Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Finger Lakes wines are having a moment

Fred Merwarth, left, Wine Enthusiast magazine's "Winemaker of the Year," tours the Herman J. Wiemer vineyard with winemaker Dillon Buckley and assistant winemaker Bryanna Cramer.
Fred Merwarth, left, Wine Enthusiast magazine's "Winemaker of the Year," tours the Herman J. Wiemer vineyard with winemaker Dillon Buckley and assistant winemaker Bryanna Cramer.

Since serving as the setting for Sophia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” in 2003, the Park Hyatt Tokyo has found a new audience in the form of film buffs who want to see where Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray found an on-screen spark.

There, on the upper floors of the Shinjuku Park Tower, among the tallest buildings in a city of skyscrapers, hotel guests will find breathtaking views of the Tokyo skyline and Mount Fuji, a stunning indoor pool, and a world-class restaurant.

They will also find a Finger Lakes riesling on the menu.

After decades of trial and countless errors, the Finger Lakes wine region has achieved a kind of breakthrough on the world stage. Its wines, particularly its rieslings, are cracking global top 100 lists in record numbers and being compared by critics to the best being offered in Germany and Austria, the birthplace of rieslings.

"In the past, it would have been niche to even understand that New York had a serious wine region," said Chris Grocki, a restaurant industry professional who has consulted on wine lists for some of the most exclusive establishments in New York City and California. "Now, it's a given in upscale and fine-dining restaurants."

How a riesling cultivated in Yates County ended up on a Tokyo landmark’s wine list is a story of grit and determination, two words that shatter the romantic notions many wine lovers have about vineyard work.

"In the past, it would have been niche to even understand that New York had a serious wine region. Now, it's a given in upscale and fine-dining restaurants."
Restaurant industry professional Chris Grocki

Wine grapes are not like table grapes. They are sensitive and easily offended, particularly by rain and humidity. Fifty years ago, when a European immigrant was looking for the best variety to plant in Finger Lakes soil, a local farmer replied, "Try green beans." The tale might be apocryphal, but the lesson has remained the same. Viticulture is not for the weak-willed.

This distinction of arriving as a global player does not come in the mail. It does come, perhaps, with a phone call.

Fred Merwarth, the winemaker and co-owner of Hermann J. Wiemer on Seneca Lake, got the call in October, when he was in the middle of a particularly obstreperous harvest. On the other end was someone from Wine Enthusiast informing him that he was going to be the magazine’s Winemaker of the Year.

The magazine, which has traditionally focused on high-wattage wine regions in California and France, had never bestowed the award on a New York vintner. But it recognized Merwarth for what it called “his continued drive and passion to push the boundaries of Finger Lakes wine.”

In the magazine’s Winemaker of the Year profile, writer Alexander Peartree described Merwarth as “driven, detail-oriented and always thinking about the long game” and the regional effort to cultivate riesling over the last 50 years as an unqualified success.

Herman J. Wiemer Vineyard and Winery in Dundee, Yates County, off Seneca Lake.
Herman J. Wiemer Vineyard and Winery in Dundee, Yates County, off Seneca Lake.

The recognition was published in December and Merwarth was sworn to secrecy until then.

"I couldn't tell anyone, so it felt anticlimactic for a while," Merwarth said. "I was sleep deprived from harvest, and I had to keep this in.

“But when I reflected for a bit, I thought about the things we've been working on that we just don't talk about outside the winery,” he went on. “I thought about the risks we take, and how sometimes we lose, and sometimes we pull off a wine that we weren't sure we could pull off. And it all seemed to add up to this."

For years, Finger Lakes wines were rarely found in restaurants, even in Rochester. If they couldn't win the home games, how were they to break through in places like Manhattan or Chicago?

Grocki sees the Finger Lakes region not as a restaurant list mainstay, but instead as a wink to the savviest consumers who understand the wine world outside of Napa and Bordeaux. He said he no longer persuades restaurants to give Finger Lakes wines a shot. They ask for them.

"The secret handshake 10 years ago was that people knew the Finger Lakes could make world-class riesling," Grocki explained. "Now the secret handshake is actual individual producers from the Finger Lakes — Forge Cellars, Nathan Kendall, Wiemer."

Among Finger Lakes wineries with the most consistent placement in restaurants outside its home region, Wiemer is at the top.

In addition to being on the menu at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, Wiemer wines are at the Peninsula Hotel in Shanghai. Before the pandemic, Noma in Copenhagan, consistently selected as the best restaurant in the world by international chefs and critics, offered Wiemer dry riesling by the glass.

Closer to home, Wiemer wines can be found at Gramercy Tavern, 11 Madison Park, Tamarind, and Michelin-starred Aquavit in Manhattan. It is also on the menu at the trendy Red Rooster in Harlem.

Oskar Bynke has convinced restaurants around the world to open their minds to the Finger Lakes.

Bynke is a Swede who met Merwarth during the final weeks of their senior years at Cornell University. They became fast friends, and now Bynke is a co-owner of Wiemer.

He is regularly on the road and making so much headway so quickly he could not remember offhand how many restaurants carry their wines. "We have maybe 400 accounts here," he said, speaking by phone from midtown Manhattan.

When asked how a Wiemer wine ended up on Noma's list, he replied matter-of-factly, “We have contacts. People know what we're doing."

Almost no one knew what the Finger Lakes producers were doing a generation ago.

Hermann Wiemer himself was one of the pioneers in a region that only boasted a couple dozen wineries by the end of the 1980s. Today there are more than 100. The first wave could get by on tasting room sales alone, but market saturation makes that very difficult nowadays.

The top wineries are cultivating customer bases around the world. Forge and Ravines Wine Cellars are part of the expanding list of Finger Lakes labels that appear on menus in multiple states.

Merwarth believes the key is assiduously avoiding any sense of entitlement. He loves the idea that a tourist in Tokyo might be turned on to a Finger Lakes Riesling, or a Cabernet Franc, for the first time. But he knows that love affairs can start and end unexpectedly.

"I don't think you can know that you've made it in the moment," he said. "Did Napa or Sonoma know they had made it in the '70s or '80s? It's easy to look back and say they did.

“But it's a body of work, and it takes decades,” he went on. “Maybe some time in the future I'll look back on where we've been, and what we've achieved, but not yet."

Then he smiled and added, "I suspect we're in the middle of something really interesting, I'll say that."

Evan Dawson is the host of "Connections with Evan Dawson." He joined WXXI in January 2014 after working at 13WHAM-TV, where he served as morning news anchor. He was hired as a reporter for 13WHAM-TV in 2003 before being promoted to anchor in 2007.