Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers Part 1

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I did a lot of this in 2017, and really enjoyed it in large part due to the 2017 Tastemakers

I realize I’ve never fully explained on Good Vitis why I started the blog, but this post is evidence that it’s been working. In 2013 and 2014 I was able to intern at a Virginia winery and, between the two vintages, participate in every stage of the winemaking process at least once. Following that fantastic experience, I looked for ways to remain engaged with the industry to continue my education, and in the Fall of 2016 started Good Vitis with the hope that it would become successful enough to attract samples, industry connections and event invitations through which my education could continue.

Fast forward to the end of 2017 and there’s evidence that with building it, they’ve come. Samples, event invitations and winery visit invitations have rolled in at a decent pace and dramatically expanded the exposure I’ve had to new wine, new experiences and new knowledge. The most enjoyable benefit of the blog’s success, though, is the people it’s allowed me to meet. I’ve made some great friends, and, for the purposes of this post, met some people who have taught me a lot about wine and influenced my palate.

These are Good Vitis’ Top Tastemakers of 2017, meaning they are the people who most influenced how I think about and approach wine. They also happen to be pretty cool people, and all produce wine that I can’t recommend enough. Even more than that, they are people I suggest visiting if you’re in their neck of the woods. What follows, listed in no particular order, is Part 1: short profiles of three people, beginning with a personal introduction and then their responses to my questionnaire sent to each.

Erica Orr

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Having been a big fan of Baer Winery for a long time (her 2010 Arctos claimed the #8 spot on my Most Memorable Wines of 2017), I knew Erica through her wine before I ever met her. When I had the 2010 Arctos this Summer, I posted a review on social media and then featured it in a post. Erica reached out to thank me for the review, and we started a correspondence about Baer wine and, when I learned about her chenin blanc project, that wonderful white varietal as well.

In August, when I was home in Seattle, I visited her office where we talked shop and I learned about the full breadth of her endeavors, which include both winemaking and enology consulting. Her passion is obvious, knowledge expansive, zeal contagious, and wine incredible. The walls of her office are filled with maps of wine regions from around the world, places she’s explored on foot. If you follow her on social media, you see the self-exploration effort is pretty routine for her, actually, as she shares what she’s tasting. Erica never seems to rest, and she’s always learning. Like, always. She’s an inspiration for me in this sense, motivating me to make sure I’m not relying on what I think I already know. She puts a lot into her work, and it comes through in the bottle.

  1. Winery and role: Orr Wine Lab, enologist; winemaking consultant for Baer Winery, Guardian Cellars, Orr Wines.
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 19.
  3. Previous wineries/roles: enologist at Rudd Estate; harvest intern at Domaine Dujac, Cain Vineyard, Yering Station, Corison Winery.
  4. What got you into the wine business: I randomly met winemaker Aaron Pott at a bar in San Francisco in 1998 and he told me about his experiences working at wineries around the world and the winemaking program at Davis.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: Education and formal training are super important but so is learning by doing.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: “A classic style for the modern table” is my back-label text – I want to be literate in the great wines of the world while making authentically delicious wines that are true to the place they are grown.
  7. Accomplishments you’re most proud of: My chenin blanc poured by the glass at Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle and Baer Ursa making Wine Spectator’s Top 100 twice.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve):  I want to learn more about how wine changes over time especially in terms of determining when a bottling should be released.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I hope to be crafting and tasting delicious wines together with colleagues and friends I admire.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: These are wines that changed my life: 1995 Cain Five, 2010 Merriman Columbia Valley Chenin blanc and 2007 DRC Batard-Montrachet.

Rick Rainey

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When I first met Rick, it was late afternoon on a cool, windy and clear day at his winery up the hill from Lake Seneca. We rolled up in our car and there he was, a vision in shorts, a fleece and boots. #SoooFLX. My friend and I were in pants and sweaters, with jackets within arms’ length reach. #SoNotFLX. Over the following three hours, Rick dropped serious vineyard and winemaking knowledge, regaled us with numerous funny stories, and poured killer rieslings and pinots.

As I wrote in the post about the visit, Rick and crew have captured the Finger Lakes – and Central New York – in a bottle, somehow infusing the people and culture of the region into the juice. I only spent a year living in Syracuse, but I could recognize it, and it’s something special. I’ve lived in four states and five countries, and nowhere did I experience such a strong sense of camaraderie among communities.

This is partly because the community extends to include the land; there’s a real commitment to it in Central New York regardless of what one does or where in the region they live. Forge Cellars is trying to produce the best Finger Lakes wines they can, and they’re helping to strengthen the community – and its connection to the land – along the way.

  1. Winery and role: Forge Cellars, Partner and General Manager
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 23
  3. Previous wineries/roles: My day job is working for an importer distributor. In that role I have been a sales person, a brand manager (French buyer), Director of Sales Education and currently a Sales Manager. Previously I worked in the restaurant trade in Philadelphia and for Chat. Lafeyette Reneau in the Finger Lakes.
  4. What got you into the wine business: The challenge. History, science, culture, joy all wrapped up in one product.
  5. Why you choose the route/role you did: The route – because the wine business in the U.S. was so young 20 years ago nobody really knew what requirements you should have. It allowed anyone with passion in. The role – at Forge I am interested in all facets of the business. I enjoy what happens in the cellar, I like guiding the strategy in the vineyards and I even like looking at how we can be a better business. It makes sense that I am the “general” manager then.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: I will borrow it from Louis’ [Barruol] father “first you have discipline then you have artistry.” I feel like my job is to have an eye always towards the discipline so that we can all be as creative as possible.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: Starting a winery in an emerging region from nothing with little financial resources and making it to the WS Top 100 five vintages into this amazing journey. Believe it or not, I also enjoy when writers come to the winery, taste the wines and “get it.” That truly makes me happy.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): Everywhere. The joy of this is that you can improve and must improve every day. For instance, I moved a hose hook this weekend down 12 inches because I noticed Alex (who works in the cellar) had to struggle to put the hose back. If she struggles then perhaps she doesn’t put it back, it doesn’t go back then maybe somebody trips and on and on. I enjoy the constant evolution.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: Exactly what I am doing now. I hope we have a stable winery that challenges us but brings everyone joy that works there. We are very lucky to be in such a dynamic place to make wine.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Raveneau Chablis (I have a six pack in my office…it is calling to me), St. Cosme Cote-Rotie or Hermitage and Chateau Yquem.

Lisa Hinton

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Lisa is the winemaker at Old Westminster Winery, which I’ve raved about twice on these pages (most recently here). I’ve had a lot of fun spending time at the winery where I’ve witnessed that Old Westminster really is a family effort focused on putting Maryland on the world wine map.

Maryland isn’t an easy place to make wine. The climate is highly varied, both in the sense of microclimates and weather from year-to-year. Drew does an impressive job of bringing quality fruit to Lisa, and Lisa turns it into great wine. When I tell people I could pour them a glass of Old Westminster wine blind and they’d recognize the superb quality without knowing where to point geographically, let’s just say most don’t believe me. For those with whom I’ve been able to do this, I haven’t been wrong once. With more consumer awareness, I know Old Westminster can go from producing world class wine, which they already do, to making a name for identifiable Maryland terroir as well.

A lot of this, obviously, is due to Lisa’s talents. When you witness Lisa running the winery, it’s clear why the wine comes out so good. I normally wonder around the crush pad with Drew, and I feel like we’re a little lost sometimes – “hey Lisa, um, where’s the franc?” Indulging us, she yells out a tank number, but doesn’t really break stride as she moves around with a purpose. She knows what she wants to do, what she’s doing and what she needs to do next, and she’s doing this while marshaling a crew of cellar hands, interns and groupies who, like me, flock to the winery. It’s sort of like watching Chris Paul run a basketball team: Lisa can do it all.

  1. Winery and Role: Winemaker & Owner of Old Westminster Winery
  2. Number of years in the wine business: 7
  3. Previous Wineries/Roles: My siblings and I founded Old Westminster fresh out of college in 2011, so most of my experience is there. I also had the honor of working as a cellar hand at Patz & Hall and Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, CA.
  4. What got you into the wine business: In 2009, family discussions began on “how to preserve our farm and put the land to work.” We were captivated by the idea of planting a vineyard. We all agreed that growing and making wine that reflects our land was an exciting proposition. The ensuing year was full of homework: reading, traveling, listening, planning, and tasting. We sought out producers from around the world who were making noteworthy wines. We quickly identified what we believed to be the common threads of success: a good vineyard site, thoughtful farming practices, attention to detail in the cellar, and a ceaseless desire to improve. In the fall of 2010, our research prompted a trip to the west coast. One spectacular evening while sitting on a terrace overlooking the vineyards of Saint Helena, we decided to chase our collective dream wholeheartedly. Upon returning to Maryland, that dream quickly materialized into a mission and a plan: To craft distinctive wines with a sense of place.
  5. Why you chose this role: As a chemist by education, my role of winemaker developed out of my skill set – conducting experiments, being thoughtful, and working really hard. I get to use my education while pursuing my dream to produce world class wines in Maryland.
  6. One sentence description of your approach: My goal is to produce balanced wines that reflect vineyard, variety, and vintage while experimentally challenging “the norms” of winemaking.
  7. Accomplishment you’re most proud of: My favorite achievement to this point was having our Petillant Naturel Albarino featured in Punch. I also take a lot of pride in being a successful female in a competitive, male-dominated industry.
  8. Your blind spots (where you need to improve): I tend to get so excited about a new innovation that I change too many variables at once. I need to learn patience in order to conduct more beneficial experiments.
  9. Where and what do you want to be doing in ten years: I want to be a thought leader in wine production by creating Maryland wines that stand among the best in the world.
  10. Top-3 bucket list wines: Wow, this is a hard one – I just genuinely enjoy tasting any low manipulation wines from around the world.

Part 2 of Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers will be posted the week between Christmas and New Years.

2017’s Most Memorable Wines

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Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

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#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

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#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.

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#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

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#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.

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#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

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#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.

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#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.

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#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

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#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

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#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

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#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Forge Cellars and the Terroir of the Finger Lakes

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The Winery (picture credit: forgecellars.com)

Forge Cellars doesn’t have a sign on the road indicating where visitors should turn. It doesn’t have a sign at or on the winery. You’re supposed to just find it. And you’re supposed to be happy to have found it. And then after you’re there you’re supposed to be thankful for finding it. Well, we found it. We enjoyed it. And we’re thankful we did.

We were told that the majority of negative feedback they receive at Forge is about their the lack of signage. They’re not hard to find, it’s stupid. And the absence of location pointers helps keep unseasoned and uninformed tourists (read: annoying and disrespectful porch pounders (no offense)) from stumbling onto the incredibly cool facility and turning the place into a tourist trap and bachelorette destination, and ruining it for the rest of us. So, thankfully, no signs.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at Forge is the view:

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And then you’re likely to walk to the front of the building, noticing this:

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Turning, then, to see this:

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The tasting table

Then Rick Rainey greets you. No pretense, no bullshit, just a huge commitment to finding the best vineyard sites, working with his partner Louis Barroul of Cheateau de Saint Cosme to make stellar riesling and pinot noir, intelligently designing and building a winery, giving back and adding substance to the region, and treating his guests to very fun tastings. Tastings require a reservation, and Rick does them very purposefully: everyone sits at the same table with each other, and the group has one conversation. This includes any media types, even the big ones, industry people, winemakers – everyone. They taste with the rest of us. It’s a tasting for wine people, and Rick makes no distinctions after that.

I was first introduced to Forge by my friend Drew Baker of Old Westminster Winery in Maryland (another self-professed soil geek like Rick), who brought a bottle of Forge’s Classique riesling to a wine dinner. Later, on the strength of that bottle, when I collected bottles for the Good Vitis Grand America Riesling Tasting, I emailed Forge soliciting contributions. Rick ended up responding after the tasting, and apologized for not getting to the email sooner. When we sat down with him months later, he told me that he rarely bothers to send out samples, especially to people who haven’t already visited. “Get on a plane or in your car and come out here. You can’t adequately appreciate wine without meeting the people, experiencing the land and spending time in the winery.” I heard the message: you were never getting samples. “But now that we know each other, who knows, I might be open to it.” Again, the message: we’re cool now.

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Rick leading us down the rabbit hole of Finger Lakes riesling

Rick facilitated an amazing tasting with a group of 9 of us who didn’t know each other. Across the table were a couple from Connecticut. Next to them was a man, who had Finger Lakes orchards for decades but had recently converted them to wine grapes, and his wife. Wrapping around the far end was a group of three, and then my friend and I set next to Rick. We were there for three hours, and once we went through the line up Rick pushed the open bottles towards the center of the table and asked people to hang out and help finish them (it was 7pm on a Friday – get home time – so he had to have been having a good time). The conversation was high level, geeky, friendly and collegial, and lubricated by Forge’s wine and Rick’s entertaining stories and anecdotes.

Forge goes for about as simple a winemaking approach as they can, but they don’t advertise it, and they certainly don’t boast about it. They use seriously neutral oak (8-10 years old, usually), with many barrels coming in the 500 and 600 liter sizes. All the barrels are sourced from France by Barroul. Sulfur is quite minimal and other additives are eschewed. Rick is the vineyard guy. They’ve recently planted 8 new acres by the winery with a high density of around 2,100 vines per acre. They also source from 13 or 14 other spots near the winery. Residual sugar in the rieslings are kept low, usually no more than 2-3 grams per liter (though they taste bone dry), and the pinots are made largely from Pommard clones.

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A recent barrel shipment from Cosme

To Rick’s credit, he was right about his samples point: they’re doing something special at Forge and the experience of being there drives it home. Rick spoke several times about their commitment to the region, and within the region finding the best sites for the kind of wines they want to produce. But that’s typical winery speak. It was everything else that followed that made it clear how Forge is really about the region. He talked at length about the people of the Finger Lakes, its economic history and the role a revitalizing wine industry is playing in helping some of the poorest counties in New York State stay afloat while bringing smart people to the area who are dedicated to helping it succeed and expanding what it has to offer its residents and visitors. Our fellow taster who owned vineyards added his own thoughts on this, largely driving the argument that the wine industry was bringing jobs and smart people to the region, all for the better.

Forge wines don’t just represent what Rick does in the Vineyard and Barroul does in the winery, they also reflect the trials and tribulations of the region and its businesses, families and individuals who are its fabric. The Finger Lakes and Central New York, which has an important place in my heart from the time I spent there for graduate school, has a long history of tough times and tough people. These are estimably down-to-Earth types with an almost spiritual commitment to harmonizing with their land, an unforgiving land whose climate toughens the skin and head and rewards those who treat it with respect. As cheesy as it sounds, Forge’s wines have a little something extra, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that its terroir includes these more human elements.

The first wine that Rick poured was the 2015 Classique riesling, which is a blend of multiple vineyards meant to be their gateway bottle and the one distributed most widely. At $19, it is an exceptional riesling and a great entry to the Forge lineup, offering notes of apricot, nectarine, Spanish almond, parsley and lime zest. The body was polished and lush, but offered balanced acidity.

The 2015 Leidenfrost Vineyard Dry Riesling is a step up at $24. The mineral-driven palate boasts flavors that are wild when put together in a riesling, boasting orange zest, raspberry, saline and apricot, finishing with a kick of smoked white pepper.

Sniffed blind, I would’ve called the 2015 Lower Caywood Vineyard Dry Riesling a chenin blanc from Savennieres. The palate offered a big glycerin sensation (not unlike some Savennieres, either) with big stone fruits and deep, deep minerality driving serious depth.

Next was the 2015 Sawmill Creek Vineyard, which was very ripe and dense. Rick believes it’s the most ageworthy riesling in the program from the vintage, and was best able to handle the larger barrels. The nose is powerful, almost sweet, while the palate offers a big structure and a nice amount of red fruits, which is a wonderful discovery in this varietal. The Sawmill is a bit of a fist in a velvet glove kind of wine, and I really liked it.

The best riesling, however, was the 2014 Les Allies. Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day.

We then moved on to the 2016 rose of pinot noir, which was a minuscule production of 85 cases. The wine saw 16 hours of skin contact, so this is no small animal. The nose is big on crushed berries, and the palate has a real captivating presence and density. It’s a sizable rose, but not heavy. The texture and weight are the real selling points on this one, and I’m told it sells out very quickly.

The penultimate wine was the 2015 Classique pinot noir that, like the Classique riesling, is meant to be an entry pinot. It goes far beyond entry, with a brilliant, high toned classic pinot nose of red fruits and baking spices. On the palate it’s more savory, herbaceous and spicy with a small dose of baking spice on the back end. Burgundian in style, it delivers great finesse and bright acid. A very impressive pinot for the price.

We finished with the 2014 Les Allies pinot noir. My oh my. These vines are planted in shale. The nose is dirty and fungal, and the fruit is dark. The palate boasts big minerals and a nice dose of smoke. The fruit is dark here as well, and it’s just ever so slightly toasty. There’s a fungal streak, but overall this is a mineral-driven wine for those with patience. My closing note was “very good.”

The entire experience at Forge was impressive, from the views at the winery, to the winery itself, to the way the wines capture the region, to the people and, I think above all else, to the seamlessness with which the effort meshes with its home in the Finger Lakes. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle, capturing its toughness, its beauty and its tranquility. I went into the visit with nothing other than a taste of one of their wines a year or two ago and Rick’s lackluster email habits shaping my expectations, and came away with the notion that Forge is among the most exciting wineries I’ve come across in America, even though they purposefully remain hard to find and generally eschew the spotlight. I also came away with a case of their wine and a desire to visit again next year when I assuredly will need more.