Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Lenndevours on James Molesworth and the Winemaker's Quandary

Lenn Thompson on James Molesworth
I was going to write an entire column about Molesworth's recent take on the Finger Lakes and Riesling. But my friend, Lenn Thompson did it before me and better than I could have. Like him, I feel higher scores were merited. His rant is worth every second.


The Winemaker's Quandry
However, there is something here that I am very keen on.

Wrote James Molesworth: "Within New York state, the Finger Lakes has quality Riesling in the palm of its hand, but seems intent on tinkering with a hodgepodge of varieties, including reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir that rarely achieve good ripeness and varietal character in upstate New York. That lack of focus keeps holding the region back."

And this is where you come to the winemaker's dilemma. In essence, Mr. Molesworth is 100% correct. If you live in Burgundy, do you make anything other than good to great Pinot Noir? Why else would you? If you planted in Champagne, why would you make anything but Champagne? Yet there are a hand full of people who grow Chardonnay, and a few other varieties in Burgundy. But as time has marched on, more and more landowners and vineyard managers have moved toward Pinot. The region has a good reputation and carries along the vintner in a rising swell of promotion, media coverage, good ratings, and ultimately sales. Burgundy is the epitome of such a region. So is Alsace or Champagne.

Any smart winemaker from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, Champagne, etc. would tell you the same thing. However, the big, daunting red is the Moby Dick of winemaking, and in it's shadow every winemaker is Ahab. Don't let them lie to you. If most winemakers had their druthers, they would live in Bordeaux, or Chile, or Napa, and be chasing the great big red wine like American writers want to write the Great American Novel. It looms over them like a giant mountain or a tall, good looking stranger. And in the region there are a handful of wonderful reds - some of which I just reviewed.

However, the thing that holds them back is the same thing that makes them successful. Their diversity is what supports them - their blush wines, their fruit wines, their red wines and dessert wines, keep the wine trails flowing and growing with hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer. This is the other winemaker's quandary. How can I make the wines I want to make (or should make) when I have to make a certain number of wines to keep people coming in and out of the door? Robert Mondavi didn't make all that money selling high-end Cabernet Sauvignon - he made it selling inexpensive chardonnay and white zinfandel. These wineries need to keep visitors coming. The region is destined to have its share of wineries who will sell pink blush to their visitors - because those visitors like it.

However, without a few higher scores from Mr. Molesworth, and all the other wine critics, the wineries cannot get the wine distributors they need to sell their products in far off markets. Thus they must rely more on blushes, etc. to support their staffs, vineyards, etc. This is the same problem plaguing many eastcoast winemakers.

THE FINGER LAKES ARE 10-20 YEARS AWAY FROM BEING ONE OF THE GREAT WINE REGIONS OF THE WORLD. If over the next 10-20 years, more and more of the vineyards start switching to Riesling (which is in great demand) - the Finger Lakes can join Napa and Sanoma as one of the great and notable wine regions of the world.

I agree with both. Lenn is right - there are at least a few wines worth of a 90 in the Finger Lakes. Or on the Island for that matter. Agree with Mr. Molesworth - the region lacks focus. It is not his job to focus the region or champion something that is not yet ready for prime time.

Greatness hates diversity. Singleness of purpose is everything. The Renaissance Man is dead. Do something focused and do it well. That is what Mr. Molesworth is telling the region - and I hate to say it - he is not wrong. In fact, he is very much correct. But he, and wine rating community (lets not lay this at poor Mr. Molesworth's feet solely - also it must be pointed out that Mr. Molesworth was not stingy in the least - he handed out many scores in the mid- to high-80s), are more a part of it than Mr. Molesworth lets on. No great region became so without a champion or two.

Who will step up? Which winemaker? Which critic?