A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.
Friday, November 4, 2011
St. Croix - Finger Lakes, New York
There are also passionate amateurs who have always been at the forefront of viticultural innovation in these borderline climactic zones. Elmer Swenson became interested in grape breeding after reading Foundations of American Culture by T.V. Munson. He owned a 120 acre farm outside of Osceola, Wisconsin, where he started his own vineyard laboratory in 1943. He started with fifteen hybrid cuttings and began to experiment by crossing them with native vitis riparia grapes. In 1969, the University of Minnesota approached Elmer about a job opening as a senior plot manager, and he accepted. His official responsibilities were focused on caring for the university's plantings of apples, blueberries and raspberries, but he was able to find some space on campus to carry on his grape crossing experiments. In his own words, "they didn't say no and they had room, so I muscled in there." Despite the bench space he commandeered at the University, most of his grape hybridizing was still done at his Wisconsin farm.
In 1981, Swenson introduced St. Croix, and he was awarded a patent for the grape in 1982. The grape is considered to be somewhere between moderately and very cold hardy, as it is able to survive temperatures ranging from -20F to nearly -40F with no apparent injury to the plant. The grape is also prized for its lack of native labrusca flavors when vinified. It has some problems, though. It does not attain a particularly high level of sugar when fully ripe and can also lack tannins. The skins are very thin and the grape is susceptible to many fungal infections as a result. Also, the skins can have a tendency to rupture on the vine, leaking juice out of the berries. Despite the thin skins, the wines can be very darkly colored, as the juice itself tends to a light pink color. Many of these shortcomings are addressed by blending St. Croix with other grapes to create a more balanced wine, but there are some places who are making varietal St. Croix wines.
One of them is Bully Hill Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Hockey fans in the northeastern US may recognize the name: Bully Hill has advertisements on the boards of several hockey arenas throughout the northeast. The winery has a long, colorful history that interested parties can read all about here. It's heavy on family drama and lawsuits and that kind of thing, so read on if you're into that gossipy stuff. What is more interesting to the matter at hand is that Walter Taylor (the central figure of the Bully Hill saga) was one of the earlier growers in the Finger Lakes to make the move from native grape varieties to hybrid grapes in the 1950's. He was kind of obnoxious about it and became a polarizing figure as a result. Hybrid grapes are still the bread and butter of Bully Hill, though whether that's still such a good thing is open to debate.
I visited Bully Hill in July of 2011 against the advice of several people who were knowledgeable about the area for a few reasons. The most important reason was that I had the spare time to do it and happened to be just down the street from the winery one afternoon. I was also curious about many of the hybrids that they offered and was just curious about the place in general. My overall impressions weren't very favorable. While waiting around for the group ahead of us to finish their tasting, we were able to overhear parts of the pourer's banter and it was tough to listen to. I don't know if the guy was a racist or not, but he was saying some pretty racist things. My wife and I skipped the guided tasting after that and went straight into their showroom where they offered samples of any of their 40 something wines for $1 a pour. The biggest problem with many of the Bully Hill offerings is that they are very sweet and, often, sloppily made. Retail on many of their bottles is around $8 and, frankly, their commitment to hitting that bottom line shows more than any commitment to quality they may have. Their portfolio isn't 100% junk, though, as I discovered when I tasted their St. Croix bottling.