” [ha ha ha ha ha ha!]

“Well, it was yellow until we repainted it last year, and we still call it the yellow pump.” [ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!]

He rolled his eyes and stormed off.

Right. It was sort of like calling a woman whose actual name is Susan “Eileen.” Some kind of insider knowledge would be necessary for that to make sense, in this case the fact that one of her legs is shorter than the other. Get it? I lean? [ha]

When someone wants badly enough to pigeonhole another person as inept, the opportunities are plentiful, and this can set up a mood that actually makes people so self-conscious that they act more inept than they really are. (And who among us is completely ept anyway?)

The first lesson I took away was that I must never set out to make people feel stupid -- not that I am remotely inclined to do so. There are better ways to Win Friends and Influence People.

Another thing I realized was that it’s all very well to have a private lingo for the equipment around the winery, but new hires need to be given a short indoctrination session if they are to make sense of those nicknames. Plus, those names should ideally reflect something obvious about the piece of equipment. Call me crazy, but I insist that when we refer to specific pumps by the color of their paint, it must be the color that is actually there in view, regardless of what other colors are hiding underneath.

Most of the pieces of equipment we use around here – tanks, forklift, filters, lab instruments – don’t merit any special treatment in the nomenclature department. But we do have a small collection of things we use so often that they’ve earned short, pithy monikers. So, in case you ever happen to stop by the winery and want to be part of The In Crowd, just pepper your speech with a couple of the following terms:

  • Big Blue (a flexible impeller pump, used for most wine and juice transfers)
  • Baby Blue (its smaller partner, especially adept at bottling time)
  • Big Red (a piston pump that weighs close to 300 pounds)
  • Big Bertha (a large-diameter hose used to transfer crushed grapes, now retired)
  • Son of Bertha (Bertha’s successor)
  • The Beast (a huge, very heavy ball valve that is compatible with Son of Bertha)
  • Baby Beast (its smaller, comelier and easier to lift partner)
  • P.O.S. (that’s ‘Piece of S***’, not ‘Point of Sale’: a pathologically unreliable diesel truck)

And lastly,

  • The Shifting Spanner (just a regular old crescent wrench; this term was introduced by our Australian intern Mel, and that’s actually what they call them in that country)

And yes, we do have dibs on the name The Shifting Spanners for the jazz combo we’re going to put together one of these years.

By:  Peter Bell, Winemaker

Music of the Day:

Support Artists, buy the music you like!