Every so often the local winemakers will arrive for a 2 hour presentation of their portfolios at Vintage, pairing their wines w/ local preparations as they try to introduce some agricultural pride to the concrete jungle's faithful. Programs take place in the 'cellar,' w/ introductions made by Vintage New York's co-proprietor Robert Ransom (whom was also the founder for the Hudson Valley's Rivendell Winery).
Now I am hardly a grizzled veteran of these programs, but last night I made my second appearance to watch Eric Fry (winemaker for Lenz, located on the North Fork) present his broad array of wines. Even though I have visited Lenz twice in the past, I knew little of Eric beyond his polished reds and progressive whites. I could taste talent, just as I could sense a generally aloof attitude towards the wine writing collective and blatant disdain for the notion of becoming a marketing whore. I knew enough to be interested.
His appearance and demeanor did not disappoint. From the ruggedly unpretentious facial features to his gnarly salt and pepper beard, which could only be trumped by a shadowy vision of his 27 year old merlot vines, he was as he should be. Joe winemaker. Probing deeper I was able to uncover that he worked at Jordan Winery in the '70s, for none other than Andre Tchelischeff, the Napa Valley pioneer himself. After growing tired of the California scene, Andre told him to go east to the Finger Lakes, a concept as surreal at the time as a Napa cab from Stag's Leap showing up the hallowed Bordeaux chateau in the '76 Paris tasting. Eric ended up at Dr. Frank’s Winery, and through his contacts he assumed his 'control freak' status of becoming a full time winemaker in an area even more absurd during the 80's, Long Island. In addition to his winemaking duties at Lenz, Eric consults for dozens of other wineries on the east coast (another nugget of knowledge that happened to surprise me).
The presentation was generous. Starting w/ their 2000 vintage sparkler (Eric believes the only suitable use for North Fork pinot is in bubblies, I couldn't agree more) he proclaimed that no one should taste before they try the food, as wine's most important place is as an accompaniment to food. 'Allow the food to change the wine, and the wine to change the food. Experiment, it's important to find matches that don't work to allow you to understand the beauty of a good marriage.' He would echo similar sentiments throughout, even adding that when tasting a wine in isolation you should at least imagine it w/ particular foods to appreciate its true merit.
While the sparking wine, which was aged 5 years on its lees, began somewhat austere and minerally, the toastiness and cream were accentuated beautifully by the pairings w/ food that seemed to prove his point. The old vines Chardonnay, poured second, was less inspiring on it's own but began to strut its stuff when accompanied by w/ poached pears, drizzled subtlety in a balsamic reduction. Fry's Gewürztraminer, in my opinion Long Island's best, had a Trimbach-esque reserved quality. Eric danced around the difficulty his vineyard manager has w/ growing gewurtz, as it seems to mature on the vine as erratically as the New York Giants play on the field was in 2006. Up to this point, with the exception of the loud Italian floozy in the back of the class, opinions were anything but subversive. Then a question was asked about why a particular California gewurtz had residual sugar, and the flood gates to the California bash party had opened w/ a bang.
For the next 30 minutes, all that was wrong w/ the wine industry was encapsulated directly in the Californian model. The firmest gauntlet of angst was thrust by Robert Ransom of Rivendell Winery. Claims of California planting only what is in vogue, compensating for poor wine making w/ sugar, and spearheading the merlot-ization of the United States ran rampant. All of California's progress was enveloped in a package of Kendall Jackson and buttery chardonnay. The American 'cola palate,’ which originated in California of course, was deemed responsible for the proliferation of sticky sweet pinot gris, riesling and sauvignon blanc.
Even Eric couldn't help but to strike some blows towards Zind Humbrecht for Olivier's turbo-charged grand cru expressions of overblown whites (which I happen to ADORE and consider to be at the pinnacle the of world's finest wines). I understand where New York vintners are coming from, but in order for them to be ultimately respected they must not confuse pride, passion and promotion w/ defensive combatism.
Having said that, Eric's red wines are at the apex of Long Island's current crop of unheralded stars. The Lenz merlots belong in the ranks of New York’s finest; like Bedell, Paumanok, Pellegrini and Wolffer. With the exception of Wolffer's premier cru merlot, the Lenz old vine's rendition is the most expensive and regarded red table wine on the island.
The tasting was punctuated beautifully w/ the 2001 old vines, which I believe is their sexiest effort to date. While tight and closed during infancy (not unlike a baby St. Emilion), it is just starting to blossom into adolescence. The nose was pumped out scorched earth, wild mushroom, roasted game and a kiss of red and black peppers. The depth of fruit on the palate was ultimately impressive, loaded w/ sappy berries, melted licorice and plum flavors that lingered with lace.
To further demonstrate how ‘right bank’ the mid segment of the North Fork is, the Lenz Cabernet is a quintessential example. Eric's cabernet is actually 'beefed up' w/ his merlot! The moderate climate is a tad too chilly to ripen cabernet adequately w/o developing harsh, astringent tannins. In order to compensate, Eric harvests in mid November, and ferments the cabernet grapes at cool temperatures to keep tannin extraction soft. Meanwhile, merlot thrives on the sand bar of the North Fork (growers also add a layer of limestone to the soils every year to facilitate vine growth) and it's thicker skins and deeply rich colors are necessary for Eric's softer cabernet to achieve balance. Weird huh? Perhaps he should take his own advice about Long Island pinot noir by sticking w/ merlot and cab franc and letting those bastard children of 'the left bank' in Napa Valley handle the rest.
Fry finds planting what’s fashionable as interesting as Wine Spectator scores. He has uncompromising vision and doesn’t shy away from blind tastings vs. Chateau Petrus. Most importantly, his merlot vines are just coming into their own, and they are not alone. While a pure memory of a '97 Pellegrini Merlot remains fresh in my mind, I can’t help but cringe as I watch the media underestimate the longevity and evolution of these young reds. While prices scare away most connoisseurs and intermediate wine drinkers from becoming better acquainted w/ the Fork's fruit, what consumers must realize is that these price tags still are not high enough to put these passionate winemakers in the black. It will take some time, but w/ their passion will come perseverance.
Past the busy Manhattan skylines of my backyard is a real frontier. The beauty is that these vineyards hold a focus and a goal that truly is not about money, and for us 'Vintage New Yorkers,' that's definitely something to be proud about.