Hermann Wiemer created one of the most important wineries in the United States. In the 1970s while pioneers of fine wine in California were creating an international sensation that exploded with Steven Spurrier's tasting in Paris, Hermann Wiemer was very quietly creating excitement with selected vineyard sites around Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes district of New York state. With acknowledgement to the wines of Dr. Konstantin Frank, the Finger Lakes district had never really been thought about as a region with the possibility of making world class wine before Hermann Wiemer. Today, the Finger Lakes region is filled with wineries surrounding Seneca Lake, and the quality seems to get better and better with each passing vintage. The grape varietals, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer that created the first impressions from reviewers and critics, are now highly praised with both national and international recognition. There is more to come. The Finger Lakes is now being recognized for fine Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Who knew?
Oskar Bynke and Fred Merwarth, the current owners of Hermann J. Wiemer, have carried on, and grew the traditions Hermann had created; I asked Oskar to tell their story.
How Fred & Oskar Met
"We met at school, Cornell University. We actually met the last days of classes. Then we were both hired by the same company, a venture capitalist company, located in Binghamton.
Leading up to the last days in Binghamton, Fred and I talked about how we could get into the wine business. We had well-paying jobs for our age and experience, but we couldn't stand the environment. We were willing to start on a lower level and move from the ground up, doing what we were passionate about.
Fred knew that he wanted to be on the production side. I was not sure, but the import side seemed to be alluring, as I thought that would be the best way to be exposed to as much wine as possible. Once we left Binghamton, we went our different paths. Fred went to work for Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards because he wanted to become a wine maker, and I went back to Sweden to study Geology and finish my Masters in Agriculture. Afterwards, I worked in New York City for about six years in the wine trade. While Fred was cleaning barrels in the night, I was selling Fortissimo in Staten Island as my first job; a sales territory no one else wanted. Times moved on and we gradually moved up in the world (nothing against Fortissimo sales on Staten Island).
Around 2003-4, Hermann insinuated that he wanted to retire. Some investors and potential buyers visited the winery, but the only one who could make the wine was Fred, and Hermann gradually realized there was no other person than Fred that could do this. I was there working on weekends and vacations, and on one occasion took six months off to become the winery's cellar rat. During this time I established a relationship with Hermann.
Later, Hermann asked Fred if I wanted to help buy the vineyard. In 2007 we officially took over the winery with the help of friends and banks, so that Hermann could retire comfortably!"
Unique Qualities of the Finger Lakes Wine Region
"The weather. The variation of weather and the resulting variation in the vintages of the wine. In addition to being one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, with the waterfalls, gorges, and lakes; it is also one of the most challenging regions to grow grapes. We are a truly a cool climate region, the only cool climate region in America where we have the zest and freshness to grow Riesling. We have a true identity. There is a niche here. In order to deal with the changing weather, we need to be agriculturally savvy.
The soil. There are finite spots in the Finger Lakes where you can grow vinifera in relation to the lake. On those sites, we sort out where it is better to grow Cabernet Franc and where it is better to grow Riesling. That's what makes our region unique and exciting. The building blocks of terroir are the interaction between climate, soils, site selections, and cultivars. The Finger Lakes has a great potential showcasing terroir.
Great wine regions have established the vineyard as the number one priority, and the person producing the wine is second. Our region is unique because site selection and matching the variety to the site comes second to growing great grapes."
Vineyard Sites; What is Planted, Where and Why
"Since Hermann was one of the pioneers in the region, and had a background in the nursery business, the relationship between vine and soil is very important to us. Our soil ranges from shallow and gravelly with shale bedrock to richer, deeper, silt loam. The HJW Vineyard is probably the most interesting. In 1973, Hermann learned on this site by trial and error. HJW turned out to not grow reds all that well; the vineyard was a very cool spot. In purchasing Magdalena and Josef in 1999, Hermann explored richer soils and a slightly warmer site.
In planting each vineyard site, we are meticulous about how and where to plant and trellis. We arrange some rows east to west, some rows north to south, depending on the airflow of the lake, and the erosion. For example, on our northern sites, we plant the reds (Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir) which have richer soils. Some of our whites demand less heat and maturity, so we can use Southern sites, which have less productive soil. As a result, our Riesling and Chardonnay capture a backbone of wet stone, acidity, stone fruit, and flint components."
Partnership Roles & The Winery Team
"Funny story... originally, Fred was a business major, and I was an agronomy major in Sweden. Today, Fred is on the vineyard, nursery, and winery side; whereas I am on the business side.
Initially, Fred and I did everything, all the time! 24/7! We never left the vineyard or winery. Now, we are a little more structured. It took us almost five years to get an assistant winemaker, whom we just hired. Fred's wife Maressa and interns all helped in wine production and anywhere they were needed. As we are enjoying some attention around the country, and many markets have started to show interest in us, I have been traveling more and more. In the winter months, I go to see the distributors. But, between May and Thanksgiving, I am at the winery most of the time..."
Future Plans for the Winery
"Our future plan for the winery is to elevate the quality. Although we are one of the oldest in the Finger Lakes, we are very young compared to the other regions of the world. We are still working on our plantings, viticulture, and vinification methods.
The winery has a history of being very agriculturally driven, in the sense that we have little intervention in the winery. Instead, we focus on the quality of the fruit. We continue to review the potential of our sites with better management. We use an organic spray program with no herbicides and no pesticides, and we will try to grasp the powers that are out of our control-flirting with Steiner (the father of biodynamic farming) a small bit... The goal is not only to make very high quality wines, but also to elevate the wines of the whole region by spearheading the Finger Lakes as the premier Riesling terroir of the country."
'Terroir' Differences between the Finger Lakes, Alsace, the Mosel, and the Rhine
"The Finger Lakes have elements of all three of these regions, which goes back to the idea that site selection is critical. For instance, Alsace is known for its Grand Cru system, which focuses on the positioning of the vineyards. We are very similar with regard to the diversity of soils. However, Alsace has a much warmer climate.
The Mosel is almost entirely Riesling focused, similar to our fascination with Riesling. You can pull many quality levels from the same sites from the same grapes. I would also say the climate is closer to ours, yielding a similar more restrained, flinty, and more fruit-driven Riesling.
In terms of the Rhine, when you get a certain distance from the Rhine, you can't grow vineyards. Similarly here -- once you get to a certain distance from the lake, the moderating effects take longer to occur. However, the Rhine region is slightly warmer than ours, and they produce rounder Rieslings with higher alcohol levels.
If you look specifically at climate, those three regions do not deal with the consistency of extreme cold temperature like we do. Therefore, the terroir in the Finger Lakes has more structural acidity than you would typically find in the other three regions (Of course that will always be up for debate).
Follow Brad Haskel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/braskel