World-class riesling is produced in the Finger Lakes. Wine people know that. But to much of America and the world, the region is a wine outpost, a remote area in west-central New York a couple of hundred miles or so from New York City and, consequently, well off the radar of most consumers, retailers, restaurants and wine writers – in New York and beyond. Evan Dawson’s splendid new book, “Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes,” (Sterling Epicure, $19.95) is likely to change that.
I have to admit that before I received the book for review, I wasn’t particularly drawn to the region. One can find Finger Lakes wines here in New York, but they compete for shelf space and attention with wines from the rest of the world and are not well promoted (the wines of eastern Long Island do slightly better in this regard, benefiting from the region’s proximity to the city). Now, however, I look forward to a deeper exploration of the region and the wines.
Dawson, a television news reporter and anchor in Rochester and an editor of New York Cork Report, a wine Web site, chronicles the evolution of the Finger Lakes as a serious wine area through the experiences of a dozen winemakers and growers who have shaped – and are shaping – the region. Most of the stories begin with a clever narrative device, a flashback to a turning point that put the winemaker on course for the Finger Lakes. There are pioneers of the region such as Hermann J.Wiemer, the German who disdained other Finger Lakes winemakers and who, by simply putting the word “dry” on his labels, changed the perception of riesling as only a sweet wine; and Dr. Konstantin Frank, the Ukrainian immigrant who introduced vinifera grapes to the cool-climate region and became obsessed with trying to eradicate its old hybrid varieties.
Then there’s Sam Argetsinger, a woodsman and grape grower on Seneca Lake who embraces Iroquois culture and its respect for the land. “I was about to find out,” Dawson writes, “that Sam Argetsinger’s grapes tasted unlike any other wine grapes in the Finger Lakes. He spoke of them like they were his children, and he couldn’t understand why most growers douse their vineyards with chemical sprays and fertilizers. ‘Think about that,’ he said as he picked a bunch of Riesling grapes. ‘We’re killing five or ten things to make one thing grow. You think that’s balance? That’s not balance – that’s crazy.’” We also hear about Tom Higgins and his quest for the perfect piece of limestone-based land on which to grow his pinot noir, and Tricia Renshaw, a novice whose gifts of taste and smell were discovered by the veteran winemaker Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards, who made her his assistant and an overnight wine prodigy.
Dawson weaves into these tales a good deal of drama, some suspense and, here and there, just the right amount of explanation about wine making. On a practical level, the book will serve as a guide to some of the best wineries and wines in the Finger Lakes and will be a great read while traveling and tasting in the region. (One small criticism: there are repeated references to Champagne as “French Champagne,” which is, of course, redundant, but also an unnecessary nod to the outdated practice by some wineries in the region of calling sparkling wine “Champagne.”)
“Summer in a Glass” is a compelling tribute to a region’s visionaries whose passions, struggles and small triumphs make the book about much more than wine.