My First Real NY Wine Romp

Oh Baco baby... oil on stretched cotton sweater 22" x 22"

A long while ago I went on a buying rampage - well maybe more like a bonanza - fueled by my excitement after reading 'A History of Wine in America' by Thomas Pinney and wondering why, as I looked around at the plethora of wineries that littered the landscape nearby, they weren't taking a more prominent place in the shops of New York City. Granted New York City is a saturated and very competitive market but these wineries must have been around for decades, making wine and clearly supporting themselves, so why did it seem so difficult to get them beyond their vineyard boarders? I bought a number of New York and Connecticut wines at first and then spread my buying power to other states, keeping log of what states I could have shipped to me and what they had to offer. I knew I was stepping into an open ocean of possibilities where it seemed far easier to pick out possible clunkers than slam dunkers.

If you've read any of my past posts from this section, you'll know that I've stated the common reaction from people when you mention stateside wines not based on the West Coast or Finger Lakes, it's at best an askance doubtful look with some dismissal mixed in. Ultimately these areas are more of an outlier compared to the vast sea of options offered by importers and restaurants, by wine enthusiasts and writers, by magazines that focus your attention, that give points and aim the prestige of one category over another: focus, buy and reinforce. It's a system that has been around for decades, it's the construct we live in that has established history (region and grower) and is based on market demand - no one's going to deny the world class wines their due, nor even more recent stars from regions flung far across the globe - but at the same time, lingering in the air, is this miasma of not disdain but perhaps aversion to acknowledge that wines produced in these "petri-dish" pocket areas, that in their own right have been around for decades winning awards and acclaim behind the scenes, are not worth or given the same attention. So they're not on our radar because they're not in our cultural purview; we don't have context for them, a kind of forgotten history where the romance has been exported over generations through social osmosis, across the ocean to a fictional ideal log-jammed in dense history - all fun stuff no doubt. The interesting part, once you begin to uncover the wineries in your backyard, is that you learn about a long history stretching back to the late 17th century: settlers and farmers who tilled the ground for agricultural purposes - the vine included - sprawled out and made with what they had, at times having to convert to other forms of sustenance to keep them and the nation growing through its own in fits-and-starts and as Prohibition eventually reared its ugly head.

The Temperance Movement - god rest their souls and whatever - ruined the cultural legacy of generations of immigrants by reacting to the ills plaguing society with an unwavering clenched fist against all things alcohol. They saw it as a moral fight to save the country from ills it couldn't see or didn't think could be overcome and in the process snuffed out, without discern and broad strokes, a whole way of life for many who wanted to emulate the drinks of their homeland because it was a point of pride like a fine collection of paintings or architecture. It was a fight waged initially in reaction to the  scourge of rum and whiskey turned against any libation, or derivative thereof, where alcohol was present. Rum and Whiskey were the more common drinks of choice, easily accessible because they were readily available and often very cheap but it soon the fervor spread to wine, cider and beer - drinks that were at best low in alcohol (less than 5%). After the 18th Amendment was passed a permit was required to process anything deriving from grapes, especially to make sacramental wines during this dark decade (i.e. The Brotherhood Winery). A strange loophole existed though, given a permit to process grape based product you could, in the privacy of your own home, turn grape bricks into a limited amount of wine for personal consumption, but otherwise your business was probably shut down or smashed by the anti-Saloon League. It wasn't really until the 1960's and 1970's that you began to see winegrowers rebounding from this period and coming together legislatively to solve this anachronistic and anti-cultural issue; laws were eventually enacted to allow farms and producers to begin growing and processing their grapes into fermented juice, using varietals I might add, culled from the long history of trying to solve the vitis vinifera problem in America. Hundreds of hybrids were created throughout the 19th century, some championed to be the solution for the issues plaguing their growth without knowing that it was a nasty louse called phylloxera that was hampering their attempts since colonial landfall. In many instances these homegrown French-American hybrids were planted throughout the Northeast, the Midwest and the South as alternatives and made - and still do make - serviceable wines that have found support over the decades. But at the same time they've almost been caught at their source, cultivated, grown and produced, again, under-the-radar and known only to those interested in searching them out or who live nearby and have discovered their charm. In an industry dominated by the FIGS nations and then by  the larger wine producing regions in the United States, it's really quite easy to get blindsided by these familiars that have been established over the past few hundred years. Perhaps I'm making too much of this, yet I work around a lot of wines from the FIGS nations, drink a lot of FIGS wines and grew up with only FIGS wines, so the mention of varietals or wines made anywhere else are generally dismissed raising that underdog spirit within. It's a point that still seems pertinent even though every state now makes wine, no doubt has  a burgeoning business for their wines and has probably invested enough time, energy and skill to turn the curve and begin crafting unique local wines. 

I'm clearly coming at this from the standpoint of someone whose time is taken up by Old World wines, I mean, they're everywhere and they have a proven track record but I'm continually discovering what my backyard has to offer. Maybe I'm playing an old fiddle or blowing hot air, playing a little too much of the soap box but I just had to get this diatribe off my mind before I continued further on this exploration into American wine. If I'm repeating myself, I apologize, I'm just eager and excited and will refrain from these outbursts any further. 

The rather important part of North American wine history to remember is that grape breeders have been hard at work for more than a hundred years developing varietal hybrids, the focus being to maintain the characteristics of the vitis viniferia yet reflect the hardiness of the native varietals in order to withstand the harsh climate and pests - so they wanted their cake to eat it too! The Baco Noir is just one of these French-American hybrid grapes that managed to climb above the rest and gain traction across the Northeast, Midwest and Canada due to it's hardiness, versatility and characteristics. The grape is a hybrid of Folle Blanche (a French white grape) plus and unknown native American varietal - yea, you got that right, a fairly obscure French grape from Armagnac mated with a an unknown vitis riparia grape from North America, bred in 1854 by Francois Baco with the intent of creating a varietal that could withstand the ills of the region but as always, retain it's French characteristics - more cake! The varietal has come to be known for its brick red color, spiced aromas, medium body, high acidity and most importantly lacking that "foxy" aroma that so many native American grapes can have and which I find to smell awfully like a crude form of gasoline. 

So in my buying spree I purchased the Baco Noir Reserve 2011 "Casscles Vineyards" from Hudson-Chatham Winery, put it in my rack alongside a slew of other wines and simply kept putting off the time I was going to tackle New York. I'm more than certain a year has passed since I purchased this bottle and it's still singing in my head as I compose this entry days later. To start off, the Hudson-Chatham Winery is located in the Hudson River Region AVA, the most dominating feature is obviously the Hudson River that helps to moderate the temperatures in both the summer and winter, the steep trailing palisades channel the warmer Atlantic breezes inland where the vineyards can be found planted on the western side of the river. Since this is the Northeast, the intense winter climate plays a huge role in what can be grown here, the land is no stranger to the likes of Chardonnay or Merlot but they can be more sensitive to late or early frosts and are often disproportionately affected by the climate, that and phylloxera forced many growers early on to turn towards the burgeoning hybrid grapes. It shouldn't be a surprise that the region has a long history of wine and cider production going back to the late 17th century, it's about as American as American can be in fact. In the colonial days fruits like apples, pears, grapes and even pumpkins were farmed for their produce but also made into fairly weak and comforting drinks - still safer than trying to drink water. New York still maintains the country's longest continually operating winery, The Brotherhood Winery - from which I still have their "Port" hold up in my rack - as well as claiming the earliest planted vineyards in 1642. But nowadays the Finger Lakes and Long Island get much of the press. From what I understand, much of this has to do with the region struggling to find its identity, an identity that is coming more clearly into view. 

Case in point: the Casscles Vineyard, named for Stephen Casscles - the winemaker at Hudson-Chatham, and whose original wines were made all using Baco Noir planted back in 1990 making the vines approximately 20 years old - has garnered a lot of attention since the aughts. Mr. Casscles has worked at Benmarl Winery and written a history of New York State varietals that I'm eager to pick up. Though the estate has a list of wines spanning the usual suspects - grapes purchased from abroad to make into their own cuvees - they've become known for their Baco Noir, a wine likened to characteristics found in Burgundy and Barolo, something that I was quick to pick up while glass after glass disappeared. 

At first I wasn't sure what to make of it, the aromas were varied and dare I say strange, yet the longer it was left open the more its parts came together and I grew accustomed to it, no infatuated! Being unfamiliar with this varietal and the Hudson River Region AVA, I was caught off-guard to say the least. I'm quite familiar with where the Hudson Valley is, I grew up in southern Westchester after all but it's only in the past year or so that I've made short trips to a few of its wineries, some less amazing than others. More recently a few friends and I went up to Warwick Valley Winery, ciders are awesome and a few of their wines definitely caught my eye. 

Swinging back around to the wine at hand, aromas started out with robust baked spices, darkened cranberries, ripened and warm - somewhat like a Zinfandel but a little askance - yet balanced with a leanness I'd expect lurking around the edges of a dirtier earthier Gamay - think Chiroubles. Being a hybrid grape some might be inclined to note its "foxiness" and I certainly could see where one would bring that to the table: there's a strong tannic grit on the palate that on the nose translates over to an almost greasy slickness coursing around the edges and appears just beyond the aromas, it's almost quintessential pulverized, liquefied and preserved rock over centuries beneath the ground: something like compacted meteorites is the main visual that keeps coming to mind as a I kept sleuthing to discern exactly what was going on. Perhaps this was the "foxiness" of which people speak, a sort of pockmarked gray-silver rock bed, if aerated it takes on an almost gasoline-like scent or exists as a dirty rocky scent carried over into sensation, always distinct, always present but never subdued completely. I've tasted something akin to this in the few other New England wines I've had and noted the discord that followed if not harnessed with skill, but this wine does something beautiful. On the second day I found the dark cranberried notes matured into a deep tired cranberry, faded by the sun and singed with yeasty breaded qualities while in the same breadth being bound by that sleek smoothness, almost like ones confident smirk, rimming the edges of every conversation with slight hidden energy, containing this enigmatic wilderness that desperately attempts to lead you into it's mystery but for some metaphysical reason, like a dream, you cannot cross over. Few wines have come across to me as enchanted gateways let alone maintain a fine line of continued structure, austerity and charm; a wine that through to day three was comfortable in itself and settles into you without worry as to whomever is looking on, taking command of its sour cherry and sweet flower notes along with what became an ever growing savory expanse that it's resting self exuded, calling like a pheromone for juicy meats or plump seasoned mushrooms from his position at the head of the table; the roll of the early morning sea air welcoming the dusky colors of dawn. And the wine was balanced, so wonderfully balanced without being boring, weightiness pitted against tannin that allowed the array of flavors beguiling my senses to roll out and reinforce the subtle power of this wine. 

This isn't an easy pleaser, one that you could quaff without thinking about but that needs patience and time for its story to unfurl. 

As much as I feel it's a cop-out to compare wines to Old World examples to get a certain kind of profile across, I can't help but put together this equation: the color of aged Barolo + a dash of Zinfandel spice + earthiness of a Chiroubles  + a dash of Sherry = Baco Noir. It might seem like a discordant mess but everything was well in tune. 


PoP: Astor Wines & Spirits; price unknown....