Saturday, April 23, 2011

Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery

Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery by John C. Hartsock is a new book about what it's like to own and work at a winery. Though it takes place in the Finger Lakes, its story, I can assure you, is transferable. Starting a winery is never about amassing a fortune. In fact, the most common traits among wineries, is that they are not infact virtual ATMs. It's more about the passion the owners and winemakershave for their craft and industry.

In 1998, Gary and Rosemary Barletta purchased seven acres of land on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. It was the perfect place to establish a vineyard, and the Barlettas immediately began to plant their vines and build the winery about which they had dreamed for years. John C. Hartsock covers all the topics one expects, like winemaking, the harsh realities of business plans, vineyard pests, brutal weather conditions, producing the first vintage, to greeting enthusiastic visitors on a vineyard tour. In fact Long Point won a gold medal from the American Wine Society for a Cabernet Franc.

I am thrilled that this book is out. Anything that promotes New York, or any kind of local wine, is alright in my book. However, it goes far beyond that. It's a wonderful read. There is nothing like the first hand expereinces Gary and Rosemry relate in the business of making wine. From the hardships of planting and vineyard management, to the hilarity of reading about Gary pulling bottles of wine from table tops in a restaurant, spurned by the thought that he has sold wine wholesale without the appropriate license, and the resulting shocked customers.

The book is written by John C. Hartsock who has worked as a staff reporter for United Press International and various newspapers, including the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle. His freelance work has appeared in Audubon and the San Francisco Examiner. He resides in Homer, New York, in the Finger Lakes region, and he teaches communication studies at SUNY Cortland.

This is the second book about Finger Lakes wineries. Evan Dawson's Summer in a Glass is a much bigger, overview of winemaking in the Finger Lakes. Where Dawson's book is a macroview of the region, Hartsock's book is a down and dirty portait of winery life and it's cyclical nature. Both books are great reads, and one does not proclude the other. They are in fact complimentary. When visiting the Finger Lakes, you should either read both books before you go, or buy the books within the region, and bring them home with you.

I interviewed John, here's the interview:
a. How did you get together with Long Point?

A number of things came together for me with Long Point. I had kicked around the idea of doing a book on a Finger Lakes winery for a couple of years before deciding on Long Point. One thing I wanted to do was make sure there was a strong human interest element. I didn’t want it to be only a book about wine, but a book about the people who struggle through the course of the year to make wine happen. To me it’s that interaction I found fascinating. One thing that intrigued me about the Barlettas was that they were baby boomers who had raised their family and were, as I say in the book, “on the other side of the second half of their lives.” When the empty nest hits, that can be a bit existentially daunting: What do you do with your life now? Their answer: Start a winery. I saw that as courageous and even dignifying, kind of like Zorba the Greek erupting into dance when things are down. Another part is that the winery had just started. It was a young winery. The Barlettas were very much struggling. And you saw the vines maturing from initial planting—that’s a pretty amazing experience. Then there were some practical reasons. First, the winery looks out on one of the Finger Lakes. Well, it seemed only natural that a winery should, although I know that doesn’t necessarily make a difference in the wine. But from their location above the lake it looks like the whole universe is opening up. It had a mesmerizing quality to it, something magical that to me said something about humankind’s relationship to the land and the larger cosmos. Second, and a practical consideration for me, the winery is on the east side of Cayuga Lake, about 35 minutes from where I live. If I were to spend much time at a winery, it had to be reasonably close. If I had to drive around the lake, that would have been too far. At the time, there were only two wineries along the eastern shore—Long Point and King Ferry. More broadly, I was attracted to the subject of a winery because wine is such a powerful cultural metaphor. Sorry, that’s my English lit background creeping in. But you see it reflected in the history, which I found fascinating and which I realized the average wine drinker would likely not know. Winemakers are part of such a rich historical tradition. It’s paradoxical: On the one hand they are implicated by history, but on the other, when they prune and crush, history is implicated by them. What they do is a re-enactment of what winemakers did more than 5,000 years ago in the Zagros mountain region of ancient Mesopotamia, and it locates them in the endless unfolding of time.
Anyway, it was a combination of these different factors.

b. you must have spent some long hours at Long Point...did you do any volunteer work while you were there? prune? harvest? do you have a story or two of this kind?

For the first year I was going out about two or three times a week to observe, and yes, at times I helped out. But I didn’t want to emphasize that. I wanted to keep the emphasis on the Barlettas’ experience. Background: I’m a former newspaper and wire service journalist and I went first and foremost to observe. But certainly I would help out because I would see Gary doing something and he would need help and of course you lend a hand. Most of that didn’t make it into the book. But I did some light pruning and harvesting. I remember dumping lugs of grapes in the crusher and by the end of the day I had pulled my back out so that the next day I ended up in the hospital where Gary and Rosie worked in the x-ray department (they’ve recently retired). Fortunately they weren’t there when I was x-rayed, otherwise I don’t know how I could not have put that in the book. I was driving the tractor during harvest one time while we were picking up lugs, looking forward, looking back, when I almost crashed through a row of grapes. It doesn’t take a lot to destroy several years of hard work. But again, I wanted to keep the focus on Gary and Rosie.

c. are you a wine drinker? assuming you are...what are some of your favorite Long Point wines?

That’s a good question. I started out on this project as a pretty average wine drinker—remember, I was coming at this as a journalist. But certainly, over time, I learned a great deal about wine. Gary and Rosie were my teachers. Do I consider myself an expert? Not really, even though my friends may consider me to be because I talk about the qualities of wine. But to me it’s all relative and I find that I’m still learning—wine is that complicated and “complex.” Yet that’s part of the pleasure of it all. See, I tend to view wine as something of a tease, and that’s what I like about it when I taste. But I began to see that this could be important to the book, too. I can’t tell you how many people, friends and acquaintances, have told me they are put off by the mystique of wine—what they see as “wine snobbery.” And I began to see that as an opportunity, to share with them the process of how I learned about tasting wine in order to take some of the unnecessary mystery out of it. Wine is mysterious, but we don’t have to make it worse than it is. Regarding Gary’s wines, I have really come to appreciate Cabernet Franc as a red that does quite well in the region. I actually like the fruit. I had never had it before—I had the usual biases of the average dry wine drinker—until he shared his with me. At the time he was buying his grapes from Knapp until his own were ready. Then his Cab Franc matured and it’s been fun to see how the vintage changes from year to year. And of course one can’t help appreciate dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes. It’s what I call “Rieslingland” in the book. I never cared much for white wines until I started this book. Then I discovered dry Riesling, and couldn’t help but fall in love with the dryness—such a contrast to the sweeter German version. Actually, my first was a Ravines recommended to me by Gary’s brother, but now Gary’s Riesling grapes are mature, and once again it’s fun to see how the vintage changes from year to year. It’s really been a delightful journey of discovery for me.

d. can you enumerate your thought on the finger lakes wine region and how and why it's growing in size and reputation

I have a couple of thoughts on that. There’s no doubt that wines are getting better. For that reason I think the region will continue to grow in the estimation of serious wine enthusiasts. And garnering more attention, even international. For example, I’m meeting a French colleague at a conference in Brussels in May. He asked me to bring a bottle of dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes! He’s bringing a bottle from Alsace, which of course sets the standard. We’re going to do a tasting. We call it “Judgment at Brussels.” Obviously we’re not professional wine tasters. But it’s part of the fun of the amateur and what makes wine tasting so enjoyable. I’m tasting now, trying to decide what to take. I have a bottle of Hermann J. Wiemer and a Glenora, which have come highly recommended. And I had a delightful Hazlitt recently. We’ll see. But the word is slowly getting out about the Finger Lakes.

Also, people will continue to be drawn naturally to what is grown and made in their backyard. And being so close to New York City, the Finger Lakes provide an opportunity to get back in touch with how things are really made, in this case wine. As Bill Nelson, the former executive director of WineAmerica, told me, “In a world where people have no idea how things are made, they can understand wine.” I think as human beings we like to know—we like to feel in touch with and the touch of—how things are made. It’s like baking your own loaf of bread and it’s fundamental to who we are as humans. Wine provides that. And it brings such delight, savoring its nuances. There’s an appreciation for cherishing—savoring again—the refined things of this world while we’re here. It’s life enriching.

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Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery is very well written, and fun to read. For those who have often dreamed of what it is like to start and run a winery, Hartsock's book is a charming, funny, and ultimately happy rending of life in wine country.

Here are some other great reviews about this book:

"Everyone who savors the flavor of a fine glass of wine likely has at one time or another dreamt of producing their own. . . . Organizing his book by season, John C. Hartsock shares vignettes that illustrate the hard work and perseverance required as well as the heartbreak that comes when one tiny mistake ruins a year's output. This detailed book . . . will be of great interest to those contemplating the winery business, even if just someday to tinker in their basement."
— Library Journal

In telling the story of Gary and Rosemary Barletta and their Long Point Winery, John C. Hartsock captures the essence of the small farm winery experience with all of its hard work and ample rewards. The seasons of growth and labor in the vineyard and winery are described in a narrative that encompasses the interesting history of the winery. For the reader who wants to understand the fundamentals of grape growing and winemaking and what it takes to open a successful winery, this is an excellent book. Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery is also a story of dreams and aspirations, and wine enthusiasts will be inspired by these pages.
- Hudson Cattell, editor of "Wine East" in Wines & Vines and coauthor of Wine East of the Rockies

Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery is a delightful account of the agrarian life and cycles of the winemaking life. Gary Barletta has succeeded in creating wonderful wines from the Finger Lakes that stand up beautifully in the world of wine. Reading about the behind-the-scenes creation of grapes and wine is a delectable treat to savor.
- Louis Damiani, Damiani Wine Cellars, Hector, N.Y.

Seasons of a Finger Lakes Winery is a very compelling, complete, and accurate portrayal of the workings of a small family-operated estate vineyard and winery. By looking at grape growing and winemaking through the narrative of the Barletta family, John C. Hartsock vividly shows the hardships and satisfactions that come from planting grapevines in the fertile yet demanding environment of the Finger Lakes. This book is an exceptional addition to the burgeoning literature about wine grapes and the people who grow and ferment them.
- Ian Merwin, Professor of Horticulture and the Viticulture and Enology Program, Cornell University, and manager of Black Diamond Orchard and Vineyard