Sunday, January 04, 2015

Todd Trzaskos - The Best Cold Climate Winemaker You'll Never Taste (NY, VT)

Todd Trzaskos is one of the most interesting wine people on the east coast scene today. He's a wine correspondent with the New York Cork Report covering the North Country (Upstate NY, VT, NH, etc.); he's a repeat Taste Camp-er; he has his own blog; he has a day job; he works consistently with winemakers in NY and VT; he helps over at the Cornell Extension in Willsboro, NY; and he's a home winemaker working with locally grown fruit (although he has made some fantastic wines using fruit from afar as well - but we're not talking about those today).

And the most amazing thing is, his rolodex is a who's who of east coast wine establishment. He numbers numerous writers and winemakers as friends, such as Lenn Thomson of the New York Cork Report, Montreal wine writer Remy Charest, Boston food and wine writer Richard Auffrey, and the famous Vermont wine doyenne and literary star Deirdre Heekin, among many others.

According to his New York Cork Report bio:
Todd is a north country native, and lifelong inhabitant of the northeast. Growing up in the Mohawk river and Lake Champlain Valleys, then attending Binghamton University, youthful adventures to ‘the city’ were more likely to target Montreal, than Manhattan. He made a lateral move to Vermont in 1991 for graduate school, and while he still lives in the Green Mountains, he is frequently found within the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park, or floating on the big lake in between.

As a third-generation Polish-Italian American, with family lore of Prohibition era winemaking on both sides, the probability of predisposed wine interest was high.  A 1976 family trip through the Finger Lakes left a young Todd wondering why there weren’t vineyards back home on Lake Champlain, and in the Hudson Valley.

He trained his palate on the rise of the microbrew wave, and by rummaging wine racks in old country stores, searching out forgotten bottles.  Numerous relationships with folks in the wine and restaurant trades, provide an ongoing education about food and wine culture in the north country, which he shares through the Vermont Wine Media project.

For several years, Todd has kept his ear to the ground for any signs of winegrowing in the far north. He is a volunteer and test winemaker at the Cornell Baker Farm, a cold-hardy hybrid trial vineyard, in Willsboro, NY, where his extended family resides. He home vinifies grapes harvested from the trial, as well as fruit acquired anywhere from Vermont to Chile. Todd’s professional life is as partner in a niche web application development firm. He lives and gardens with his wife, canine, feline, and donkey friends, at an old farmstead in Stockbridge, VT.

There is no one who blurs/blends the coverage of the industry as well as participates in it like Traskos. He can talk with winemakers at total ease - because he is one. He can talk the jargon all day long. He speaks the jargon. And he can talk with growers - because he is one. He is friendly, engaging, but a kick-ass dude. He is instantly like-able. Rarely snarky, almost always earnest, and very real.

Happily, I have been able to score some trades with Mr. Trzaskos. A few bottles for tasting here and there. He covers the North Country, and his wines are a blend of locally grown grapes (traditional hybrids like Baco Noir, Marechel Foch, Leon Millot, and some of the new Minnesota hybrids like Briana, LeCrescent, Lacrosse, and others.

And that is why Todd Trzaskos is important - he's making quality wines with these grapes. Quality wines? Fabulous dry reds and dry whites. He is among a handful of winemakers on the east coast who are making truly quality wines with these varieties. And their not just good or passable - they are really impressive.

Take the tree wines pictured here.

I'll start with the Brianna grown in Vermont. I am telling you right now, this was a shocker. Bright, zippy, elegant, with a very nice nose. A lovely Loire-ish, Alsace-ish styled bright white that was absolutely lovely.

Then there was the LaCrescent grown in Vermont. This was a light, bright LaCrscenet, with a classic nose, full of bright tropical fruit, and gorgeous acidity. Like a toned down Vinho Verde blended with Gewuztraminer. Really, really lovely!

Finally their was the Lacrosse grown in Willsboro, NY. All the fruit was grown in Willsboro, Leon and Marechal can be quite heavy and in the French style, he added a little white blend to this wine.
Baker Farm, a Cornell Extension Experimental Station 352-acre farm, is located along Lake Champlain at the base of Willsboro Point. The farm has both clay and sandy soils, permitting a range of field experiments for optimizing management of agricultural resources. The farm was donated in 1982 by E. Vreeland Baker to Cornell University for agricultural research, and was formerly known as Cornell E. V. Baker Research Farm. A solid, white wine, with big fruit and nice acidity. Bursting with flavor, and a nice, refreshing finish.

All three of these were beautiful white wines that went fantastically with meals. They were wonderful food wines. Yes, you could drink them alone. They would show well in a tasting room, but my question is always - "But how does it go with food?" And these wines answered that question brilliantly.

I recently had the 2013 Champlain Crossroads White 2013. A blend of 60% Lacrosse and 40% LaCrescent, this was a fabulous, floral, and zesty white that went beautifully with a classic roasted chicken dinner. Stunning.

This was another wonderful blend! Adalmiina, St. Pepin, Aromella, Pettie Annie, Lacrosse. Betcha never had that blend before. Again, zippy and refreshing. Wonderful!

Lest you think he can only make reds, I recently sampled the Cote du Lac Rouge 2013. This was the second time I'd had this blend, having sampled the 2012 edition before that. This was 50% Marechal Foch, 40% Leon Millot, and 10% White Blend. This was a big, deep wine, despite the addition of white wine. But it was of a mature flavor, with big, dark cherry, dark raspberry, hints of vanilla and spice. A major accomplishment.

The thing is that is most impressive is this - he's using locally grown grapes from Vermont and New York. Exotic grapes few in the wine world are familiar with. And he's doing them as a home winemaker. This is not a guy who's working with stainless steel tanks, and fancy filters, and huge pumps and presses. This guy is doing small batches - by hand, with not a lot of money behind him. He's an artist.

Why am I featuring him? Do you need to ask? If you're a consumer, you need to follow him to know what's going on in that part of the country. He is well versed in wine, and his advice and selections are never wrong. With a wealth of wine knowledge, he's a sure bet as a reviewer. If you're a winemaker, especially in the region, you want to know Todd. He's working with weird and wonderful things. You will definitely learn from him. And if you're an owner, you absolutely want to know him. He can write about your winery - if you're making good wine.

But most of all, he's a winemaking diamond in the rough - a jewel waiting to be discovered. Some owner or backer better pick him up fast before he goes solo and you're shut out.


Here's the East Coast Wineries interview:

What is the biggest challenge facing wine in your state today?
Novelty... of both the grape varieties and the concept of wine growing in the north country. There is no name recognition for the vines themselves and most people, when they hear there's wine growing in Vermont, their eyes cross.
What is the difference between wine in your region from ten years ago to today?
A decade ago people were using old French-American hybrids but the introduction of the Swenson varieties ,University of Minnesota and Cornell fruit definitely changed the landscape and the potential.
Where do you think wine in your region will be 10 years from now?
Tough to say, but I think we will at least be on the map.
What’s the trend in wine in your region that has surprised you the most in the last 2-5 years?
Cider... just when wine was starting to take hold, America and this region woke up to its heritage of daily apple juice for the people. I always knew it was lying in wait for a comeback, it just happens to be now.

Is there a new trend you expect to see in the next 2-3 years?
I'm really hoping that folks will look to the vast opportunity in proprietary blends rather than chasing single varietal wines...they can be so much better.
Do you find liquor stores and wine shops have been a good partner for your state grown wines? What have been some challenges?
Generally the smaller local markets and package stores try to keep a dedicated shelf for Vermont products. Even the big box stores make a token effort. In Vermont the state liquor stores control fortified wines and I think because of limited shelf space that this structure inhibits or disincentives producers from making the fortified wines that these grapes are well-suited for.
Region wineries sometimes find it hard to sell wines outside of their state. How easy or difficult is it for your wineries to export their wines to other states…countries?
In general were just not there yet a couple of our products are being introduced to other major markets but for the most part locally consumed purchased locally by those visiting the area it may be a little bit early but there are vanguards.

How big a part do festivals and farm markets play in your state‘s wine distribution?
A number of the producers in the state make use of the liberal farmers market tasting permits that are available to manufacturers and as such use those venues to connect with local consumers pretty effectively...festivals not so much they are and general organized and run by wine distributors in the state of which there are only a few and of the handful of producers are actually in distribution so that's not necessarily the best way. The Vermont Life wine and harvest festival takes place in mid-September which while great for visitors is absolutely the worst time for producers to try and staff a festival since they need to be in the field harvesting and processing their fruit.
What are the challenges of getting your wines covered by local press and the wine media?
Beer and cider are taking precedence while we do get some coverage in local news the bulk of coverage goes with the bulk of consumption and so this will still be a challenge in the short-term.
Are their any media streams that you have found that are more effective than not?
Social media like Twitter Instagram and Facebook have been very useful and spreading the word of Vermont fermentations to folks who are in good position to spread the word to others. it's viral, it's guerilla, but it's also organic.
Are there any fears you may have too many wineries in your state?
Not just yet I think there's still opportunity but the number of wineries are just ahead of the production of fruit so as long as we can continue to develop a complex ecosystem of growers and producers and managed to keep that balance there's a future.
Do you have any wine trails in your state? If so, how effective have they become? If not, why? How do your wineries effectively market themselves in groups? Or not? If not, why not?
 Vermont is a small state but there's a lot of terrain... there is no one wine trail and in fact I can forsee multiple small trails within the state covering different areas that are topologically isolated from one another. the Vermont grape and wine council does sponsor a passbook that allows participating wineries to put themselves in front of consumers and give consumers guidance as to where to visit and some incentive due to an annual prize. Simple but reasonably effective.
Are you finding there are enough grape growers to fill the demand created by wineries in your state?
Bacchus knows we could always use more wine growers. Truth is there are small plots all around the state, and I'm always surprised to find out about another vineyard in an unlikely location. I think we are at a point where we need to catalog all of the tiny growers and formalize the hookup with wine producers. 

You're a pretty busy guy. What else do you have going on?
We've got a small test plot at our house to see if the grapes will even grow in our section of the white river valley. I do have access to fruit through friends who have a little winery nearby "la garagista". We harvest in the Champlain Valley of VT in Vergennes and West Addison - Brianna, Marquette, Frontenac Noir & Gris, La Crescent. Predominately clay soils enjoying the extra heat degrees that the east shore of the lake offers. The other fruit I get comes from the Cornell trial Vineyard at the Baker Farm in Willsboro, NY. Gorgeous site 100 ft above the lake...alluvial soil on top of ancient limestone, with great son and air drainage, albeit with some pressure from Chipmunks.

Any other thoughts on winemaking or grapes?
Keep it relatively simple minimal use of pectic enzyme, and some yeast nutrient as required. generally do ferments half wild half with other half commercially cultured inoculant. It's a comparison exercise and I guess hedging bets but also allowing for natural expression. There is a certain urge to bend these grapes and make them trying taste like something else that people recognize but I think we should be careful about that and celebrate the unique expression that these grapes in this place can offer,  if we take the time to listen to what they tell us.

I'm a big fan of Leon of my more favorite red grapes, and I hope growers will pick up on and realize is really styling. They may have kicked it out of France a long time ago, but I think it's because they were jealous of what it could accomplish while making Pinot Noir look bad. 
Hid-in-pines near Plattsburgh makes a nice Leon, as well as a number of other respectable ferments. Lincoln Peak is the poster winery for a family run operation on VT that does great things for building community, while making very respectable wines in the process. I look up to those guys as a great example for the kind of wine ambassadors that will bring honest recognition to the area. Am a fan of their Marquette and Black Sparrow white blend . Shelburne Vineyards knocks it out of the park with their reserve Marquette. It wins big every year at the international  cold climate awards ,but not easy to located outside their tasting room.  North Shore Vineyard does a Louise Swenson that rival many Sauvignon Blanc. Longtime pals have a winery nearby, la garagista, and they are doing things the OLD fashioned way. Gentle vineyard management , hand picked, hand destemmed, foot trod and then wild ferment...and folks are seriously liking it!

End of Interview

Hopefully, the title of this article is completely wrong. Hopefully you'll get to taste his wines. Matter of fact, I'm kinda of betting on it. - C. DeVito, Editor