Let me tell you, these guys were prepared.
When I arrived at Café St. John last night for the First Annual Finger Lakes Offline and Interactive Event, co-hosted by Bob Ross and Joe Moryl, I was presented with a media package laying out the history of the Finger Lakes, from their initial gouging out by retreating glaciers to the present, a rundown of the state of the region's wineries and a handy map for reference, along with a printed list of the night's wines in the order they were to be served, giving vital statistics on each of them. Everything but a slide show with laser-pointer, and I kept waiting for someone to dim the lights and launch into that, too. Given the usual free-for-all mayhem of our NY offlines, it was clear that there were some organizational geniuses at work here. It was very impressive.
Joe Moryl was the evening's ringmaster, introducing each of the wines and setting the pace, while the rest of us sat back and enjoyed the wines of a region right in our backyard that many of us (especially me) were deeply unfamiliar with. In attendance were our hosts Joe and Bob, Janet Ross, David Ross and Robin Bigelli, Joe Cz, John Sperr, Bernd Eschgfaller, Mike Bassman, Lisa Allen (who puts the 'Finger' in Finger Lakes) and myself, trying desperately to be vaguely social while silently urging my snail-like palate on to greater speed. Here is what I can decipher from my hurried scribblings...
We begin with a pair of bubblies.
Glenora Methode Champenoise Brut Sparkling Wine 1995 (Seneca, west side)(62% pinot noir, 38% chardonnay): Pale amber color; light nose, with some bready and appley hints, seems very lightly carbonated. Very light and vague in the mouth, fairly neutral in character, some light fruit, decently crisp acidity. A pleasant enough little sparkler. This is noted as a good QPR bubbly, selling for around $10.
Riverview Blanc de Blanc 1989 (100% chardonnay): Lighter in color, a pale wine; bready, yeasty hints mingle with a limestony mineral streak on the nose, this is less fruity, more stony/bready than the Glenora, light-bodied, with a hint of sweetness. This is one of John's wines, and if the snatches of conversation that filtered down from his end of the table hit my ears correctly it seems he thinks it's a bit past its prime, but I find its less overt fruit and slight austerity very pleasant; it has more character than the Glenora.
That under our belt, we move on to a trio of chardonnays.
Red Newt Cellars Chardonnay 1998 (Seneca, east side): Very pale, almost colorless. The program says that this is produced in the 'banana belt,' and several of us immediately catch hints of banana aroma, but shake it off and reboot our noses. Light vanilla and pear hints with an odd celeryish kind of greenness; in the mouth light to medium-bodied, fairly round in texture, a bit soft. Small. Could use a bit more zip, but the midpalate seems decent until a slightly bitter, flinty quality kicks in on the finish. Kind of inoffensive at first, but takes a decided turn for the worse. Next, please.
Treleaven Chardonnay Reserve 1997 (Cayuga, east side): Pale again, but a bit more color than the Red Gingrich; yah, here's some oak--toasty, buttery and vanillin notes dominate the nose, masking what's underneath. Oh, wait, here's some light pear and yellowfruity hints. Fairly low acid, round and soft, more toast and butterscotch flavors, just more oak than the light fruit can handle. Joe mentions that this is an attempt at a 'California-style' chardonnay, but the lightness of the fruit underneath the woodwork doesn't seem to reward that kind of approach.
Hermann J. Wiemer Chardonnay Reserve 1995 (Seneca, west side): Yes, it's pale too; very light nose, but what's there is spritzy and flinty, with hints of yellowfruit and light toastiness. This has a bit more spine than the other two, the oak is much more balanced than the Treleaven, still fairly light in body, with a pleasant toasty finish. If I had to choose one of these chards this would be the one, but this doesn't really do much for me either.
After the not-exactly-spectacular showing of the chardonnays, we're all happy to see some rieslings moving our way.
Lakewood Vineyards Dry Riesling 1998 (Seneca, west side): Pale, pale straw color; very distinctive peachy notes drift up from the glass, hints of honey underneath. A sip, ahhh, here we go, back in business. Medium-crisp, with nice peachy/honeysuckle-tinged tangy fruit. After the chards, this is a blessing. Very pleasant, and did I mention peachy? A friendly, fairly effusive young riesling.
Heron Hill Dry Riesling 1997 (Keuka, west side): H20-colored. Nose is a bit edgier, less fruity than the Lakewood, wet stones and gardenia. In the mouth it's got some nice steeliness to it, crisp acidity and restrained fruit, a very smooth package. Blind, I might guess Alsace. Not terribly complex at this point, but there's some potential here, and I'd be curious to check back with this one a few years down the road.
A Wiemer semi-vertical...
Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling 1994 (Seneca, west side): Pale, pale; light but floral banana-stone-honey nose, almost gewürzish, that opens up a bit with some swirling. Medium-crisp in the mouth, with nice tart green-appley fruit and a touch of sweetness. Very nice.
Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling 1998 (Seneca, west side): Deep garnet... oh, no, strike that, turns out it's pale, pale as well; vivid nose, white honey and light tropical hints, and is that a touch of botrytis? Well-balanced and nicely crisp, more complex layers of flavor than many of the others. Tasty. I would buy both of these wines.
Somewhere in there there was a Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 1996 (Keuka, west side) and a Standing Stone Dry Riesling 1997 (Seneca, west side), but I was too slow and missed them. Bad slow palate! Bad!
A change of pace...
Standing Stone Vineyard Dry Gewürztraminer 1998 (Seneca, east side): A profoundly non-colored wine. Mmm... dig that gewürzy nose--rose petal & honeysuckle, very nice, floral and rich-smelling. In the mouth it's a bit round, a bit soft, but full of light gewürz fruit. Turns slightly earthy on the finish, but that's a quibble. A light food-friendly gewürz, lacking any oily or unctuous qualities.
Our whites now are ended. Joe clears the decks with a bit of trepidation and starts somewhat sheepishly passing the reds down the line. Bassman has a Cal cab standing by in case of emergency.
First up is Fox Run Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve 1997 (Seneca, west side): Introduced warmly ("I wish there were better pinots around, but this is the one I found..."), this wine lives up to expectations immediately; weird, slightly funky strawberry jam/mushroom/dark oak nose, with a hint of sulfury stink thrown in for good measure. Thin in the mouth, fairly unpleasant, with simple jammy berry fruit and odd other notes that I can't figure out--sulfur? Oak? Odd and disjointed, with small dry tannins. Lisa has a taste, announces "this is the first time tonight I've felt obliged to rinse my glass" and does so, vigorously. That pretty much sums it up.
Cautiously, we sample the next red, a Fox Run Vineyard Lemberger 1997 (Seneca, west side): Okay, nice deep red color, so far so good; swirl a bit, a sniff... oboy. This has a real sulfurous burnt-match aroma dominating the dark black cherry fruit underneath. Someone says "after this, the pinot tastes good," but I'm trying to give it a chance. Dark black cherry flavors, decent concentration, but a bit limpid and low-acid and I can't get past the stinky sulfur. Finishes short, with fine tannins. Not good, but I'd take it over the pinot. I think.
With fairly diminished expectations, we continue.
Anthony Road Cabernet Franc 1998 (Seneca, west side): medium-dark garnet; okay, the nose isn't bad, dark cherry/berry notes with hints of pineyness, aromatically reticent, but kinda nice. In the mouth it's a bit of a surprise, plenty of rich, tart dark berry fruit, smoky cran-cherry flavors, nicely balanced with some good acidity and a medium-length smoky finish. Lisa (no lover of this grape) declares it "pretty darn good for a cab franc," and we finally have a quality red on our hands.
We proceed to the next two with renewed optimism.
Red Newt Cellars Merlot 1998 (Seneca, west side): Deep garnet color, darkest red so far; hmmm... there's more of that burnt-match scent, but it's not overwhelming, and there's also some dark red fruit and some smoky oakiness, but overall the nose is fairly reticent. Tastes dark and monolithic, kind of a wall of dense but simple red fruit. Drinkable.
Standing Stone Vineyard Pinnacle 1997 (Seneca, west side)(60% cab sauv, 20% each merlot & cab franc): Medium-dark garnet; ooh, I like this nose--tobaccoey hints above dark red fruit, bit of a leafy quality, perhaps some dark vegetation, but kind of interesting. Nice layers of dark red fruit and earthy flavors and especially good balance, nice grip in the mouth. My favorite of the reds.
By now we're all gasping for breath, having stuffed ourselves silly and fingered 16 or so wines in the process, so an executive decision is made at the highest levels to jettison the two semi-sweet wines that were to come next and to proceed straight on to the real sweeties before our palates die of exhaustion and/or inebriation.
Anthony Road Vignoles Late Harvest 1998 (Seneca, west side)(12.5% RS): pale (but not quite pale, pale); nice spry nose--apricot & peach hints, a nicely balanced wine, pleasantly sweet and zingily acidic. Goes down smoothly; I like this much more than the '95 that I had at the blind syrah offline a few months back, which seemed much heavier in style, darker in color, and not as easy to sip. This one is friendlier, and goes very well with my tart. My raspberry tart, I mean.
Swedish Hill Vignoles Late Harvest 1997 (Cayuga, west side)(20.5% RS): Finally some hue! Light orangy-amber color; mandarin orange hints on the nose; very sweet and thick--there is some good acidity here, but it's working on a parallel line with the sugar, and the result is a somewhat shrill goopy wine. Rich pineappricotty flavors, but I can only take this in small doses, and it's a bit wearing.
Well, my goodness. So that was the lot. Some hits, some misses, but for me a valuable experience. I feel like I have gone from zero to sixty in no time flat in terms of knowing a bit about a wine region that I had been almost clueless about. Well, perhaps zero to twenty, but twenty is far, far better than where I was before. We all look at our watches and realize we've been sitting and Fingering ourselves for four hours on a school night, so we hastily pack up and make our farewells and offer giant thanks to Bob and Joe for putting this all together. John passes us a mystery bottle for the missing Andrew Scott, Joe packs us off with the remains of Lisa's new favorite cab franc, and we grab the train downtown.