Wednesday, February 27, 2013


 (with apologies to Frank Schoonmaker)
Frank Schoonmaker (August 20, 1905 - 1976) was an American travel guide writer, wine writer and wine merchant. He was born in Spearfish, South Dakota, and attended two years at Princeton University, after which he dropped out of in 1925 to live and travel in Europe. He wrote two travel guides, Through Europe on Two Dollars a Day and Come with Me to France. He wrote a series of essays for The New Yorker. While involved in this latter project he met Raymond Baudoin, the editor of the La Revue du vin de France, who took him under his wing and taught him about wine. Schoonmaker also collaborated in the wine trade with Alexis Lichine, another wine writer, and the pair were considered the two most influential wine writers in the US for several decades.

Both men called for an end to the ugly American practice of calling U.S. wines by European names. Fanciful names such as California Burgundy, New York Champagne, California Bordeaux, California Chablis, and other bastardizations were frowned on by Schoonmaker, who was vociferous in his condemnation of such practices, and insisted U.S. wines be called by their rightful name.

Schoonmaker’s influence finally held sway with a maverick California winemaker named Robert Mondavi, who made varietals, and thus started to label his wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc.  Thus the drive for varietal labeling helped differentiate California wines from their European counterparts. Schoonmaker praised Mondavi and those that followed. And Schoonmaker was right….then. Schoomaker also called for the wine industry to establish a difference between table wines and fine premium wines in the market place, so Americans could rink better wine on the whole.

“I blame Frank Schoonmaker for making wine enjoyment so freakin' difficult,” wrote David Baer, wine educator in an article entitled, ‘Damn You, Frank Schoonmaker!!’ “That's not completely fair, but he did have a lot to do with the American obsession with THE GRAPE. When I teach wine consumers, one of the first things I tell them is to forget about the grape. We have become fixated on grape varieties, and it was all Schoonmaker's doing.”

But in the east, this practice, especially with red wines of exceptional quality, is difficult. Because of varying weather, cold winters, shortened seasons, etc. these cool climate growing regions, especially New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, all of which make gorgeous wines, find their wines vary accordingly. In California for the last 10 years the concept of vintage has become obsolete. However, France and Italy still have the same issues as the east. The weather is too variable for them not to find some importance in the vintage.

With the rise in popularity of cool climate wines, and the increasing reputation of wines from New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, how do we ensure fine quality reds on an every year basis? While Schoonmaker dissuaded US winemakers from emulating their European brethren, he encouraged U.S. winemakers to strike out on their own. He urged them to create separation from their European counterparts. I think the time has come now when we in the east can draw closer together with our friends across the pond.

The great reds of Europe tend not to be single varietals, but blends. What that blend mix should be I will not get into here (that’s a whole other article), just to say that red blends seems to me the sure fire way to create 90 point plus reds for the east coast. And thus create the final stage of serious red wine to make the east coast a serious and collectable wine producer in the world.

It’s obviously not just blending. It’s taking into account a blending of not just wines, but of techniques, massaging the various wines in American, Pennsylvanian, Hungarian, and French oak. We need to consier aging like the Spanish do for a minimum of one year, or two years, or three. The idea is to help raise the bar to guarantee better quality. I don’t think it needs to be standardized, but I think it needs to become standard practice.

As recently as last year, I heard winemakers from several east coast states complaining about the consistency of their own red varietals, as if blends were not as serious a sign of success and succeeding singularly with Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot etc.

And this is why I think the future of east coast wine lies in Bordeaux. For these wines to be as heartily desired as their European counterparts, the east coast needs to “creatively adapt” some of the best practices of Europe to ensure a whole generation of superb red wines.

The great houses of Bordeaux blended their wines because like those winemakers here on the east, the quality of their varietals was not consistent. The idea was to blend Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, and Malbec and Petite Verdot, and many other grape varieties in different mixtures to fill in where the holes of one varietal aided another. The other practice was to hold back a certain amount of wine each year to blend in with the wine next year, thus establishing a consistent flavor profile from year to year.

These practices hold sway even today. And French wines have never been more popular or collectible. The Top two growths don’t let most wine writers taste their top wines any more. The wine writers, no matter how effusive, cannot help increase the astronomical prices they are already getting, especially through the Hong Kong/Asian markets, where the popularity of wine has skyrocketed with the burgeoning Chinese middle class.

Ripasso is another style which east coast winemakers should employ more often. Pressing new grapes over the desiccated skins of previously crushed grapes, and adding them to the masceratin, helps add favors to your wines, and increases their fullness and roundness.

And we need to embrace the notion of terroir…at least of our own terroir. Dirt and location and sunshine and air drainage all make a place unique.

Now, I am not announcing anything new here. But I will opine that there is a whole new class of Bordeaux-styled reds available on the east coast, and they have firmly established their dominance in terms of quality and flavor. Yes, there are some exquisite Cab Francs, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays being made here on the east coast. I am not dismissing them. That’s not what I am talking about here. Stop being argumentative. Listen up! If we want to create big world class red wines here on the east coast, wines that will stand shoulder to shoulder amongst California and France, Italy, Spain and Chile and Argentina, then we need to look to France and emulate them, because there is no hope of emulating California unless global warming continues to spiral out of control. You have a better chance of emulating Baron Phillippe than Robert Mondavi. That’s not a bad thing.

Truly, some of the best reds of the east already follow this pattern and I strongly urge other winemakers to consider this trend. And I strong recommend to consumers that you try some of these very good blends!

For winemakers and consumers, I highly recommend the following wines (in no particular order):

Philip Carter Meritage 2006 (VA)

Wagner Meritage 2010 (NY)

Arrowhead Springs Meritage Reserve 2007 (NY)

Karamoor Estate Meritage 2008 (PA)

Boxwood Esate Boxwood 2010(VA)

Black Ankle Slate 2011 (MD)

Rockhouse Vineyards 2008 Meritage (NC)
Unionville The Big O (NJ)

Tarara Winery 2007 Meritage (VA)

Damiani Wine Cellars 2007 Meritage (NY)

Trio 2007 (PA)

King Family Vineyards Meritage 2007 (VA)

Jason's Vineyard 2000 Meritage (NY)

Ravines 2007 Meritage (NY)

Stinson’s Meritage 2010(VA)

Barboursville Octagon 2008 (VA)

Whitecliff Vineyards Sky Island Red 2011 (NY)

Hudson-Chatham Empire 2010 (NY)

Brotherhood Mariage 2006 (NY)

Benmarl Proprietor’s Reserve 2010 (NY)

Va La Mahogany (PA)

Chaddsford Merican 2007 (PA)

Leonard Oakes Estate Reserve Mertiage 2010 (NY)

Wagner Meritage 2010 (NY)

Bedell Musee’ 2008 (NY)

Paumanok Assemblage 2004 (NY)

Peconic Bay Winery Lowerre Family Estate 2007 (NY)