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A Taste of New York: Indie opportunities from the Empire State

Published:  26 May, 2020

With small production and a cool climate, New York State’s leading wine producers are looking to punch above their collective weight on the world stage, with the UK singled out as the ‘shop window’ to showcase its wares.

First, though, as the panel at Harpers recent ‘A Taste of New York: Indie opportunities from the Empire State’ webinar highlighted, those same producers need to agree on a definitive calling card – be that hero varietals, broader stylistic cues or simply being a niche point of difference from the run-of-the-mill.

With Riesling and Cabernet Franc as possible front runners – from the Finger Lakes AVA at least – and Chardonnay also among the many varieties that perform well in the state, the identity of distinct sub-regions, including Long Island AVA and Hudson Valley, brings in further variables that are difficult to encapsulate in one clear message.

Ákos Forczek, director at Top Selection, said that Finger Lakes Riesling could “well be that calling card”, but cautioned that Riesling is also a difficult sell for the trade, adding that the state’s Chardonnays, with their restrained and elegant styles, could give white Burgundy a run for its money.

Ben Stephenson of Blossom Street Social, another of the independent merchants and importers that joined NY state winemakers Kelby Russell of Red Newt and Red Hook Winery’s Mark Snyder for the debate, recounted his own experience of supporting the wines through his Hanging Ditch outlet in Manchester.

“We’ve sold quite a lot of these wines, at Hanging Ditch we did consumer tastings with them, pricing can be tricky, but as with anywhere, if you find the best quality wines, they can stand neck and neck with the best in the world and can be really interesting,” said Stephenson.

Jason Millar of Theatre of Wine picked up on the quality theme, suggesting that – speaking as both importer and retailer – “it’s clear from the wines we tasted that there is a lot of quality, a lot of potential”, but also that New York state is where Napa was mid-last century, needing focus, to “become synonymous with something”, with price less of an issue because global consumers already see US wines “through a lens” that sets price expectation at the more premium end.

This in turn, said Millar, suggested that – like Napa or Oregon or Washington – New York would be best to deliver a clear message around stylistic expectation, rooted in its climate, typically producing wines that, as Mark Snyder also pointed out, sit well with the consumer trend towards fresher, more elegant and restrained wines.

Get this message out there, suggested Millar, and then it is the job of independent merchants “to sell obscure, rare and difficult things”.

“If we can create a market for Xinomavro and Assyrtiko from Greece, we can create a market for Cabernet Franc or Riesling from Finger Lakes,” he said.

US specialist importer James Doidge of The Wine Treasury agreed that New York state wines would necessarily remain niche, and that exclusivity would in itself be a selling point.

“I think the challenge is just to get the wines into the right places and to have realistic expectations of where the wines can go and how quickly,” he advised the producers at the Zoom session.

“We need to be realistic and realise that your wines, and our niche for them [in the UK], will be niche for quite some time, so don’t have demands and expectations that don't match that,” he added.

By putting the wines in “the right place” - namely wine savvy on-trade and specialist merchants - and letting them “speak for themselves”, without pushing too hard, understanding and knowledge of the New York ‘brand’ would grow sustainably, said Doidge.

Both Russell and Snyder reminded the panel that the New York wine producing story, in terms of quality production and growth in non-hybrid varieties, was only 30 years old, with Russell saying that at first New York City, for Finger Lakes wines at least, was “tough, like an export market for us, even antagonistic, with this impression that Finger Lakes was backwoods, not really knowing what they were doing”.

Once this began to change, though, with the help of quality-obsessed producers like Russell and champions such as Snyder, who has an urban winery in Brooklyn rather than upstate, then New York producers “began expanding their footprint” both in New York city and then, gradually, across other states.

“I wanted to support the New York region as a whole. I felt that New Yorkers weren't paying attention to [New York state] wines in the way that they should and so that's why I chose to put the winery in Brooklyn - we want to work with all of the regions, farmers and growers, and encourage them to experiment and make better wines so that we can have a better footprint in the world of wine,” said Snyder.

With regard to the UK, both producers said they realise that they have to be “realistic about prices”, selling below achievable prices in the US, but that the importance of creating an identity underpinned those considerations.

“We’ve had some successes in London, we have to be competitive from a price point perspective, we have to be smart without [a large] marketing budget, and we have to appeal to people that will find the wines interesting and compelling enough to tell their friends about them, and then seek them out,” said Russell.

“We don’t want to just be a novelty, we want to be known for the quality of the ‘brand’, which is young and obscure, but to create an identity that is a win-win for everybody, which is why feedback from the market is critical,” concluded Russell.

The Panel

Kelby Russell, winemaker, Red Newt

Mark Snyder, winemaker, Red Hook Winery

Ákos Forczek, director, Top Selection

James Doidge, managing director, The Wine Treasury

Jason Millar, director, Theatre of Wine

Ben Stephenson, owner, Blossom Street Social

Andrew Catchpole, editor, Harpers Wine & Spirit

Wines Tasted

A selection of wines from New York state were provided for participants to sample ahead of the webinar, as a reminder of the collective style and yet quite marked diversity of varieties that do well across the region.

Fox Run Chardonnay 2017

Osmote Seneca Riesling 2018

Red Newt Cellars Dry Riesling 2017 & 2016

Hermann J. Weimer Dry Gewurztraminer 2018

Anthony Road Cabernet Franc/Lemberger 2017

Red Hook McCall Vineyard Merlot 2014