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. 

“Cork Dork” by Bianca Bosker

How much effort does it take to become a “cork dork”?

You’d be surprised.

The would-be sommelier must know her Amari well, from driest to sweetest.  She must be able to match every wine growing region in the world with its appropriate river.  A daily regimen of blind wine tasting (“tongue cardio”) is a must, in order to differentiate right bank Bordeaux from left, the New Zealand Pinot Noir from the Californian, the 2011 vintage from the 2012. And, let’s not forget, there is the actual serving of the wine, a scripted event that requires a great deal of precision.  Acting and dancing lessons may be required to truly master it.


In the beginning, Bianca Bosker was fascinated by these “hedonistic masochists” who call wine “a religion.”  As she admits, “All my life I’ve been obsessed with other people’s obsessions.”  

Then she became obsessed herself.

The first sections of the book describe Bosker’s descent (ascent?) into the world of somms, and an attempt by Morgan Harris (her mentor, a sommelier at Aureole) to win the TopSomm competition.  “Chopped” or another TV cooking competition could easily have become the model for this book.  Instead, Bosker pushes past the wine olympics.  She asks the big questions.

Is "wine quality" purely subjective?  If it is possible to know the divine from the merely fine, what measures do we use?  Why is the sense of smell so greatly neglected in America?  Is wine tasting a purely hedonistic pursuit, or is it something greater, the fusion of sense and intellect?

To pursue this inquiry, Bosker interviews scientists, trains her nose (with “Le Nez du Vin,” an extensive scent collection), tastes and tastes, and then takes (passes!) the "Certified Sommelier” exam.

If all of this sounds exhausting (and possibly tiresome), it is not.  Bosker writes with verve and can be quite witty.  Her persona (part Lucille Ball, part “New Yorker” staff writer) wears well.  There are good chuckles in this book as well as deep thoughts.

The competitive aspects of “Somm World” are entertaining, but rather silly too.  The extensive knowledge possessed by sommeliers makes them overqualified for the job of selling bottles and pouring wine.  They are akin to astronauts driving taxis. Bosker herself is troubled over “the total disconnect between the Court’s [Court of Sommeliers] vision of wine service and the real world.”  

The “civilian” wine drinker need not dive into wine as deeply as Bosker or her somms.  Yet, the aspiring oenophile can still benefit from some of their guiding principles.  Namely, it is worthwhile to think about what we taste, to train our noses, to be more aware of the world of scents, and to combine the hedonistic and the intellectual.  It is worth it, even if (to quote a particularly poetic passage of the book):

“The liquid that forms our first sip is not the same liquid we drain from the bottle for our last.  And the wine you drink is not the same as the wine I drink.  It is altered by the chemistry of our bodies, the architecture of our DNA, or the backdrop of our memories.  Wine exists only for you, or me, and it exists only in that instant.  It is a private epiphany in the pleasure of good company.  So don’t let it slip by.  Savor it.”  

March Madness

FingerLakesWine.info was conceived in the Spring of 2014 and debuted that summer.  At first there were very few visitors, but traffic rose gradually, and has continued to do so ever since.

Happily, the number of visitors and pages viewed reached a new all-time high in March 2017.  There were 11,800 visits to FingerLakesWine.info; 40,300 pages were viewed.


Without any sophisticated tracking software (and no desire to obtain any), the reasons for the March record are not easily deciphered.  But here is what I hope to be true:

Finger Lakes wine lovers want a critic with no financial ties to the wine industry.  I do not participate in industry sponsored wine junkets, receive free bottles of wine from wineries, or have any financial relationship with the wine industry.  Like you, I purchase all my wine at wineries and wine shops.  Like you, I am pleased when I find a bargain and sorely disappointed when an expensive bottle flops.

Finger Lakes wine lovers want reviews based on a careful assessment, not a swirl, sniff, sip and — voila — 90 points!  I drink no more than two wines a day, spend a good deal of time with each bottle, match the wine with food, and re-evaluate the wine the following day.  Wines are like people.  They cannot be judged during a quick meet-and-greet in a tasting room.

Finger Lakes wine lovers want common sense wine reviews.  Over the years, wine medals and “points” have become increasingly meaningless.  What exactly does “90 points” even mean nowadays?  I don’t think anyone knows.  This is why drinkers no longer pay any attention to numbers on wine bottles.  They want to know if a wine is poor, fair, good, very good, or excellent — and why.

Finger Lakes wine lovers want a knowledgable critic devoted to their region.  Before becoming a Finger Lakes wine fanatic, I was a member of the International Wine Center tasting group, attended scores of tastings in New York City, spent far too much money on expensive bottles to drink at home, and eventually received an advanced diploma from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.  Nowadays, 80% of the wines I drink are from the Finger Lakes, but the knowledge gained from previous “schooling” has given me the broad experience needed to evaluate Finger Lakes wines and to put them in context.

Statistics come from a black box, and one is never sure exactly what is going on inside the box.  Perhaps the main attratction of this site is merely the pretty wine labels?  Please feel free to shine some light inside the black box by contacting me: DouglasHillstrom@FingerLakesWine.info



Is the Finger Lakes REALLY a White Wine Region?

Forty years ago, after the collapse of the big wine companies, the Finger Lakes vinifera revolution began in earnest.  Vineyardists had one particularly big decision to make.  What grapes should be planted?

At the time, climate was a severe constraint.  The growing season was often disappointingly cool and short.  Yet, Dr. Konstantin Frank had shown that Riesling could be very successful in the Finger Lakes.  And looking toward Europe, Germans and Alsatians were growing white vinifera grapes under difficult conditions.  Wouldn’t it be sensible to plant northern European grapevines in the Finger Lakes?


A focus on Riesling proved to be a winning bet.  But other white grapes from Germany and northern France were far less successful.  Plantings and production of Chardonnay soared in the eighties and nineties, along with growing popularity of the grape.  But Finger Lakes Chardonnay was often mediocre and did nothing to enhance the reputation of the region. Gewürztraminer, assumed to be Riesling’s natural companion, proved difficult to grow and vinify.  Grapes like Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris were produced in small quantities for the tourist trade, but made no great impression.

At the turn of the century, the Finger Lakes was known as a “white wine region,” but this reputation was based almost entirely on one white grape — Riesling.  A Gewürztraminer or two would occasionally make a splash, but Riesling was the undisputed king. Finger Lakes red wine was virtually unheard of outside the region.

Meanwhile, climate change had accelerated, and the white wine regions of Germany and Alsace made an amazing discovery. It was now possible to make Pinot Noir there, without a jot of dark-colored Dornfelder.  In the Finger Lakes, warmer temperatures had made Cabernet Franc riper, less green and stemmy.  Pinot Noir wines were improving too.  In some warm years, even Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot made fine wine.

Although the quality of red wine has improved markedly in the Finger Lakes, the region is known to outsiders only for its Riesling. It is still considered a “white wine region,” its reds almost never mentioned in national wine publications or in newspaper/magazine articles.  But is it true?  Are Finger Lakes white wines really so much better than its reds?

Crunching the numbers from nearly one thousand wine reviews over the past 2 1/2 years contradicts the conventional wisdom.  In fact, red and white wines are nearly equivalent in quality.  Forty-two percent of both red and white wines were rated “very good” or better.  Although the mean score for whites (2.65, a bit higher than “Good+") was slightly higher than for reds (2.56), the difference was entirely due to a handful of stellar Rieslings.  There is a discrepancy in cost, however.  The mean price for a bottle of red wine is $22, while whites are less expensive — $19.

Red wine has certainly received plaudits on this site, but will it ever receive its due  from the larger wine world?  Unfortunately, there are two real impediments.  Although critical tastes have shifted to some extent, away from jammy and oaky California reds, the wine press still has not wholeheartedly embraced mid-weight and food-friendly red wines, like those made in the Finger Lakes.  Then too, there is the problem of distribution.  Production is small and few Finger Lakes reds make it outside the region.

Looking ahead, say twenty years from now, I would like to make a bold prediction: The Finger Lakes will become known as a premier red wine region.  If this sounds unlikely, even outrageous, consider the following.  First, global warming will continue to make the Finger Lakes increasingly hospitable to reds. Second, there are currently more promising (but often underachieving) red varieties than white, and increasing quality is evident.  Finally, it should be clear by now that Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and other Finger Lakes whites remain underachievers, even after decades of “trying.”  These varieties are either not ideal for the region or face too much competition outside it.

In 2037 I hope to be drinking award-winning Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, Zweigelt and Syrah — and to be reading about it in the national press.

Sparkling Rosé for Valentine’s Day

Is there a better wine for Valentine’s Day than sparkling rosé?

Some make the argument for dessert wine, and there is logic behind this “sweetie for your sweetheart” plan.  But sparkling rosé is much more flexible.  It can be sipped or served with a romantic dinner, while that ultra-sweet dessert wine could well induce sugar shock drowsiness.  A sparkling rosé is more likely to make one giddy.  Isn’t that what you want?


Sparkling rosé is uncommon, both in the Finger Lakes and the larger wine world.  Most Pinot Noir is used to make pale Brut or Blanc de Noirs wines.  In the Finger Lakes I could unearth only eight pink sparklers, five of which are reviewed here.

My top pick is the Heart & Hands Wine Company Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine 2013: $30 [Very Good to Very Good+].  It is  fresh and well made, with light and vivacious flavors.  It can be sipped or served with food.  The color is nearly ideal, and the suitability of the packaging and label is hard to beat.

The Ravines Wine Cellars Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine (Finger Lakes, NY) 2009 $35 [Very Good] is a well-aged wine.  Savory aromas and flavors are now in charge; the wine’s fruit has receded.  Substantially less sweet than the other sparkling rosés, this well balanced wine is best with food.

If you’re looking for a bottle that is very bright and fruity (and reasonably priced), the Goose Watch Pinot Noir Brut Rosé (Finger Lakes, NY) NV $15 to $24 [Very Good] is a wine to seek out.  It is tank fermented, and thus doesn’t have much of the yeasty character of the Champagne method wines.  Quite flavorful and well balanced, this is a good sipper. 

For wine lovers who want something sweeter, the Chateau Frank Célèbre Rosè Sparkling Wine NV (Finger Lakes, NY) NV $21 [Good+] might be the ticket.  It is a well made wine, with ripe strawberry flavors.  However, if you can do without the pink color, I would suggest the “regular” Célèbre (also sweet), made from Riesling.  It is a better wine.

The Red Tail Ridge Brut Sparkling Rosé (Finger Lakes, NY) 2013 $30 [Good+] is full throttle Pinot Noir, dark in color, with strong meaty, woodsy, and dried mushroom notes.  Not much of a sipper, consider this for a fancy homemade Valentine’s Day dinner.

For the complete reviews of these wines, visit Sparkling Wine 2016 - 17.

Other (unreviewed) Finger Lakes sparkling rosés that you might seek out include the Hermann J. Wiemer Brut Rosé 2011, the Hosmer Brut Rosé 2013, and the Atwater Pinot Noir Bubble NV.


“Over a Barrel: the Rise and Fall of New York’s Taylor Wine Company”

Wander into a wine shop and look around.  You’re not likely to see a bottle of Taylor wine.  True, the brand’s jug wines and sherry still exist, but you’ll have to search the bottom shelves and less-visited corners of the store.  There are no attention-catching displays of Taylor wine.

It is shocking to think that “Taylor” was a near synonym for "Finger Lakes wine industry" at one time.  Almost none of the small and mid-sized wineries we know today existed then.


The Taylor firm was created by Walter, who began by making barrels.  Cleverly, he sustained (even expanded) the business through the prohibition years by selling grape juice and “wine-types” —  kits for home winemakers.  After Walter died in 1934, his three sons took joint control of the business. 

The Taylor men grew their business the old-fashioned way.  They made a point of knowing every employee.  They were very persnickety about cleanliness and production.  They paid better wages than other firms, and even distributed holiday bonuses.  Grape growers were paid high prices for their produce and felt like members of the Taylor “team.”  The sales force worked hard to win the trust of distributors and retailers.  As Pellechia puts it:

“A tireless national effort to grow, together with a work ethic of loyalty and fairness, made the Taylor Wine Company appealing to wholesalers and distributors; they clamored to get Taylor wines into their books.  Once that relationship was established, it was durable.  Distributors knew that Taylor support would always be there, with printed wine lists, printed marketing materials, and salesmen eager to do what it took to move product.”

The firm’s growth was stellar between 1950 and 1975, but then came trouble.  The economy (and wine consumption) slowed in the late 70’s and competition from California became much more intense.  Even so, Taylor was an attractive takeover target.  The big American beverage businesses assumed that growth would resume soon.  They eyed Taylor’s fabulous distribution network, if not necessarily their New York wine.

The sale of Taylor Wine Cellars was probably inevitable, given the brothers’ declining health and the split ownership of the firm.  The Taylors were truly “over a barrel."  Unfortunately, Coca-Cola was the buyer, a firm which did not understand the ups and downs of the wine business, and found Taylor's profit margins lacking.  After Coca-Cola, Taylor was passed on to Seagram, and then to other companies, with additional decline following every transaction.

Expect to read quite a few pages before Pellechia’s book achieves liftoff.  The first half includes a great deal of background material adapted from secondary sources.  The narrative zigs and zags can be overlong and frustrating.  The Taylors often seem to disappear in a more general narrative about the wine industry.  The story finally takes off in the 70’s, when Pellechia’s extensive research on the Taylor family is clearly front and center.

It’s too bad that the “rise” portion of the book is not as well-realized as the “fall.”  Even so, this is an informative read for the finger lakes wine lover. Be warned though — some speed reading is required from time to time, or you too will be over a barrel.

How to Improve Finger Lakes Wine

The Rheinhessen wine region in Germany was once seen as a laggard, producing mostly mediocre wine.  But suddenly, in less than a decade, stellar wines began to emerge from the region.  How did it happen?

The yin and yang of cooperation and competition was the force that lifted up the region.  Wine makers shared their knowledge, thereby helping each other improve.  Simultaneously, they competed to see who could make the best wine.

Following the repeal of prohibition, there was no meaningful competition or cooperation in the Finger Lakes for many years.  Big producers such as Taylor and Widmer may have helped growers improve grape quality, but there were few players in the industry and little competition.  The real rivalry involved salesmanship and marketing, not better winemaking.  

After the collapse of the big firms, farm wineries were created out of necessity.  Most of these new businesses were founded by grape growers or local entrepreneurs, who knew very little about making quality wine.  They decided their best option was to focus on the tourist trade.


Tourism did allow many Finger Lakes wineries to grow and prosper.  It also encouraged cooperation between wineries, as they joined together to promote the region through wine trails and events.  These institutions, in turn, facilitated knowledge sharing.  By all accounts, there is a lot of sharing going on in the Finger Lakes.

Spreading know-how is good.  But what about competition?

The biggest impediment to competition has been the region’s reliance on the tourist trade.  Instead of trying to produce the best wine, many wineries have opted to capture tourists instead.  Restaurants, wine clubs, weddings and special events have all been used to develop a “base” of loyal followers.  As a result, while there are many “Hermann J. Wiemer fans” or “Ravines Wine Cellars fans," there are relatively few “Finger Lakes wine fans.”  

Unlike Napa or Bordeaux, for example, the region cannot boast a large group of people interested in ALL the important wineries, drinkers who constantly evaluate and compare the wineries’ offerings, shifting their allegiance based on wine quality.  In short, the Finger Lakes lacks a wine culture that encourages competition.

There are, of course, wine medals and 90-point scores to consider.  Don’t these promote rivalry amongst wineries?

On the whole, I don’t believe they do.  The medal-based tasting events only look at the wines of entrants and are very generous with their awards.  The point-rating magazines routinely hand out scores of “90” or above, even for mediocre wines, making winery comparisons nearly impossible.  Some of the better wineries in the region refuse to participate in the points charade.

The primary goal of this website has always been to provide Finger Lakes wine lovers with better information about the region’s wines and wineries, information that is professional and unbiased, not sullied by any connection to wineries or the wine industry.  Implicit in this effort has been the idea that competition is useful, that the region’s wines should be compared to one another.  A recent review of 24 dry Rieslings from the 2015 vintage is useful for consumers, but perhaps just as important, it encourages winemakers to take a look at themselves and consider how they stack up against their neighbors — and how they might make better wine.

This website has existed for only 2 1/2 years.  This past year, visits to FingerLakesWine.info topped 100,000, while the number of pages viewed increased to 371,000.  I sincerely hope this information has been useful to consumers. I also hope this site will contribute to the development of a Finger Lakes wine culture, in which a burgeoning group of wine drinkers will follow all the important wineries, and these wineries will work hard to earn the business and respect of these knowledgable consumers.

“Circle of Vines: The Story of New York Wine” by Richard Figiel

In the late 1820’s Richard Sheffield arrived in Hammondsport, a little village at the southern end of Keuka Lake.  He planned to open a tavern.  But he had other ideas too.  In his baggage were a few cuttings of Isabella and Catawba grapevines.

This plant material had come from the Linnaean Nursery on Long Island, located in what we now call “Queens” in New York City.  Begun as Robert Prince’s private garden in the 1730s, by 1750 it had become America’s first commercial nursery.  It was a national treasure, so important that British soldiers guarded it during the Revolutionary War.  George Washington toured it shortly after becoming President.

In the spirit of the Linnaean Nursery, Sheffield passed on cuttings of his vines to others in Hammondsport, including the Reverend William Bostwick, who needed material for sacramental wine.  Bostwick’s parishioners wanted grape vines too, and viticulture spread throughout the Hammondsport area.  In 1847 William Hastings, one of the town’s leading denizens, managed to ship 50 pounds of grapes and jelly to New York City through the Erie Canal.

By the 1850s grape growing had exploded.  The slopes along the lake shores, denuded by settlers of forest and unsuitable for crops, proved to be excellent for growing grapes.  There was a “perfect stampede among every class to get a vineyard.”  But the demand at first was not for wine, but for fresh table grapes, a market that had been made possible by changing consumer tastes and the development of the railroads.

In 1860 a group of growers founded the Hammondsport and Pleasant Valley Wine Company, which went on to become the Finger Lakes’ first successful winery.  Soon afterward, the Civil War slowed the progress of grape growing and wine making, but explosive growth arrived at war’s end. Nicolas Longworth’s vineyards in Ohio (previously the largest source of wine in America) had succumbed to disease and Longworth had passed away.  Winemakers hit the road -- to the Finger Lakes and the shores of Lake Erie.

Only forty pages are required by Richard Figiel to cover this first leg of New York wine history.  His prose is clear and efficient.  He tells the story well. Thankfully, obscurities are largely absent from the narrative.  Rarely does he dwell too long on the musty dusty gents of the times.

Large scale wine production began in the Finger Lakes after the Civil War.  There was an increasing focus on sparkling wine, abetted by the collapse of Longworth’s operations and the arrival of French Champagne makers.  The railroads had expanded greatly, allowing easy transport of wine out of the Finger Lakes.  These same rail lines brought a return commodity into the Finger Lakes — tourists — who came to sightsee, drink wine and tour the wine cellars.

By 1890 there were more than 24,000 acres of grapevines in the Finger Lakes.  Surprisingly though, 80% of these grapes were destined for the fresh grape market, not for wine.  Even so, New York was the second largest wine producing state in 1890 (after California).  Shockingly, three-quarters of the country’s sparkling wine production came from one spot — Keuka Lake.

If the future presented a pretty picture around the turn of the century, there was ample reason for pessimism too.  Prohibitionists had been active since the 1850’s and continued to gain ground.  In the early 1900’s Paul Garret began production of his national bestselling wines in Penn Yan, and the natives were thrilled.  But the move came only after Garrett was chased out of North Carolina by state prohibition (in 1908) and then had to flee Virginia, for the same reason.

Prohibition, the agricultural depression of the 1920’s, the Great Depression, World War II, the greater efficiency of California grape growers, and corporate takeovers nearly annihilated the Finger Lakes wine industry.  The introduction of hybrid grapes in the fifties brought limited prosperity, but only the passage of the Farm Winery Act in 1976 lit the slow fuse that would eventually bring real growth and recognition to the region.

“Circle of Vines: The Story of New York Wine” is not, of course, solely concerned with the Finger Lakes.  The Hudson Valley is a big part of the story, especially in the early years.  A chapter on Long Island lies near the end of the book, appropriately, since wine making there is so recent.  Most wine lovers will be intrigued by the story of Western New York and this amazing fact: New York’s 33,000 acres of vines there (along the Lake Erie shoreline) constitute the largest concentration of vines outside California.

This story of New York wine is not definitive, by any means.  How could it be, at less than 200 pages?  But Richard Figiel tells the story well.  You will not find a better short history of New York wine.

One also appreciates Figiel’s prose, nearly always clear, and sometimes transcendent, as in this wonderful sentence near the conclusion of the book:

“It is good to keep in mind that wine, for all its intricacies, is at heart a drink in the service of food, but wine has also invited and inspired a special kind of freed-up contemplation, a line of thinking that can explore geography, weave it into art and culture, drift into the future or back in time.”


© Douglas Hillstrom 2014