I actively support the Texas wine industry as a consumer, in my marketing communications business and as a wine writer. We have fantastic wineries making delicious wine in Texas. However after visiting the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York for the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference, I’m embarrassed to be a Texan.

I said it. I’m embarrassed to be a Texan.

Why? The Texas wine industry can’t hold a candle to New York.

Rainbow over Lake Seneca in the Finger Lakes wine region Rainbow over Lake Seneca in the Finger Lakes wine region

 

Sure, Texas has excellent wines that win national and international awards. I’m confident Texas wines could go toe-to-toe with those from the Finger Lakes. It’s not about the quality of the wine.

Its all about the cohesion

It is about the cohesiveness of the industry. The Finger Lakes wine region has its stuff together. It’s more than a geographic region marked by 11 long, deep lakes gouged out of the earth by glaciers 10,000 years ago. It’s more than just an American Viticultural Area (AVA). It’s more than wine trails connecting the 129 wineries that grow cool climate vinifera grapes like Riesling and Cabernet Franc in Finger Lakes AVA (there are 428 wineries statewide). It is a tight knit community of wineries, farms, restaurants, tourism boards, chambers of commerce and businesses all with a shared mission of promoting the beautiful region as a top-notch wine and tourism destination. The biggest driver of this unity is the largest tourism board east of the Mississippi, the Finger Lakes Wine Country.

It’s working. The Finger Lakes wine region has been recognized as a “Top 10 Worldwide Wine Destination,” by Wine Enthusiast and a “Top Wine Destination in the U.S.,” by TripAdvisor.com. It also landed the challenge to host the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, a coveted marketing opportunity for any wine region looking to wine and dine around 270 wine writers. The folks of the Finger Lakes certainly made the most of that opportunity. They rolled out the red carpet for the bloggers.

A wine tourism board that works

The Finger Lakes Wine Country, founded in 2000, has a lot to do with that success. The group began conversations to bring the Wine Bloggers Conference to the Finger Lakes in 2011. That lobbying and the great press the region has enjoyed helped it win the RFP process to host the conference.

“It is a pretty big undertaking,” says Laury Ellen Poland, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association. “There aren’t a whole lot of wine regions that have the infrastructure to support this kind of undertaking. It took all of our energy for more than a year.”

This whole concept of having a wine tourism board came about when Corning Enterprise, the economic development arm of Corning, commissioned a research study to determine the best ways to attract quality engineers and scientists to rural Upstate New York. The research firm determined the big draw is wine. Duh! I could have told them that.

Since then, four counties have signed on to support the Finger Lakes Wine Country by providing a portion of hotel room tax revenue. Private companies chip in too and Corning matches the public dollars. The group collaborates with organizations like Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and the New York wine and Grape Association for broader reach.

The Finger Lakes wine region screams community

Beyond the tourism board, everything about the Finger Lakes wine region screams community. Our first taste of this community during the conference was a tasty welcome dinner with dozens of restaurants and wineries hosted in a park in the middle of picturesque Corning, NY. That incredible level of hospitality was on also display with lovely receptions at the Rockwell Museum of Art and the Corning Museum of Glass.

Community was front and center in an excellent educational session put on by fruit crop physiologist Alan Lakso, a professor emeritus from Cornell University, who has researched grapes for 45 years, along with Fred Merwarth, owner, winemaker and vineyard manager of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and Master Sommelier, chef and winemaker Christopher Bates. These guys shared deep insight into the history, geology, climate, grapes and winemaking techniques. It was clear that academia, viticulture, winemaking, wine sales and culinary arts are inextricably linked in the Finger Lakes. How else could the region produce quality wines from an area with extreme weather, crazy variations in soil and short growing seasons?

Merwarth of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard described the growing conditions saying, “Cold winters are a defining character. It can vary from minus 6 to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit at the same time in the same winery. That kind of deep cold impacts vine health for up to 2 years. We don’t think of it as just a growing season. It’s a 12 month cycle.”

Master Sommelier, Bates, noted that the big challenge for the region is that it sells all of its wine to the millions of tourists that visit the areas each summer and the masses in New York City, a stone’s throw across the state. “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here. But we want our wine on a national stage. We need to get people excited about wine outside of New York. We have no interest in comparing our Riesling to the Riesling from Rheingau, Germany or our Cabernet Franc to what’s made in Loire, France. We make good Finger Lakes wine.”

Paul Scotto at sunset Paul Scotto at sunset

 

Where the cohesiveness of the Finger Lakes wine community really shined was in the wineries visits that they arranged for the bloggers. These were incredibly well orchestrated to show off the interrelationships between the wineries, the interconnectivity between farmers, chefs, winemakers and the land itself. Each excursion along wine trails featured multiple wineries gathered in one location. We tasted fantastic wines from places like Glenora Wine Cellars, Zugibe Vineyards, Knapp Winery, Dr. Frank’s Wine Cellars, Fox Run Vineyards, Goose Watch Cellars, Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery and more. Can you imagine a Napa winery hosting other wineries on its property for group tastings? Would that happen in Bordeaux, Rioja, Mendoza, Barossa Valley or the Mosel? Well it happens in the Finger Lakes.

I’m not saying these people are nicer than Texans, but they sure can give us a run for our money.

What a treat to have a vegetable farmer, grain farmer, beef farmer, cheese maker, chef and winemaker describe what they grew, made and why they are great together. I was blown away by the camaraderie they shared not only with each other, but with those of us who were there eager to learn about it. Hospitality.

Texas isn’t ready

Texas, I don’t think you could pull off hosting the Wine Bloggers Conference. Yet. I don’t think you are ready. Texas has some great cities. It has some great wineries. It has some great wine trails. It has hospitality in spades. But, the Texas wine industry lacks the cohesion to really make it on the world stage. Maybe the state is just too dang big. After all, it is bigger than France. But, it is lacking a serious organizing body to unify the wine industry.

It can be done. It requires that a significant number of winery owners get on board. That’s tough. Established wineries may not feel the time and monetary investment is needed to advance their own business. That’s true in New York too, but they’ve gotten enough wineries on board to make it happen. It takes funding and that is definitely a challenge. The New York model of funding a concerted marketing campaign to promote economic development and regional tourism with a blend of private and public sector money may not work in exactly the same way in Texas. We may need state dollars to pull together our huge region.

Lake Seneca Lake Seneca

 

It is worth the investment. The full economic impact of New York grapes, grape juice, and wine in 2012 was $4.8 billion in state and local taxes for New York State, according to a study conducted by Stonebridge Research Group for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. This compares with a full economic impact of wine and wine grapes of $1.83 billion on the Texas economy in 2011 according to a study by Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP commissioned by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.

The words of Christopher Bates are ringing in my ears, “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here.” Does that sound familiar Texas? The 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference already has a home in Lodi, CA. What do you think Texas? Can we be ready to host in 2017? I know we can.

Related stories from the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference:

Disclosure: I was provided with the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference where this interview took place.

What are you drinking?

 

 

 

 

 

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The Terroir of Chile in Viña Montes and of Argentina in Kaiken

Second generation winemaker, Aurelio Montes del Campo, hosted a big barbeque at his home in Argentina this summer for friends to watch Chile battle Argentina in the final match of the Copa América soccer tournament. Guests eagerly sliced into a huge slab of beef with knives they brought from home; juices streamed off the table onto the floor. Glasses were never empty of Malbec.

The game was tense. Argentina was favored. Chile hadn’t won the Copa América in 99 years. The Chilean-born winemaker anxiously watched, quietly pleased that the Argentinian super-star, Lionel Messi, wasn’t capitalizing on his astonishing skills.

“All my friends were cheering for Argentina. Even my kid,” says Montes. “I was alone in the corner.”

In the end Chile defeated Argentina in a penalty shoot-out.

“I cried when we won,” says Montes. “My friends were surprised by my tears. I said, ‘Maybe for you it was a just game. Not for me.’”

Aurelio Montes del Campo Aurelio Montes del Campo

 

Geographically worlds apart

Chile and Argentina may share a border, but they are just as different as the U.S. is from Mexico. The culture, the politics, the climate and the landscape are a study in contrast. Their style of play on the soccer pitch and their winemaking are influenced by culture. Chile is a country of order. Argentina is a country of passion.

Chile’s wine region is cradled between the frigid Pacific and the towering Andes. Its grape vines are protected from phylloxera, mildew and hail by the cold ocean winds and the physical barriers of the Atacama Desert to the north, the mountains to the east and the Patagonian glaciers to the south.

Argentina’s wine region, centered in Mendoza, is marked by the higher altitude, starting at 3,000 feet in elevation, and is cut off from the Pacific rains by the Andes. The only significant source of water is the Mendoza River.

Two countries, one wine family

Despite the differences, the Montes family calls both countries home and makes wine in each.

Mr. Montes presented the wines from Viña Montes, the eponymous Chilean winery, and Kaiken Wines, its Argentinian sister winery, for wine writers from around the country at the eighth annual Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Corning, NY. After the session Montes shared his story and laughs with me over wine.

In 1987 Aurelio Montes Sr. built the stunning, modern Viña Montes winery in Santiago, Chile along with 3 partners. The four men had two things in common. All were passionate about wine, and none had any money. They sold a car to acquire the money start the business. It is unique in that it is the only winery in Chile where the winemaker is the owner.

Viña Montes is well known for its powerful Alpha M Cabernet Sauvignon and is famed for its Purple Angel, the super Carmenère, which is perhaps the best representation of Chile’s national grape. The winery produces more than 20 varieties of wine from several vineyards in the valleys and at higher elevations.

Viña Montes was the second winery in the world to be certified sustainable. Sheep devour the weeds between the vines rather than using herbicide. Stringent energy efficiency practices cut the amount of power used. Viña Montes commissioned one of the most comprehensive studies of water use in the industry and as a result it employs inventive dry farming techniques which have dramatically reduce water consumption by up to 65 percent in some vineyards. It’s not only good for the earth, but it also makes wines with more concentration.

Fortified with success at the winery, the Montes family decided to expand operations in other countries.

“I was talking with my father and we decided we wanted to find a new place for a winery,” says Montes. “For five years I traveled to places like Australia, Napa, Spain, Portugal and France together to learn how wine is made in these regions. It was during these travels that I realized Argentina is really special.”

Drinking in the culture of Argentina

Named for the only animal to be able to cross the Andes between Chile and Argentina, the Caiquenes wild geese, Kaiken was founded in Argentina in 2002. That spirit of crossing the Andes to start a new winery in Argentina was both a gamble and an adventure. It was an economic risk. It was a culture risk.

Fifteen years ago, the Argentinian wine industry was completely undeveloped and Malbec was unknown outside its borders.

“We choose to start our winery in Argentina for three reasons,” says Montes. “One, we fell in love with the undeveloped country. Two, the terroir is so different. Producing wine in the desert is very different. The soil in Mendoza is something I would never choose. Sandy soil. Rocky soil. Crazy soil at high altitude. Finding new terroir was very great. Three, I wanted to go someplace where people are passionate about wine. In Argentina, they drink 40 liters per person a year. Never have I had lunch or dinner in Argentina without wine. People love wine. That passion is not easy to find in other places. These three things made us say, let’s go to Argentina. We love to make wine, we love to drink wine. This is the perfect place to be.”

The climate, the altitude and the grapes are significantly different in Argentina from Chile. Doing business is equally divergent. Montes explained, “In Chile, if I want to buy grapes, I sign a contract with the vineyard owner. In Argentina, if I want grapes, I stop a grower in the street, go to the vineyard and give them instructions. Then harvest and ferment. Until that point there is no price set. Contracts don’t exist in Argentina. It sounds crazy. It’s a hand-shake relationship based on trust. Everything is relationships.”

Similarities and differences come alive in the wines

Kaiken Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Kaiken Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015

 

Despite the differences, there are some similarities. Kaiken also follows sustainable practices. The vineyards are farmed with biodynamic concepts, working with nature, moon, stars, and the community to guide it. Like Viña Montes, Kaiken sources grapes from multiple vineyards in various terrains like the Vistalba vineyard, the oldest vineyard in Mendoza with 105 year old Malbec vines, and the Cistaflores vineyard located on the upper slope of the Andes.

While Kaiken doesn’t make Carmenère and Viña Montes doesn’t make Malbec or Torrontés, both make Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Incidentally, the Torrontés, grown in the Salta region of Argentina, is susceptible to fall victim to the ravenous appetites of wild donkeys. That’s not an issue growers face in Chile. It isn’t easy to find Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina, but there are a few wineries that are producing good wines. It took Montes almost 10 years to find the right spot to grow Sauvignon Blanc.  Kaiken makes its 2015 Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc with grapes grown at almost 5,000 feet in elevation high on a plateau in the middle of the Andes in Mendoza. The site has extreme weather, requiring the grapes to be harvested in February (which is equivalent to harvesting in July in the U.S.) because it is already too cold in March.

Montes and KaikenWine  Tasting Montes and KaikenWine Tasting

 

It’s fascinating to taste the differences in the wines from each winery side by side. This is where the importance of the growing conditions really shines through.

Montes Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2015 could easily be mistaken for a young wine from New Zealand. Its vibrant aromas of lemon blossoms and fresh jalapeños lead into crisp citrus and tropical fruit flavors with a healthy dose of green grass. This spring flower sells for $15.

Kaiken Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015 is fermented in 16 percent used French oak to round out the flavor and give it elegance and Sancerre-like complexity. Bright lemon and stone fruit flavors dance on the palate with minerals coming through on the finish. This is the second harvest for this wine. “This is like an elegant woman that doesn’t need to dress proactively to call attention,” says Montes. “The wine speaks for itself.” It is $19 a bottle.

Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is made with grapes dry farmed on the lower slopes of Colchagua Valley in soils laden with granite gravel and clay. Herbal scents of dried thyme, leafy tobacco and green pepper dominate before revealing black cherry, blackberry and chocolate flavors. It is a powerful ballet dancer ready to perform for $25.

Kaiken Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is made with grapes grown in rocky, clay-rich soil on 50 year old vines from the Vistalba vineyard in Mendoza. Pow. Bossy blackberry and saucy strawberry slap you in the mouth. Soft mocha and baking spices kisses let you know it’s all in fun. This juicy darling is $25.

The Montes family has managed to capture the order, structure and elegance of Chile in the bottle. At the same time it celebrates the freewheeling, rugged flair of Argentina with its sister winery. Soccer, politics, relationships and wild donkeys are the terroir off wines.

Disclosure: I was provided with the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference where this interview took place.

What are you drinking?

 

 

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The Intoxicating Experiences of the 2015 TexSom  

August 14, 2015

The Texas Sommelier Conference, aka TexSom, just wrapped its 11th annual session at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas. It truly is one of the biggest and best wine education conferences in the world. It’s geared for wine professions and serious aficionados who get deliriously blissful to talk about the most […]

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Austin wine pro Nathan Fausti named the 2015 TexSom best sommelier

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  It’s fairly common for music venues like the Continental Club and Cactus Café to have an artist residency with guest bands playing shows on consecutive nights or weeks. It’s not a common thing to have a guest bartender residency, but newly opened cocktail bar The Townsend is doing just that. The cocktail lounge and live music […]

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What to drink in Austin right now: Two local spirits put a new spin on gin

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  Gin starts life as a wallflower. In the beginning, it is nothing more than colorless, odorless, flavorless liquor, sort of like vodka. Then it is distilled again with a mix of juniper berries and other herbs that transform it into an aromatic, sophisticated spirit. As gorgeous and complex as gin is, it takes on an […]

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What to drink during Running of the Bulls: Avignonesi Desiderio

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Reading Hemingway always makes me want to drink. Every time Jake Barnes takes a long tug off of a wine skin during the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona while watching the Running of the Bulls in The Sun Also Rises, I want to join him in some purposeless debauchery. This year, the annual Running […]

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