By contributing writer Joe Roberts
The gorgeous views and laid-back vibe of New York’s Finger Lakes region house one of the wine world’s worst-kept secrets: some of the best Riesling white wines in the world are being made there, from grapes grown along the shores of deep, narrow lakes carved out by retreating glaciers. Those lakes mitigate the effects of the area’s cool climate, much to the benefit of a slow-ripening grape like Riesling. Despite being a relative newcomer to the fine wine scene in global terms, wines from the Finger Lakes have regularly been garnering increased critical acclaim, and in some circles are being mentioned in the same breath as more established regions such as Austria and Germany.
One of the producers leading the quality charge in the area is Fox Run on Seneca Lake, which also is home to other celebrated Finger Lakes producers such as Hermann J. Wiemer winery and Anthony Road winery. In this interview, we talk with Fox Run Vineyards winemaker Peter Bell, who has been making wine in the Finger Lakes for a quarter of a century, crafting wines that helped to bring the region from nascent hopeful to head-turning standout. Bell also happens to have been one of the members of Wine4.me’s expert tasting panel, so he has a unique perspective on the wine world, and how the Wine4.Me app can help you to navigate it.
How did you get into winemaking as a profession?
Sometime in my mid-twenties, I took a wine appreciation course, after having become mildly interested in wine a decade or so earlier. It was not particularly well taught, in the context of what one can learn these days, but it was enough to hook me. I quickly realized that I needed to become a winemaker in order to find true professional happiness. I did a bunch of ambitious things thereafter to make that happen, including moving from downtown Toronto to rural New South Wales to earn a degree in Wine Science. That was the start of a cascade of events that landed me where I am now. We lived in four countries in one calendar year at one point, so there was a lot of stress involved.
Do you have a certain style or ideal consumer in mind when you’re making wine?
My ideal consumer thinks of Riesling most of the time, and it seems that there are actually quite a few people out there who fit that description. But more generally, our ideal consumers are those who ‘get’ cool climate wines and their wonderful affinity for food.
I make such a wide range of wines, from sparkling to table wine to fortified, that I could never aim for a defined style. But overall, I tend to favor wines in a pristine, fruit-expressive style, rather than ones that show the influence of microbes or other “hands-off” expressions of winemaking. I am not going to say anything about chasing “a sense of place,” because that phrase has become a tiresome cliché.
What do you like to drink (or not drink) to unwind?
Being the winemaker at Fox Run does not tend to wind me up, unless we are having a bad day on the bottling line; so the need to unwind is somewhat abstract to me. But I am subject to some end-of-day rituals. As soon as I start cooking (which I do almost every night), I pour a glass of wine and put on some music, if that doesn’t make my wife and the animals run away.
What ends up in the glass is kind of malleable. Sometimes, when I’ve been tasting Riesling all day, I want…what? A tall glass of Riesling! Maybe two! Other times, I crave Cabernet Franc, or good (i.e,. not stupidly hoppy) beer. My friend Ben and I celebrated his return to good health with a bottle of Blanc de blancs, and it was empty within about 15 minutes.
In my fantasy world, I would have unlimited access to good Fino Sherry, and there would be no consequences associated with drinking a whole bottle before dinner. That’s the wine I dream about. In fact, in that imaginary world, I might end up skipping dinner altogether, and eating some almonds and green olives and Manchego cheese with my sherry. Be still my heart!
In order to avoid portraying myself as a profligate wine drinker, I should mention other things I engage in that have a salutary effect: playing clawhammer banjo, reading the New Yorker, growing vegetables, and being with my close friends.
What wines and/or wine regions have you most excited as a wine drinker right now?
Sherry and Jerez, for reasons I touched upon already, though I have not been there since 1977. I see a lot of potential in Portugal, both with reds and whites; and Greece, for reds. Closer to home, I’ve tasted some excellent wines from Ohio, Michigan, and even New Jersey lately.
If you could make wine anywhere in the world besides the Finger Lakes right now, where would that be (and why)?
I could see myself having a lot of fun in Paso Robles, based on the vibe I get from the winemakers there, and the kinds of wine they are making. I’m intrigued by what is transpiring in the Okanagan Valley. I love Australia and Australians so much it’s not funny, but I don’t think it’s a good place to be making small quantities of fine wine these days, given the corporation-driven economics of the industry.
What’s the biggest change in the Finger Lakes wine scene since you began making wine there?
Where to begin? It’s been a quarter century since I started in the Finger Lakes. There has been a huge amount of progress both in viticulture and winemaking. Back then, [vineyard] canopy management was pretty darned sloppy in many cases, and a lot of the wine suffered from aroma defects and lack of varietal expression. But really, the most important change has been the ascendency of Riesling, the grape that has made us world famous.
Any thoughts or comments on the Wine4.Me app, and how it might help wine consumers?
When I hear that the single biggest driver of wine sales is the look of the label, I have to cringe. There has to be a better way to connect consumers with wines they are going to like! And here it is. Wine professionals often forget how intimidating wine buying is for most people, and this app cleverly guides wine lovers toward what they enjoy while simultaneously expanding their horizons.
Fox Run Vineyards Wine in the Wine4.Me App
More on the Finger Lakes Region
If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Joe Roberts is a writer in the greater Philadelphia area. His work has appeared in Playboy.com, Answers.com, PalatePress.com, Publix Grape Magazine, The Guardian, and Parade. He holds the Level 2 and Level 3 Certificates in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in England, the Certified Specialist of Wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators. Roberts was included among the top fifteen entries in IntoWine.com’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry for 2013, and his website received the Wine Blog Awards honor for Best Wine Blog in 2010. Follow him on Twitter at @1winedude.