Senator Schumer’s Grand Ambition: A New Finger Lake

This morning, Senator Charles Schumer made a surprise announcement in Geneva, NY.

The federal government and the state of New York will work together to create an entirely new Finger Lake.  

Officials stressed that this new lake will be created “from scratch” and will not be an extension or modification of any of the existing lakes.  As one high-level deputy put it: “We're not contemplating any kind of ‘plastic surgery’ on the existing fingers.  OK, they do look a bit arthritic.  But what do you expect after thousands of years?”

The new Finger Lake would be located between Seneca and Cayuga (squarely in the middle of the Finger Lakes region) and would be two-thirds as long, north to south.  Starting in the south, it would lie between the two “big" lakes but would then head northwest, grazing Seneca Lake at its middle.  It would then head in a northeasterly direction.  

Seen from outer space, the Seneca/New Lake combination would look like an “X” chromosome.

Senator Schumer noted that no other wine making region in the world had the “winemaking DNA” of the Finger Lakes and this project would “prove it” once and for all.  A “men’s rights” activist at the news conference asked why no “Y” chromosome was planned.  Senator Schumer appeared startled by the question, but quickly recovered.  Drawing from his extensive high school science knowledge, he reminded the questioner that both males and females share the “X” chromosome.

The "New Lake Project" would increase the amount of land available for grape growing and would also further protect the vines on Seneca and Cayuga during harsh winter months.  The basin of the new lake would be filled with Lake Ontario water, none of which would be Canadian, according to officials.  

The slopes are to be designed by Paul Hobbs, Johannes Selbach, and  the German firm FingerSeenSchieferBodenVerbesserungGesellschaftDasIstAllesOK (FSSBVGDIAOK).  Asked about the newly created “terroir,” Hobbs said that German engineering of the new lake would be “incredibly precise” and would allow him and other winemakers to "drive their vineyards like BMWs.”  It is not too soon, he said, to apply for a designer microclimate.

Surprisingly, perhaps, President Trump is in favor of the project.  He seemed confident that funding for the new lake would be easily obtained.  “I’m happy to give New York  the middle finger,” he said, “anytime……anytime."

April 1, 2018


The 2016 & 2017 Vintages — An Early Assessment

In mid-summer 2016, many grape growers were apprehensive.  The length and severity of the drought were worsening.  Tractors pulling water tanks crisscrossed the vineyards, dousing the vines (especially the young ones) with enough water to ensure survival.

Modest rainfall finally came in August and September, and the outlook for the vintage turned more upbeat.  The summer’s warmth and dryness, it was said, would turn out to be good for the red grape varieties, which typically do better in such years. Some predicted a tremendous vintage for the Bordeaux varieties, which often struggle in the cool Finger Lakes climate.  As Hans Walter-Peterson put it near the end of the growing season, "In warm, dry years like this, there is usually a lot of optimism about the quality of the wines produced, especially red wines. This seems to be the case again this year."

Although it is too soon to make a final call, these predictions appear to have been off kilter.  The surprise winner of the 2016 vintage was not Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon but…… Riesling.

While all grape varieties produced clean disease-free fruit and small berries (often yielding greater flavor intensity) in 2016, berry size for Riesling was exceptionally small, sugar levels were quite high (on par with 2012), and the grapes retained high levels of acidity.  For most red grapes, sugar levels were merely average (and below 2015), while there was a marked lack of acidity — a possible precursor to flabby unbalanced wines.

These findings are confirmed by my tastings.  The 2016 vintage for Riesling is clearly first rate, the best since 2012.  Indeed, this vintage may surpass 2012, given the additional high quality producers which have entered the field.  The 2016 red wines, on the other hand, are variable.  Some rich and impressive wines have been tasted, but many others are too fat or lack balance. Surprisingly, a significant number of 2016 reds are leaner than their 2015 counterparts.

While 2016 was hot and dry, the following year was its opposite — cooler and wet.  Fifteen inches of rain were recorded during the 2016 growing season; the number for 2017 was double, over thirty.  The two years had one thing in common — a dry and warm autumn which allowed growers to harvest healthy dry fruit.

If the numbers can be trusted, wines from 2017 should be of very good quality, but different from 2016.  The Rieslings are likely to be snappier and more aromatic, and not quite as rich.  Some drinkers may prefer this more “classic” style.  The 2017 vintage should favor sparkling wine, dry rosé, and cooler climate reds, such as Pinot Noir.  The only two 2017 wines sampled to date have been made of Pinot Noir, from Red Tail Ridge.  Both have been zesty, energetic, and bursting with fruit.

Note: All figures and quotes from “Veraison to Harvest,” a newsletter of Cornell University, Cooperative Extension.

Finger Lakes Wine Vintage Chart: 2012 to 2016

Many people, I suspect, view vintage charts as esoterica, best enjoyed by geeky wine drinkers and wealthy collectors.  These charts can seem arcane, hardly useful, especially for vintages that have dimmed in memory.  

Yet, a passing familiarity with vintages can be helpful.  Consider the chart below.  One quick glance tells you why Riesling is the premier grape of the Finger Lakes.  In four years out of five, the average bottle of dry Riesling was “very good.”  No other grape variety comes close to matching its track record.


Vintage information can also be helpful when knowledge is lacking.  Given the choice of two equally unfamiliar bottles of Riesling on a wine list, would you pick the 2015 or 2016?  The 2016 is the better bet, given that 2015 was the weakest Riesling vintage in recent years.

This chart might also be handy when thinking about those bottles stashed in the cupboard, basement, or wine cabinet. Generally speaking, wine from fine vintages will age longer.  Is a bottle of 2016 dry rosé languishing in your wine rack?  Better drink it soon — 2016 was a decidedly so-so year for pink wine.

Last but not least, use your vintage knowledge; stop your friend before she grabs that bottle of 2013 Pinot Noir at the wine shop.  She may think you a show-off, but at least you won’t have to drink the wine.


Chart Note: Approximately 1150 tasting notes were used to assemble values for the chart.  Each cell of the chart shows the (mean) average for the wines of the year and grape variety.  The assessment of the 2016 vintage is preliminary.  Too few wines have been tasted to compute values for 2016 red wines.  The chart will be updated in the future.





The 12 Most Important Wines of 2017 — And What They Say About the Finger Lakes

This is the time of year for “Best of 2017” lists.  Many of the wines on these lists will be rare and unaffordable.  Other bottles will be available, but are not necessarily “better” than scores of other wines in the marketplace.

A year-end list needs to do more than catalog a wine critic’s fond memories.  The list should note important breakthroughs in winemaking, celebrate new and improved wineries, or illuminate a wine region’s direction.

Each of the twelve wines on this list was a pleasure to drink.  Here are some of the important things they say about the Finger Lakes:

• Native and Hybrid grapes should not be dismissed.  

Nathan Kendall’s “Chëpika” sparkling wine and the Ravines Wine Cellars “Keuka Village Red” show that these varieties can make fine wine, in the right hands, and that blending hybrid and vinifera grapes is relatively unexplored territory. Hybrid/Vinifera blends may be the key to affordable Finger Lakes red wine.

 New ownership is boosting Finger Lakes wine quality.  

In the past year, Peter Weis has taken over the Lime Berry premises, the Kendall Family purchased Hickory Hollow, and Hermann J. Wiemer has an agreement with Standing Stone.  Weis has already made a fine 2016 Riesling.  The quality of the Hickory Hollow wines has soared.  Last but not least…

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"Spirits & Cocktails of Upstate New York: A History” by Don Cazentre

Wine drinkers are fond of the aphorism “In Vino Veritas” (in wine, truth).  Variations of this saying have spread across the globe. The phrase is simple, but its meaning is ambiguous.  To the Greeks who served wine at their symposia, it meant conviviality, and sometimes the exploration of philosophical truths.  For most of us, wine often loosens the tongue, leading drinkers to tell the truth, sometimes unintentionally.  Lastly, the study of wine can be a vehicle for unearthing truths about geography, culture, history, and (of course) food.  Whatever the precise meaning of “In Vino Veritas," the implication of its modern usage is clear — wine is a serious beverage, not for frivolous people.


If wine drinking is supposed to promote truth-seeking and truth-telling, spirits have held nearly the opposite reputation.  These very alcoholic libations have historically been associated with tall tales, drunkenness and bogus patent medicines.  Spirits have been the “liquid courage” of soldiers and the starting point for fantastical cocktail names.  

Writer David Wondrich went so far as to divide the nineteenth century populace into two groups, “Victorians” and “Sports.” The “Sports” did not sit at the dining room table and ponder their wine.  No, they were fond of spirits and cocktails, saloons, gambling halls, horses and boxing.

In the last thirty years or so, there has been some convergence between these two very different worlds.  In France (and the U.S. to some extent), a new cadre of natural wine producers has emphasized the sheer joy and frivolity of wine drinking, replacing their “serious” chateau-encumbered wine labels with silly drawings and puns.  In the spirits and cocktail sphere, historical scholarship, serious writers, and even conventions have emerged.  There is a large and growing group of sophisticated spirit and cocktail lovers.  In both camps there has been increasing emphasis on using quality local ingredients, prompted in part by changes in the New York State liquor laws.

Wine drinkers and cocktail lovers will, no doubt, always form separate clans.  Yet, even dedicated wine drinkers sometimes need a change of pace, the headiness of a mixed drink, a little levity.  This short volume (155 pages) is perfect for the New York oenophile who desires a pause from vino and veritas.  It’s an informative and well-blended mixture of history, travelogue, and cocktail recipes, written by Mr. Cazentre with a light touch.

In the history sphere, it is more than likely that the cocktail originated in upstate New York.  The first mention of the word “cock-tail” in print appeared in a Hudson, New York newspaper in 1806.  The article accused a Democratic politician of “a frenzy of boozy vote-buying,” the tab including “720 rum-grogs, 17 dozen brandies, 32 gin-slings, 411 glasses of bitters, and 25 dozen ‘cock-tails.’” Voting was clearly much more festive in those days.

The actual birthplace of the cocktail is claimed by Lewiston, NY, a small town near Niagara Falls.  The stories of its birth are rather outlandish, involving tail feathers and the “Hustlers Tavern.”  There is probably more legend than lore here, but there is no doubt that the builders of the Erie Canal were hard drinkers, and that spirits production in New York soared as the canal was built.

Prohibition effectively destroyed New York’s distilleries, even if it didn’t stop the actual distribution of spirits — whether through Canada, in the form of patent medicine, or as bathtub gin.  After Prohibition was repealed, New York’s wine industry came back to life (aided by the Farm Winery Act of 1976), but the spirits industry remained completely dormant.  It was not until 1995 that Knapp Winery produced the first commercial distilled spirt since Prohibition.  It took another decade before Tuthilltown Spirits became the first standalone post-Prohibition distillery in New York.  Yet, a mere twelve years later, dozens of distilleries had appeared; 175 distilling licenses had been issued by 2017, many for craft distilleries.

The Finger Lakes wine tourist will find it easy to add distilleries to her itinerary.  There are a number of standalone distilleries on the wine trails, including Myer Farm Distillery and Finger Lakes Distilling Company.  Many wineries also produce or merchandise locally produced spirits.

The most prominent NY distillers and suppliers of cocktail products are profiled by Mr. Cazentre in this book.  Two of his most interesting sketches describe Myer Farm Distillery (the Myer family owns a very large farm and its ancestors settled the area in 1789) and Fee Brothers, a manufacturer in Rochester (since 1863) of bitters, mixes, and other cocktail ingredients.

Finally, this book does not let us forget Jerry Thomas.  Born and raised in New York, he was the author of the first book of cocktail recipes ever printed (1862), and the first celebrity bartender.  Here is one of the many cocktail recipes in Cazentre's book, this one from Thomas:


From “How to Mix Drinks” by Jerry Thomas

Ingredients: One lime or small lemon, 3 teaspoons raspberry syrup, one wineglass Santa Cruz Rum, 3 dashes Curacao

Preparation: Squeeze out the juice of the lime or lemon into a small glass; add the rind and the other materials.  Fill the glass one-third full of fine ice, shake up well and strain into a cocktail glass.  If not sufficiently sweet, add a little more syrup.

Weis Vineyards: From Schoolhouse to Schulhaus

In August 2014 I stood on the lawn of Lime Berry Winery, trying to frame the tasting room in my camera’s viewfinder.  As the shutter snapped, I heard the words “What’s up?” and there beside me was the owner of Lime Berry, Joe Carroll.  He seemed suspicious of my intent, but did relax after I explained my tourist status and penchant for taking pictures.

Carroll was from Telluride Colorado, where he had made some money in commercial real estate.  But Telluride (“where the cheapest house sells for $1.2 million”) was too rich for his blood.  He wanted something different.  


Home winemaking had infected him with the itch to start a winery, but California and Washington were too expensive.  So Carroll and his wife decided to look elsewhere.  They found an 1870’s-era one room schoolhouse on Keuka Lake that would become their art gallery and tasting room.  A pot-bellied stove from those long-gone school days sat at one end of the room.  Large bright abstract paintings and sunshine made the room sparkle.

Sweet wines dominated the lineup at Lime Berry, with names like “Joe’s Red,” “Heart of the Lake,” “Schoolhouse Red,” and “Bunny Bunny.”  Although the wines at Lime Berry were never especially serious, Carroll claimed that they "sold out every year.” But Carroll’s success was not primarily a function of the juice, or the lovely schoolhouse.  No, Lime Berry’s attraction was Carroll himself; the groups of tourists that visited Lime Berry were taken by his good looks, charm, and wine talk.

In the Spring of 2016, Joe and Melissa Carroll decided it was time to move on.  As it happened, they were friends with Hans Peter Weis, a vineyard manager and winemaker at Dr. Konstantin Frank.  Would he like to buy the winery?

Weis did want to start a winery.  But on his timeline, a vineyard and grapes were to come first.  He had purchased 14 acres of land near Dr. Frank and had spent untold hours on an excavator clearing trees from this parcel.  Planting was scheduled for the Spring of 2017.  Grapes would be harvested a few years later, followed by buildings and a winery.

But Weis was not inflexible with his plans.  It was an opportunity he could not pass up.

Suddenly, he was in a scramble.  Purchasing the wine tasting room and adjacent house was one time consuming task.  But there were many others.  Sources of grapes had to be located, licenses obtained, and renovations undertaken.  All this work would be done while Weis continued to work at Dr. Frank.  Fortunately, Weis had a full partner in this enterprise, his fiancée Ashley Travis.

Weis’s ten-year sojourn in the Finger Lakes helped too.  He had worked at Dr. Frank since 2006 and knew all the growers, winemakers, and restauranteurs in the region.  Producing a full lineup of wines was not out of the question.  So he did, making about 1300 cases in the Fall of 2016..

Today, the schoolhouse tasting room is sedate, with no pastel colors, excepting the remainder of the Lime Berry wines to be sold. On the walls are photos of Peter.  In one, he sits with his grandfather in the family vineyard (in Germany).  In another, young Weis looks rather uncomfortable in a pair of lederhosen.  Along one wall, a long shelf of  bottles with black and white labels contributes to a sober atmosphere.

The decor is certainly fitting for a winery with an orientation toward high quality wines.  Weis’s 2016 Dry Riesling and 2016 Gewürztraminer were very successful, and his other wines show promise.  Asked how his offerings might differ from the fine dry Rieslings he produced at Dr. Frank, Peter seems uncertain.  He does venture that sweet Riesling may be a focus in the future.

Weis does not flaunt his European heritage, unlike his neighbors next door at Domaine LeSeurre.  But he did change the Lime Berry “School House” wine label to the German equivalent “Schulhaus.”  Instructive wine talk will continue in the little one room schoolhouse, but now tasters will come mainly to learn about fine wine.

Nathan K. Rocks the Hollow

An unwelcome letter arrived in the mail.

The letter took issue with the brand name “N. Kendall” on his wine labels, suggesting this name might cause confusion in the minds of consumers, and represent trademark infringement.

The litigious wine company that sent this unwanted communiqué had acted very quickly, right after the labels had been approved by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).  As Nathan Kendall notes, “They caught [the labels] before I sold a single bottle of wine.”

Kendall had been the assistant winemaker at Ravines Wine Cellars, followed by a stint as head winemaker at Bellangelo.  While working at these two firms, he made small quantities of wine for himself, and labelled the bottles with a distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright inspired design and the moniker “N. Kendall".  Now this wine was piling up, and there was no easy way to sell it.


A period of negotiation followed, and Kendall was pleased to find that his antagonists were not difficult to work with, had no vengeful impulses, nor any desire to set back his winery.  An agreement was finally reached.  The winery could remain “N. Kendall Wines LLC” but the brand name on the front label would change from “N. Kendall” to “Nathan K.” 

As the TTB web site aptly puts it, the “N. Kendall” labels were “surrendered.”

But Nathan K. still had the same problem most other very small wineries face.  Namely, how was he to sell his wine?

In the Spring of 2016, quite unexpectedly, an opportunity arose.  Peter Oughterson, the owner of Hickory Hollow Wine Cellars, wanted to sell.  Oughterson's mobile bottling business had become his bread and butter, and the winery now seemed a distraction.

Hickory Hollow was established in 2003 as a partnership between Nathan’s parents, Suzanne and Bruce, and Oughterson.  Both Oughterson and Suzanne Kendall had previously worked at Hermann J. Wiemer.  As the years passed, the Kendalls had become disenchanted with the business and had sold their stake in the winery to Oughterson.  Now, the table was turned;  he was offering them “first dibs,” complete ownership of the winery.

The offer was attractive in many ways.  Bruce Kendall could maintain the building and grounds, and provide technical assistance.  Suzanne could manage the tasting room.  And of course Nathan could make the wine, for both the Nathan K. and Hickory Hollow labels.  This was an opportunity to turn around an underperforming winery, which just happened to be located a mere four miles from Hermann J. Wiemer — and its affluent customers.

The Kendalls jumped in.

The remake of Hickory Hollow is now well underway.  Nathan made the Hickory Hollow branded wine in 2016, and the labels have been redesigned to harmonize with the Nathan K. line.  In a welcome move, the “semi-dry” Riesling label has been dropped.  

Tasters can now sample both the revitalized Hickory Hollow wines and the Nathan K. lineup at the winery.  The Hickory Hollow wines are crisp, “new world,” and fruit driven, priced comparably to most other Finger Lakes wines.  The Nathan K. lineup is made with hand picked fruit, fermented with natural yeasts, not fined or filtered, and lean toward an “old world” artisanal style.  They are considerably more expensive.

Sleepy Hickory Hollow has not merely come back to life.  It now represents a unique opportunity for Finger Lakes’ wine tasters to sample well-made commercial wines next to their artisanal counterparts.  

Does “Dirt" Matter in the Finger Lakes?

The French term “terroir” is used by wine writers to describe the (mostly) natural factors that affect the quality and character of fruit produced by grapevines.  Climate is certainly the most important element of terroir, but other features come into play too — soil types, the “aspect” of the vineyard (i.e. which direction it faces, on flat or hilly ground, etc.), types of yeast in the environment, and even the traditional practices of winemakers.  In France, the word tends to be associated more strongly with particular plots of land, and/or particular soils, with less emphasis on climatic and other factors.

In general, the terroir of the Finger Lakes is characterized by a continental climate (very cold winters,  warm summers, moderate rainfall, no oceanic influence), silt/sandy/gravel loam soils on top of a shale stone base (occasionally limestone), and the moderating influences of the deep lakes.  In the summer, vines close to the Finger Lakes are cooled, while in the winter and early spring, the lakes can help prevent damage from subzero temperatures and frosts.

Searching for the best terroir in the Finger Lakes has generally meant looking for the warmest sites.  The soils must drain adequately of course, since grapevines abhor soggy earth.  But the focus has not usually been on finding noble “dirt,” but on locating plots of land which would shield the vines from severe cold in winter, and help the grapes to ripen adequately in the summer.  These sites include Wiemer’s Magdalena Vineyard, the Doyle-Fournier Vineyard, and much of the land on Seneca Lake's eastern shore, the so-called “Banana Belt.”


But aren’t fine wines also produced from cooler areas, such as Keuka Lake, where temperatures and risks of cold damage are significantly greater?  Absolutely, and this raises an interesting question: Is the additional risk “worth it”?  Do the shale stone-rich soils high above Keuka Lake add significantly to the wines’ flavor profiles?  Is the Hobbs-Selbach vineyard (chosen for its geology, not its warmth) capable of making great wine, wine that will more than compensate for the additional cost and risk?

In The Dirty Guide to Wine, Alice Feiring and Pascaline Lepeltier focus on soil (dirt) as a way of organizing the vineyards of the world.  Thus, the Finger Lakes is grouped with the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, Montalcino (Italy) and Friuli (Italy) in a short chapter on shale.  Much longer chapters of the book cover limestone, granite, and other types of rock.

The subtitle of the book (“following flavors from ground to glass”) might lead the reader to believe that grapevines can absorb the “taste” of shale stone and plunk it inside grape clusters.  No reputable botanist would agree.  Nor (I think) would Feiring. Instead, she argues that the “type of soil the vine grows in has a profound effect on the resulting wine’s taste."  She doesn’t explain how this happens, nor does she consult experts for their thoughts.  It is simply asserted.  Could it be that microorganisms, climate, genetic adaptation, or even centuries of ingrained farming or winemaking practices are responsible instead?  Perhaps soil is a mere bystander, or maybe just an accomplice.

In the end, Feiring and Lepeltier's argument that soil has a profound effect on flavor is weak, and the authors do not help themselves with grandiose generalizations (Finger Lakes wines are all on shale) or with many instances of hearsay (“marl is said to produce more feminine wines”).  In fact, I would argue that soil is a relatively unimportant factor in the taste of Finger Lakes wine. The warmth of the vineyard, the quality of viticulture, and the skill/experience of the winemaker all count much more.  One could even argue that particular grape clones exert more influence than does soil.

It is devilishly difficult to find two wines from the Finger Lakes that control for all factors other than soil.  Actually, it is impossible. Having said that, curious wine drinkers might want to try Ravine’s regular Riesling from 2015 alongside its 2015 White Springs Riesling.  They are very different wines.  Perhaps the limestone in the White Springs vineyard has something to do with it.  Or maybe not.

The Emperor Falls

By the time the “Emperor of Wine” was published in 2005, Robert M. Parker Jr. had amassed enormous power.  He could make or break prices of Bordeaux futures.  Importers flocked to him, in the hope he would “discover” one of their wines.  California wineries with pricy Cabernets to sell arranged deluxe tastings, yearning for his blessing.

But where is the emperor now?

Robert M. Parker Jr. hasn't exactly disappeared.  He still writes articles for the Wine Advocate, speaks at wine events, and hosts elaborate tastings.  Yet, his pervasive influence has receded — markedly.  

No longer are his views a hot topic on Twitter.  Authors like Alice Feiring ("The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization,” 2009) find no impetus for fresh attacks.  It has been years since “The Hosemaster of Wine” last mocked Parker.  The “emperor” is apparently not a worthy target.

Like all empires, Parker’s turned out to be difficult to defend.  Greatly expanding wine coverage probably appealed to most of his readers, but also diluted the power of his name and gave him less control over the publication.  Controversy and staff departures followed.  The appropriation of his 100-point scale by others made the Wine Advocate just one of many publications.  His very success in educating wine drinkers meant they needed him less.


This year is a watershed for Parker.  He will turn 70 this summer.  He recently ceded the Wine Advocate’s Bordeaux “beat” to Neal Martin.  Recall that Parker’s pronouncements on the 1982 Bordeaux vintage was his stepping stone to fame.

The final words on Robert M. Parker are yet to be written, but it is not too early to look back and consider his legacy.

When the Wine Advocate launched in August 1978, American wine criticism was a fledgling enterprise.  There certainly were professionally minded critics (e.g. Robert Finigan, Robert Lawrence Balzar, the “Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine”), but most wine writers were “amateurs with a passion” and the “concept of journalistic ethics or the problem of conflict of interest simply didn’t apply to wine writing then…”  Parker (himself a lawyer and avid amateur) thought that most wine writers were “hacks and charlatans.”  He intended to work very hard, to become the honest exception, a sort of Ralph Nader for the wine world, pulling the fuzz from consumers’ eyes.

Conditions were certainly opportune.  There were very few wine shops that could give consumers good advice.  The general population’s wine IQ was low.  Would-be wine enthusiasts needed someone to tell them what to drink, and Parker knew it.

In the beginning, Parker purchased all the wines he tasted.  Doing so was a measure of his integrity — and he was selling integrity. But the expenditures for wine were large, and his wife Patricia was not happy about their finances.  It didn't take much to open the door to a change in policy.  Importers began to visit him in Maryland, bringing along cart loads of wine to taste.  Bordeaux vintners organized tastings for him.  Bottles began to arrive on his doorstep.  With a voracious appetite for wine (and wine knowledge), Parker could not resist a tasting, any kind of tasting.

Parker’s influence expanded as retailers recognized the power of his numerical ratings, and the ability of his “scores" to sell wine. Wine shops and Parker developed a relationship that was happily symbiotic.  His new wine “discoveries” helped stores sell wine, which lead to more and more publicity for the Wine Advocate, in turn fueling subscription growth.  The 100-point scale may have been Parker’s inadvertent invention (he didn’t think it was especially important in the early days), but it proved to be crucial to his success.

As his influence burgeoned and his empire expanded, criticism was inevitable.  The 100-point scale was attacked as falsely scientific.  Parker’s tasting methods were lambasted (“a wine a minute — and he didn’t retaste”).  His penchant for fruit and oak seemed to devalue more subtle and engaging wines.  Worst of all, perhaps, wine makers and consulting firms began to tailor wines to suit Parker’s palate.

Today, the market has vastly changed.  A proliferation of point scores and wine publications has greatly reduced Parker’s influence, making the Wine Advocate just one player among many.  The internet and the relaxation of wine laws makes it possible for consumers to talk to each other, and directly to wineries, bypassing critics altogether.  A counterreaction to Parker’s palate has also had an enormous impact, giving more power to the burgeoning sommelier community and independently minded wine shops.

Right now, can we say whether Parker’s legacy has been positive or negative?

I think so.  Looking back, with all the squabbles about his palate, his 100-point scale, and his great influence safely behind us, one cannot question Parker's enormous educational influence.  Especially in its early days, the Wine Advocate was a boon to stores and wine drinkers, educating both, helping to open up the vast wine world to a much larger audience.  Just as important, Parker’s publication proved there was a broad untapped market for professional wine criticism — it stirred many writers to join the field.  If his acolytes and imitators often fall short, he is not to blame.

Parker certainly inspired me.  My veneration of point scores and Parker's palate may have lapsed long ago, but his early ideal — objective & independent wine journalism -- lives on in my writing and that of others.


Note: All quotes from “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste,” by Elin McCoy, published 2005.

The Finger Lakes, Land of Small Wineries? Not So Fast.

A large truck rumbles down the quiet streets of Naples, NY.  Atop its flatbed is a huge metal shipping container.  It encases a plastic bladder of Italian wine, 24,000 liters in all, the equivalent of 32,000 bottles.

The truck is headed for East Coast Crush & Co-pack, a business owned by the Hazlitt family.


Many Finger Lakes wineries don’t produce 32,000 bottles of wine in a single season.  In bounteous years the capacities of these small wineries are strained.  They scramble to find tank storage space, supplemental fermentation capacity, and warehousing for extra bottles.

When Hazlitt took over the Widmer production facility from Constellation Brands in 2011, it had precisely the opposite problem — too much plant and equipment.

Yes, a very large facility was required to produce Hazlitt’s Red Cat, the region’s best selling wine.  But only 1/3 of the plant was really needed.  The remaining space and facilities had potential.  But how could they be used?

East Coast Crush & Co-pack (EC3) was the solution.

EC3 produces all the private label sweet wine for a fast-growing midwestern restaurant chain.  It bottles and packages bladders of wine shipped from France, Italy, South America, and New Zealand.  It buys and sells bulk wine.  It runs a line that can carbonate wine or cider, and bottle it in a variety of containers.  If warehouse storage space is a customer's only need, EC3 can provide that too.

The firm’s U.S. customers are on the east coast and midwest, within reasonable trucking distance of Naples.  Most of its business is tanker truck shipments of wine, or six ton (minimum) shipments of grapes.  Although the firm does some smaller jobs, the cost of meetings, regulatory filings, and lab work are about the same as for larger projects, thus meaning less (or no) profit.  Since the Finger Lakes has become the land of small and medium sized operations, it isn’t surprising that only 20 to 30% of EC3’s business comes from area wineries.

Looking to the future, there are reasons to suppose that EC3’s future is bright.  Hazlitt (their #1 “customer”) continues to expand, steadily working toward nationwide distribution.  Hard cider has been growing fast in popularity, and EC3 is fielding more inquiries from firms which would like to use its carbonation line.  Finally, sweet wines (Hazlitt’s specialty) are holding their own in the market, and the decline in price for Concord grapes (people are drinking less grape juice) is buoying these producers, creating more opportunities for EC3.

Before Hazlitt purchased the Widmer facility, the plant's main job was to produce Manischewitz, the sweet kosher wine made from Concord grapes.  At least in part, EC3 may now see a bit of the past in its future. 

© Douglas Hillstrom 2014