Sunday, March 17, 2013

Peter Bell’s Magnum Opus – Fox Run Cabernet Franc 2010 (NY)


In the Finger Lakes, Peter Bell is inescapable. He is not a monolith, but as the saying goes about Rome, there is no way around him. He is a fact of life. As James Molesworth wrote about him, in Wine Spectator in 2009, “Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell, 52, is a busy guy. In addition to making wines at Fox Run in New York's Finger Lakes region, he also helps at other area wineries, including Miles Wine Cellars and Red Tail Ridge. In addition, he holds an adjunct faculty position at Cornell University teaching wine-related material in the Department of Food Science and has consulted and lectured in Australia, China, Spain, Serbia, France, Hungary, Canada and throughout the United States.” Peter is also one of the joint makers of Tierce, a very fine Riesling label. And yes, that make him about 56 now.

Now, what I did not know, is that Howard Bursen, the dean of Connecticut winemakers is part of the Finger Lakes Mafia. I use that term to describe all the young things that were scurrying around the Finger Lakes in the 1970s and 1980s who cycled through the then handful of Finger Lakes wineries, including working for Walter Taylor and Dr. Frank. (I think both of those are worth other stories, don’t you? Finger Lakes Mafia and Walter Taylor and Dr. Frank)

And what I did not also know is that Peter Bell, Howard, and David Whiting all play banjo! How cool is that?! I must somehow get invited to one of those jam sessions before I die.

Molesworth asked Bell who had been his biggest influences as a winemaker? Bell replied. “Probably a bunch of musicians, oddly enough. I am not one for metaphorical hyperbole, so I would never call a wine a "symphony in a glass" or anything that puerile, but I tend to see well-balanced, delicious wines as analogous to exquisitely composed pieces of music. My description of the role of oak in wine is that of Ringo Starr in the Beatles: never flashy, always there to get inside the fruit and make it taste better.”

Indeed, Peter also told Evan Dawson in Summer in a Glass that he had referred to Ringo Starr and the Beatles when talking about wine before.  “I invoked Ringo Starr to explain the effect of oak in wine.” He explained how he used a Beatles song, and said, “You’ve all heard this Beatles song before, but I want to you to listen to the drum fills. Just listen. You don’t notice them until you listen, but they’re exquisite. They’re essential. And if the drummer were some showboat, the song would not be brilliant. Well, that’s oak in wine….”

So, how does all of this fit? While in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Peter Bell (who was giving a talk at one of the seminars) gave Howard Bursen a bottle of Fox Run Cabernet Franc 2010 and told him to hold it for something special. I have to say, it was comical, Howard petted the bottle with elfin glee. His eyes shined, and his smile was wide…and devilish. He was in exquisite agony.

“How am I not going to open this?” he laughed. He looked at the label, but the bottle down, and then a minute later, he picked it up again. “He told me I should save this for something special,” Howard lamented, and then put the bottle down again. Howard, a mature man, was suddenly a five year old that was trying not to eat the last cookie on the plate his mother had warned him about.

“Have you ever tasted Peter’s Cabernet Franc?” Howard asked. “It’s fantastic!”

In fact, I had reviewed Peter’s 2005 Cab Franc Reserve and thought that without a doubt was the finest red wine of his that I had ever tasted. I have, like most people, especially in the Finger Lakes, immense respect for Peter’s body of work. But his greatest accomplishments come along the line of Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. These wines have helped catapult Fox Run, and the Finger Lakes, to new heights. But Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are like writing lovely, well-crafted singles (in the pop vernacular) or etudes (if your more into the classical jargon). Lovely, lovely melody laden tunes that will stick in your head for the rest of your life. Like a Hall of Fame rocker, Peter has turned out one catchy tune after another over a life time with these grapes as his instruments.
If Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are the small, gorgeous tunes we all whistle, then dark, deep reds are the symphonies or albums that winemakers are memorialized for. Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth. Malher’s Seventh. The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper album. Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours album, the first concept album ever. These are the hallmarks that great composers or artists leave behind like monuments.

So, it was with trepidation that Howard asked me minutes later, “Do you think we should open it?”

“I don’t want to be the one who got you into trouble,” I laughed.

“I wouldn’t want to disappoint Peter,” Howard said, still wrestling with himself, looking wistfully at the bottle. We were at dinner with Richard Leahy and Doug Moorhead, where Doug was being given a lifetime achievement award. The food was actually decent, for such a large event, the salmon definitely being the best thing on the plate.

We had just tried two other wines, and I was chatting with someone else, when I turned and saw Howard cutting the foil cap off the top of Peter’s wine. His eyes were bright, and his smile was wide again, as his arms wildly swung while he wrestled off the foil and plunged the corkscrew into the bottle and then wrestled the cork out with a pop! He took my glass, and rinsed it out with water and then rinsed it out with a drop of wine before pouring me a glass.
I waited for him, and for Richard, and when we were both ready, we toasted each other, and Howard said smiling, almost laughing, “Years from now when you talk about this, and you will, be kind.”

And we drank.
The Fox Run Cabernet Franc 2010 comes from Fox Run vineyards blocks 6 and 8. Block 6 was established in 1995. Alternating layers of clay and sand make up the dirt. Block 8 was established in 1997, and is made up of shallow bedrock and shale. 2010 was a tremendous season for east coast wine. And this wine was further proof that the vintage was a great one.

According to the winemaker’s notes, “Machine-picked fruit was lightly crushed to small open-top fermenters. Our favorite red wine yeast was added, and fermentation commenced the following day. At dryness, the wine was pressed, settled for two days, and transferred to barrels. A year of aging commenced. In December 2011, the winemakers selected three barrels that showed outstanding flavors and structure: these become the Reserve Cabernet Franc. The wine was further aged in new oak for six months, and then bottled without filtration.”
The wine had the aromas of stewed plums and raspberries as promised, with a mixture of cedar and lots of spice, and whiffs of vanilla and a feint whiff of mocha? The fruit on the palate was fantastic. Cherries and raspberry and a hint of red currant all came forward in a rush. The tannins were in balance to the fruit. And the acidity kept the fruit alive for a long, long time. The tannin kept the beat, (the oak) and the fruit was the melody (did I say that right, Peter?).

Howard’s eyebrows bobbed up and down with excitement! Richard Leahy’s eyes were also lit up! We were all smiling and looking at one another in absolute amazement.
This was without a doubt the best red wine Peter Bell has made that I have tasted. It was his crowning achievement. It was an incredible wine! This was his symphony, his concept album, his magnum opus! His Sgt. Peppers. And it is certainly one of the best red wines ever produced in the Finger Lakes. It is immense. It is what all winemakers, not matter the region, should strive for. Incredible.

Congrats to Peter and to Scott Osborn, and all the folks at Fox Run Vineyards!