It's one case where wine and lawmaking do mix: A recent Supreme Court ruling may change how New York State wine lovers get their wine and how local wineries sell it.
In May the Supreme Court decided that in New York and Michigan --- two states being sued for unfair trade practices --- both interstate and instate wine shipping should follow the same rules. As it stands in New York, only wines shipped from instate wineries (or from out-of-state wineries that have legally established themselves within the state, although, so far, there aren't any) have the right to ship directly to consumers.
Now the state has two choices: allow all shipments of wine from any state or stop the mailing of wine altogether. That could mean trouble for most wineries in the Finger Lakes, especially the smaller ones that rely mostly on direct and mail sales. Luckily, Governor Pataki announced he is in support of shipping wine --- providing a reliable system can be put into place to stop underage wine buying.
It might not be quite what a wine lover wants to hear, i.e., that it's not a sure thing, but it is a step in the right direction. If all goes well, consumers and small wineries all over the country will benefit.
The dream of getting unique and different wines without major travel may finally become a reality. This is true for non-New Yorkers who want wines from Long Island, the Hudson Valley, or the Finger Lakes. Finger Lakes wineries like Bloomer Creek, Ravines, Red Newt, Shalestone, or Silver Thread, as well as many others, would benefit --- as will wineries and wine lovers in Washington, Texas, and California. And although we Rochesterians are lucky to be so close to the Finger Lakes, we should not ignore all those other great but small wineries across the country.
Believe it or not, even California has areas that are relatively unknown in relation to the "big picture" of wine regions. We may all know the Napa and Sonoma wine regions or even the Santa Barbara region made famous by the recent film Sideways, which has led to the increased popularity of Pinot Noir, but have you heard of Carmel Valley wines?
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a place where thousands of people go to visit each year. (Remember when Clint Eastwood was its mayor?) If you go, hopefully someone in town will suggest you sample some of the pretty fine wines being made in the valley.
That someone might be Michael Burke, manager of one of the best cheese shops in the country. Burke, who has been with The Cheese Shop (831-625-2272, www.cheeseshopcarmel.com) for 32 years, is also chief wine buyer and a very good winemaker himself. His Chardonnay, which he produces with Dave Askew under the White Barn label, is serious and well balanced. It's a wine you can sip on its own or with some good cheese and bread.
Burke helped me taste some of the best wine being produced in the area. I even met some winemakers who --- no surprise --- were passionate about what they do. They reminded me of all those other passionate people in the Finger Lakes wine region who care so much about the land, the wine, the people.
One of the winemakers I met was John Saunders, who, with his wife Jana, runs Boëté winery (831-659-7563, www.boetewinery.com). When I visited Saunders on his 14-acre winery (seven of which are planted) he was out in the vineyard, pulling off extra leaves and clusters of grapes to help the grapes get more sun and thus intensify flavor. He was doing this work himself under the hot, valley sun. "This," he said, "is something I want to do for the rest of my life."
And his wines show his dedication. He makes two wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cabernet Franc. Both are rich, flavorful big reds. Like most California wines, Saunders' wines are fine to drink on their own. But both were also quite subtle and would not overpower food on the table.
Bill Parson's Parsonage Village Vineyard (831-659-2215, www.parsonagewine.com) is just below Boëté. They actually share some grapes. Although Parson's lot is smaller, he grows more grape varieties. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, he has a good amount of Syrah, some Malbec, Merlot, even some Petit Verdot --- all three of the latter, along with the Cabernet, are traditional Bordeaux blending grapes. He even grows a little Grenache.
Parsons, like Saunders, also makes rich and wonderfully well-crafted wines. Interestingly, although Saunders and Parsons are right next door to each other, their wines are very different. They even differ in their philosophy over how much water to use in irrigation. One prefers to allow his grapes to drink and be happy while the other wants his grapes to be in constant struggle for water so that they come out fighting. It makes them edgier. In the end, both philosophies produce extraordinary wines.
At Parsonage, Parsons let me taste some Petit Verdot straight out of the barrel. Although a wine is seldom made from Verdot alone --- it is usually a blending grape --- this Verdot showed a lot of promise on its own. It's very aromatic and almost flowery. I visited Parsons at the same time as two winemakers from Texas, Richard and Bunny Becker. Becker's Claret and especially his Viognier, both produced under the Becker Vineyards (830-644-2681, www.beckervineyards.com) label, were quite good, dispelling any preconceived prejudices against wines from Texas. (By the way, Texas has just passed a law allowing interstate shipping.)
Whereas Parsons and Saunders produce about 1200 cases of wines --- they are small wineries relying mostly on the winemakers, their families, and a handful of employees --- Galante, another Carmel Valley winery, is a bit larger. It has 55 acres of grapes and produces about 6000 cases of wine a year (compared to some wineries that produce hundreds of thousands).
Winemaker Greg Vita oversees operations at Galante (831-659-7620, www.galantevineyards.com). Although Vita makes some Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, he mostly concentrates on Cabernet Sauvignon --- actually, he makes three. Rancho Galante is a blend of different clones of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape; it is versatile and easy drinking. The Red Rose Hill is made from a small-berried grape that produces a lot of tannins that allow this wine to age with grace. You can easily be enjoying this one in 2025. The third one, Black Jack Pasture, is made from a clone that has a large berry and therefore is a huge, juicy wine that can age, but it is also quite drinkable shortly after bottling. It is one of those wines you can enjoy by itself or with a slab of perfectly marbled Prime rib-eye steak. (What else could stand up to all that flavor?)
Last, but not at all the least, is a small winery across the hills from Carmel Valley, De Tierra (831-484-2557), which has a total 5 1/2 acres --- two of Chardonnay, three of Merlot and one half dedicated to Cabernet Franc. Tom Russell, an organic farmer, began his winery because he liked to drink and collect wine and so decided to try to grow and make his own.
With his wife, Carol, and a winemaker/friend from Italy, Lucio Romero, he, too, produces some incredible wine. His Chardonnay ranks up there with some of California's best, and the Merlot is a great example of what this varietal can taste like when someone produces it with care. This definitely is not one of those grassy, green-peppery, stewed Merlots that most of us get by the glass in some restaurant trying to be au courant.
It takes a good amount of time and effort to make a good bottle of wine in general, but De Tierra vines get a lot of additional hands-on coddling, plus they're all organically grown. This requires even more care, such as watching for mildewed leaves or fruit that needs to be thrown out, which in turn, increases the cost of production.
Unfortunately for us, most of these boutique wines are not yet available to the New York consumer. Of course, the same, sadly, can be said about a Californian wanting to ship home a case or two from one of the Finger Lakes' finest. But if the legislature in Albany can get things moving in the right direction, wine lovers everywhere can afford to get some very special wines.