A few weeks ago, my girlfriend Katy and I attended the Canandaigua Wine Walk. Some of the things I enjoy about events like this, other than tasting wine, are learning about new wines and wineries, meeting people, and getting an opportunity to experience something out of the ordinary.
One of the benefits of being a wine blogger is that people in the industry engage me differently when I introduce myself as the Finger Lakes Wine Guy. I routinely hand out my business cards when I go to wineries and wine tasting events to promote my blog. This opens up opportunities because the wineries realize my blog can provide another channel for them promote their wines. This was the case with the Canandaigua Wine Walk. I happened to be at the wine walk because Don Stevens, the organizer of the event, invited me after reading one of my blog posts which I promoted on the Downtown Canandaigua Merchants Association’s Facebook page. After handing out business cards at the Wine Walk, it was no surprise that I received an invitation to visit Kings Garden Vineyards, one of the wineries at the event. What was a surprise is what a uniquely informative and enjoyable experience the visit turned out to be.
Kings Garden Vineyards is located on State Route 414 in Lodi, NY on the east coast of Seneca Lake in an area known as the “banana belt” for its unique micro-climate which is particularly suited for growing grapes. It is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Mike and Corinne Oleksyn. Corinne had sent me the invitation after her son gave her my business card after the Wine Walk, where he was pouring wine. Corinne offered to give me a tour of the winery and to participate in a barrel tasting with the wine maker, her husband Mike. This sounded like a great opportunity and I eagerly accepted Corinne’s invitation.
Katy and I arrived at the winery around 11:30 last Saturday morning. Corinne was pouring wine for a couple of customers so Katy and I had a look around while we waited for an opportunity to introduce ourselves. The tasting room is a fairly new building with single tasting bar, a couple of bathrooms, and a modest deck off to one side. It’s located on a large piece of property that is also home to the winery, a quarter mile behind the tasting room. The view of the lake is fantastic from the deck which makes it a great spot to enjoy a bottle of wine with some bread and cheese. The customers Corinne was waiting on had left which gave her the opportunity to introduce herself and to start the tour. She started off by telling us a bit about herself and the winery and then led us out to the deck where we continued to get acquainted. Corinne pointed out the fact that there were no grapes growing on the lot with the tasting room yet and that their vineyard is located a few miles down the hill. She also pointed out the winery up the hill where her husband was working and where the bulk of the tour would take place. She offered to drive us up to the winery but Katy and I decided to walk up, which seemed surprising to Corinne. She stayed behind to mind the tasting room while she waited for her assistant to show up. Katy and I walked the short distance up the hill, taking in the magnificent view on the way.
Mike greeted us as we approached the building and he jumped right into the tour. He started by taking us to the back of the building to show us where the grapes come in and are crushed and de-stemmed. The machines can be adjusted to control how much stem to leave or the level of crush to achieve. He then brought us inside where a one ton container of Pinot Noir grapes was fermenting. We saw the “cap” of grape skins floating on top that has to be “punched down” several times a day so the flavors contained in the skins are mixed with the juice. Mike offered Katy and me a taste of the juice in this raw, fermenting form. It had a very grapy flavor with a bit of sparkle and was very different than what it will become when it finishes the process. We also tasted a Chardonnay juice before it was inoculated with yeast. This was the best grape juice I ever tasted. Mike explained many details of the wine making process including sugar content and percent alcohol, balancing acidity, variations in yeast strains, and much, much more. It’s amazing how much information is in his head. Part of the winery looked like a science lab with beakers, test tubes, funnels, and various instruments for measuring sugar content, acidity, etc. The geek in me found this all very interesting.
The tour continued as Mike started to take samples from the barrels. We sampled many wines including Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, and Syrah. We tasted from American and French Oak barrels. We tasted wine made from free run juice and from pressed juice. Free run being the juice that comes out of the grape when crushed. Pressed juice is extracted by pressing the grapes to coax the juice out. There were blends of free run and pressed. Other variations in the process include the toast of a barrel and the type of yeast used to ferment the wine. Barrels are charred which gives them a smoky character. The amount of char is the described by the level of toast. Barrels can be lightly toasted or heavily toasted. The toast greatly affects the character of the finished wine. The oak species also makes a difference in the wine. American oak barrels tend to produce wines with more of a bite while the wine produced in French oak barrels tends to be smoother. Variations in yeasts strains make a difference in the character and flavor of the wine. I mentioned to Mike that many wines I taste have a grapefruit flavor. He said that Sauterne yeast tends to impart a grapefruit flavor in the wine. Oh, I better not forget to mention the variations in the grapes themselves. Grapes that grow on one end of a row of vines can be very different from the grapes on the other end of the row. Some grapes on the same vine receive more sun than others. To put it another way, if you take two tons of grapes of a specific variety, each ton from different sections of the vineyard, crush the grapes the same way, collect free run and pressed juice, ferment with the same strain of yeast, and place the juice in similar barrels, you will end up with each barrel being noticeably different from the rest. Start adding variability in the crush or type of barrel used and the differences will be greater yet. We tasted a free run Syrah aged in American oak and it had a very distinctive smoky, nutty, coffee flavor. We then tasted a Syrah made from a blend of free run and pressed juice in French oak which was rather neutral. Finally we tasted a free run Syrah in French Oak that had a pepper finish. The trick or better yet, the art is to take all these barrels and blend them to achieve desirable characteristics and consistency that you can bottle in reasonable quantity. You may blend the various barrels of the same variety or you may blend different varieties. Blending is an art unto itself and there is a lot of experimentation that takes place to come up with the best blends. The French call this “the marriage”. The French have colorful terms for practically everything.
We headed back down to the tasting room after the winery tour to taste the finished product. By this time there were several customers coming and going which kept Corinne and her tasting room assistant quite busy. Katy and I were a bit hungry so I broke out some brie, a baguette, and some grapes for a snack while Mike lead us though a traditional tasting. By this time I stopped taking notes and simply enjoyed the wine. We went though the entire lineup and I definitely found several favorites which included the 2008 Syrah, Kings Cab, the 2005 Chardonnay, and the 2008 Pinot Noir.
We couldn’t leave without visiting the vineyard, which is located a few miles down the hill from the tasting room. We said goodbye to Corinne and Mike took us down for a quick look at the vineyard. The quick look turned into an hour tour of the vineyard. Mike went over all the details of grape farming from planting, pruning, spraying, trellis repair, leaf removal to expose grapes to the sun, and harvesting. He explained all the perils that the grapes face including pests, weather, deer, turkey, woodchucks, etc. We tasted all the varieties of grape and even tasted some grapes “infected” with the Botrytis fungus. The word “infected” in this case is not a bad thing because this fungus is actually desirable. It causes the grapes to become partially raisined, which concentrates the sugars and makes a sweet, rich wine. Of course the French have a term for this as well. They call it Noble Rot.
If Katy and I didn’t have commitments that evening, I think we would have ended up spending several more hours with Mike and Corinne at Kings Garden Vineyards. We had a wonderfully fun and informative day and we gained a new appreciation for how much work goes into making great wine. Our conversations were not only about wine but our backgrounds, hobbies, the Finger Lakes, and many other topics that were weaved into our discussions of wine and wine-making. I look forward to visiting Kings Garden again to sample their new wines and to take Mike and Corinne up on their invitation to participate in some blending experiments. Most of all, I look forward to spending more time with our new friends. They are wonderful hosts and provide a great wine tasting experience. Be sure to stop in and say hello if you find yourself traveling in the area. You won’t be disappointed.