Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hudson Valley Winemakers Tastings - Improving Quality Valley One Bottle at a Time

Somewhere on the back roads, somewhere in the night, groups of winemakers are hunkered down, scribbling notes, making comments, and slighting one another's wines. Something that happens in the progress of every quality wine movement is happening in the Hudson Valley. These are the Hudson Valley Winemaker's Tastings.
Michael and Yancey Migliore of Whitecliff Vineyards
So, what is the purpose of these blind tastings? Winemakers, believe it or not, have better things to do on a Tuesday or Wednesday night than to hang out with each other. The point is for the Hudson Valley winemakers to husband their own quality level. The goal is to improve the quality of wine in the Hudson Valley. Have a stuck wine? Bring it! Off aromas? Bring it! VA? Bring it! An amazing wine? Yes, absolutely, bring it! Their goal is to help each other. To help bring up the bottom 10% of the wines in the valley an to improve the ones at the top!
Bruce Tripp of Tousey and HV Experiment Station and Mike Migliore
Kevin Zraly says that the most important aspects of the quality wine revolution of the last thirty or forty years is that winemakers are talking to each other. For many years, the vignerons of Bordeaux and Burgundy would not compare notes - not only with one another but with each other's regions. Today, you can't stop industry people from talking, and sharing information. There are symposiums and panel discussions and lectures almost any week out of the year. And now they are talking like never before in the Hudson Valley.  

Sue Miller of Brookview Station
Winemaker tasting panels are nothing new. They've been hosting them in California for a long time. Long Island was among the first on the east coast, and then serious panels started to happen in the Finger Lakes. Now the Hudson Valley. They are a necessary step in the evolution of creating a quality winemaking region.
While it looks like it's a lot of fun, indeed, if you are a winemaker, you have to have a thick skin and a sense of humor. To all winemakers, each wine is like one of their children. While you might criticize your own in private, let someone else say something about your child, and off you go like a mother bear protecting her cubs. In the last four tastings, I've seen winemakers criticize their own wines, and praise others.
Matt Specarelli of Benmarl and Brad Martz of Whitecliff
The point of the tastings isn't to criticize each other, but to share information. How did you make that wine? What was the pH when you made it? What yeast did you use? What temperature was it at? The goal is to help each other make better wine. Have a good wine? Share it. Share what you did and why? Is there a way to improve a really good wine for future? Are you using certain blends we should all be trying? It is not a police action as much as it is a coffee clutch - with wine.
The tastings are 100% blind. That winemakers can speak freely and honestly abut their thoughts about each wine. It is not for the feint of heart. But also, it is meant to be instructive - and it is. And they've been indispensable for those who have availed themselves of them. No press has been allowed, nor will be. These are closed door sessions where winemakers can freely exchange ideas and information. They are not pretty. No one dresses up. They come from the fields or the cellars. They use tasting room glasses. Sheets of white papers for their notes.
Each wine is marked on a scale of 1-4. 4 is good. 1 is bad. Give a score of 1 or 1.5, and you'd better be able to defend it. You've just insulted someone's wine. Give a score of 3.5 or 4, you better be able to explain it. No favoritism is shown. No "yuck" is allowed. You better be able to talk fruit, structure, nose, palate, and finish. At the end of each flight, the scores are totaled up and announced. A lot of bruised egos. And some nice surprise. 

Of course, the scores aren't the goal. The goal is to make sure there is structure and balance and that the wines taste good. The meetings aren't meant to be critical as they are instructive...informational. When you hear a comment about a wine, or a possible solution to a problem, winemakers are storing that knowledge. When you hear the techniques others are using to make great wine, you take that information and store it. A good blend? What did you use? What were the percentages? Is the fruit estate? Where did it come from?  Etc.
 Bruce Tripp explaining the scoring while Ed Miller of Brookview Station listens.
And of course interesting facts are learned. Someone told the crowd they used a wild yeast fermentation...had been for the last two years, but hadn't mentioned it in their marketing. Another told about Hungarian oak and some trials in their cellar. There were wide ranging discussions about American and French oaks, and a multitude of variations. Discussions on many wine making techniques, and opinions on when to bottle different wines.

The tastings have been eye opening. They have been arranged by theme. The first one I was able to attend was the sparkling and cider flights. There was a first round of sparkling wines, and then a second round of ciders. The sparkling wines were a revelation. I didn't know such sparkling wines were being made by a small host of winemakers.

One of the shockers was Brimstone Hill Domaine Bourmont Brut a non-vintage sparkling wine made by Brimstone Hill using the classic French Methode Champenoise. A lovely, dry sparkling wine.

Another shocker was Benmarl's Sparkling wine for case club members only. Quite lovely! And their Stainless steel Chardonnay was lovely too! We had a final flight of Chardonnays and Seyval Blancs. In any night the panels, usually well attended, will draw eight to twelve winemakers, and the panels will review anywhere from 10-18 wines in three to four flights, depending on how the groupings work out. 

The cider tasting was also a lot of fun. Notes of apple and spice and pear and other flavors jumped out of the glasses. Tim Dressel's Kettleborough cider was one of the ones tasted. Always a favorite. 


Ed and Sue Miller of Brookview Station brought along several ciders, including a straight cider, cranberry cider, and one they are working on for the upcoming holidays at end of year. Amazing stuff!

The next tasting was hybrid reds. Winemakers gathered to taste varietals and blends. The first round was Baco Noirs. And then there was a flight of other varietals. And then there were blends. Discussions abounded on fruit quality, ripeness, texture and structure. 

Jonathan Hull of Applewood, Frank Gessel of Clearview; and Dick Eldrige of Brimstone Hill

Murders Row of Hudson Valley: Brad Martz (Whitecliff); Bruce Tripp (Tousey and HV Experiment); Doug Glorie (Glorie) Michael Migliore (Whitecliff)' Frank Gressle (Clearview); Jonathan Hull (Applewood); Dick Eldrige (Brimstone Hill); and Richard Edlridge (Brimstone Hill)


The ring leader of this new wave of blind tastings is Bruce Tripp, long a fixture in Hudson Valley winemaking circles. The valley is far flung. It is as diverse as it is widely ranged. It stretches from Albany all the way down to Orange and Sullivan counties. Some wineries travel as much as 1.5 hours to come to the tastings. But Bruce is the amiable nudge that sends out countless emails reminding everyone to attend and what the focus of the night will be. Together with Michael Migliore they have fashioned a great service to the winemakers and to the drinking public. The gathering place is usually Benmarl, whose large tasting room overlooking the Hudson River can accommodate the enological throng as well as being the most mid-point of the region. It was Bruce who made Tousey's first big hit wine, their Crème de Cassis, and put Tousey on the map. He now spends a lot of his time tending the Hudson Valley Experimental station and filters tons of information to the valley's winemakers. The winemakers like him because he not only can grow the grapes, but his experimental wines can show winemakers and fruit growers what the grapes are capable of in the region.

Yancey Migliore (Whitecliff), Bruce Tripp, Michael Migliore, Doug Glorie (foreground) and Matt Spacarelli (background with hat, Benmarl).

Most recently, the group met to taste vinifera varietals and blends. CIA's Steven Kolpan recently called on the Hudson Valley to grow more Cab Franc and stake a claim for the vinifera in the Hudson Valley. Steven was dead on. Cabernet Franc seems to be the most widely grown grape in the Hudson Valley these days, not in acreage, but in the sheer number of vineyards that now boast even a small amount. But plantings are increasing. The entire first flight of the vinifera tasting this year was Cabernet Franc, and that was only with a portion of the region's wineries in attendance. 

The ratings and the tastings are taken vary seriously. And varietal wine characteristics are discussed and debated in earnest. Discussions can be very heated. Disagreements might end unhappily. People can be offended. But not in this flight. The wines were spectacular. Whitecliff's was very nice. And the real shocker was the Glorie Farm Winery Cab Franc 2013, which was absolutely beautiful! Big dark fruit, but without the high alcohol of some of the globe's hot house wines. 
Who let the guy from the left coast in? Washington state tenured wine professor John Huddleson, who keeps a vineyard in the Hudson Valley, returns each summer, proving that you can go home again. The Hudson Valley's loss was Washington's gain. His book on wine faults is one of the best in the industry. It was good to have some of his thoughts during the tasting...allowing an outsider's point of view (lol). Here he is tasting the red vinifera blends in the second flight. Among the blends was a really nice surprise - Whitecliff's 100% Hudson River Region Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blend. Very nice! 

The tastings can be daunting. They start at 6pm and can last until 930 or 10pm. Some go quickly, and other require more conversation. But one thing for sure is, that winemakers have been encouraged. The quality of the wines in the region are improving greatly, not just by the winemaker's point of view, but by wine journalists as well. Writers like Steven Kolpan, Lenn Thompson, Debbie Gioquindo, Christopher E. Matthews, and Wendy Crispell are all singing the praises of the wave of quality winemaking happening in the valley. And the tastings are adding to that...and confirming it. But the goal is to constantly keep improving. Constantly be learning. fun, amazing, hard work. 
The final results are what counts - great wines being made in the Hudson Valley. More and more every year. Come on up and try some!