Tag Archives: Winemaking

Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Peter Bell of Fox Run

I first met Peter Bell while I was a student at Cornell.  He routinely came as a guest lecturer in the Enology side of the Viticulture and Enology program.  I recall great discussions on making the styles of wine the fruit want to make and practical examples of what we were learning from our books.  I also was very impressed with his ability to hit a spittoon from a ridiculous distance without making a mess.  It is a talent I have tried to strive for but I’ve fallen far short of his talents there.  He is described as one of the winemakers that has had the most influence on the rise of the Finger Lakes, not only through his work with Fox Run but also through various consulting jobs throughout the region.  He was generous enough this past week to sit down and answer some questions for this month’s Winemaker 2 Winemaker column.


NC: You have had extensive international winemaking experience.  What led you to settle down in the Finger Lakes?

PB: I had paid very scant attention to this region before deciding to move here in 1990. Bully Hill Winery had gained some notoriety in the 1970s, but those were not the kinds of wines I was interested in making. But after talking with a guy I met in New Zealand, who pointed out the great potential for Riesling here, I decided to look more closely at the Finger Lakes. My wife’s and my families are from the Toronto area, which is an easy drive from here, so it seemed like a perfect place to establish a career.

NC: The Finger Lakes have gotten a lot of great press throughout the past few years.  What do you think has changed in the region from what was being done 10 years ago?

PB: It’s really a confluence of a lot of things. The quality of the grape growing and winemaking has steadily improved. There has been a concerted effort by many individuals to get Finger Lakes wine (especially, but not limited to, Riesling) out to other parts of the world and undo the area’s reputation for products with only regional appeal. And I think that as the influence of my generation, the Baby Boomers, wanes, wine drinkers are becoming less orthodox in their purchasing habits and more open to any wine that happens to be delicious, no matter where it comes from.

NC:  Did you have a person or people in your career you felt were instrumental in inspiring your personal winemaking style?

PB:  No, but not because I didn’t know some great teachers and winemakers when I was starting out. When I moved here, I had to give myself a crash course in cool climate winemaking, given that vintage was a few weeks away. So my personal style was forged in my own fire, I suppose. Naturally, my approach to winemaking has evolved over the years, and for that I can thank many, many colleagues.

NC:  Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again and why?

PB:  One or two of the best vintages in my career happened when I was in the company of a psychopathic owner, so for obvious reasons I wouldn’t like to repeat the experience, even though I could use grapes of that quality a few more times in my career. We are talking of long ago. Much more recently, the 2012 vintage in the Finger Lakes yielded some pretty spectacular fruit that made my job not only easy but enormously pleasurable.

NC:  What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

PB:  I can list quite a few “almost” catastrophes, such as hooking up a hose to the wrong tank, or watching helplessly as a tanker truck of wine slipped out of gear and started lurching toward the lake. I’ve been very lucky, though, overall.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku?

The best grape on earth

Happens to be called Riesling.

Jancis thinks so too.

NC: One of the things I remember the most from your excellent winemaking lectures when I was a student at Cornell was your amazing ability to hit a spittoon from several feet away.  Did you practice or are you just naturally an amazingly accurate spitter?

PB: My parents were atheists, and instead of giving me a Biblical middle name like Luke or Revelations, I got ‘Expectoration’. Thence I had a prophecy to fulfill.

As an adult, I managed to hang out with some people who were not only adept at carrying on a conversation with a mouthful of wine, but who could then land that mouthful in a small, distant vessel without trouble. So perhaps it became a chest-beating exercise of some sort to attain some level of proficiency. I can’t remember.

I have to add that when I showed these last two questions to my intern Julie, she combined them into one answer, a haiku about spitting:

My name is Peter

I am a wine boss I spit

Like a llama, dude

NC: What are you most excited about when you look towards the future of winemaking in the Finger Lakes?

PB: The continued primacy of Riesling is pretty much a given. That’s a dream of mine come true. What thrills me beyond that is the number of very talented and super-smart younger men and women who are taking over, just as people like me contemplate riding off into the sunset.

NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

PB: Taste often with your colleagues, learn from them, and strive to work together as a community of winemakers. The idea of confidentiality clauses, at least in this region, is obscene to me. There is room at the top for everyone, and poor wines drag the entire industry down.

NC: If you had to pick a favorite wine region (outside of the one you are in of course) where in the world would it be?

PB:  I get asked this question pretty often, and like to mix up my answers just to avoid undue repetition. I love Sherry and always have, so Jerez has to be on the list. I’ve never been to South Africa or South American wine regions, but they sound pretty fun.

One of the best Rieslings I ever drank came from – wait for it – Luxembourg, so I might have to check that country out some day. Really, though, every wine region I’ve been to (and that would be too many to count) has one thing in common: lots of very friendly winemakers who are eager to show you what they are making and who speak the same language of wine love.

Photo courtesy of Peter Bell and Fox Run Vineyards

Concerning Merlot…

There seems to be a bit of buzz ramping up regarding Merlot in the blogosphere this week and I wanted to add my two cents.  I was recently talking to a colleague about my concerns about Merlot disappearing from Napa.  It seems every time you turn around someone else is pulling a Merlot vineyard to replant it to Cabernet Sauvignon.  I really like Merlot.  When it is done well, it is a beautiful thing.  However, during the PS era (pre-Sideways) there was quite a bit of very bad Merlot on the market since it was the “it” grape.  The quintessential red wine of America, one could almost look up “red wine” in the dictionary and have a picture and description of Merlot as the definition.   Post-sideways, it became the least desirable, least flashy workhorse of the wine world and sales plummeted for the next few years and vineyards began to pull it.

The pulling has slowed however it is becoming harder and harder to find good Merlot.  I personally feel that Cabernet needs a little bit of Merlot.  It fills in the middle and rounds out the edges.  There is a reason these varieties are blended together most of the time because they truly do complement each other.   The Sommelier Files brought up a great point saying “Thanks to the combination of soft tannins and finesse, the distinct flavors of … high-quality Merlots are also very approachable and fantastic with winter dishes.”   It’s a great variety and one that I would hate to see reduced further in the valley.  I have a fear that we as winemakers are going to wake up one day to a monoculture of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa and have no Merlot or Cabernet Franc to enhance it.

I’m not fortunate enough to own vineyard land in Napa but if I did, I’d be looking at all my neighbors planting Cabernet Sauvignon and probably would decide to go with Merlot.  If you are planting now one has to think about the market in 3-6 years and beyond.  I think Merlot is going to be the scarcer commodity in a few year’s time and it might be quietly coming back while no one is looking.


Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Conversation with Joel Peterson

This week is the inagural launch of my new monthly column, Winemaker 2 Winemaker.  There are so many times when I get together with other winemakers and we have great discussions.  I always learn something fun and exciting and I wanted to share those experiences with my readers.  This month’s winemaker is Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, and all around gregarious personality.

NC: I know from our earlier conversations that you have been around wine all your life. How do you think this shaped your career?

 JP: I think being around wine for the vast majority of my life has definitely shaped how I think about wine and certainly how I think about my career. Ultimately, I learned the ethic of fine wine very early. Many of the things that young winemakers struggle to understand or learn by trial and error I intuitively knew because of my youthful environment. I had an opportunity to taste wines from Europe that were considered legendary from vintages such as 1911, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 et al. These were in relative abundance and at ridiculously low prices. In my early twenties I had a number wine obsessed peers with whom I shared expansive wine dinners and blind tastings. Looking back on some of those bacchanals of great wines brings me near to blushing. Frequently these verged on the profligate. It was also a fairly competitive environment, and a whole lot of fun. The majority of the wines of that era are, sadly, unavailable or out of the financial reach of most young winemakers these days. These wines certainly informed my perception of what great wine could be, but it also taught me that every year is a new vintage and ultimately the fate of a winemaker and the wines from any given year is determined by many elements out of a winemaker’s control. Humility and patience came later with experience.

 NC: The Ravenswood Motto is “No Wimpy Wines”. What was it that inspired that motto for you?

 JP: The motto “no wimpy wines” was inspired by white Zinfandel, the ultimate wimpy wine. I got so tired of people asking me why my Zinfandel was not pink that by necessity I had to realign peoples’ expectations. No Wimpy Wines = nothing pink, sweet or wimpy. That slogan became something of a rallying cry for Ravenswood. Marketers have occasionally tried to reinterpret it as super powerful and Harley-esque, but it is really about a wine being true to the best expression of the core identity of grape and place. As a corollary think Nureyev and Ballet. No wimpy Ballet Dancer. Or think Einstein, no wimpy physicist. Of course you could also think powerful as in Thor, No wimpy Norse God.

NC:  When you were starting down the path of winemaking was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?

JP: I certainly relied on multiple sources as inspiration for my style. I derived much of how I thought about wine from my own tasting experience. I also read a number of old winemaking texts from the 1800’s to try to understand wine making it its simplest form before there were things like refrigeration, cultured yeast and stainless steel. It is also necessary here to list my mentor, Joe Swan. He contributed significantly to my understanding of process and the meticulous attentiveness required to make great wine. There was also Andre Tchelistcheff, who provided good counsel, criticism and grounding as well as a remarkable demonstration of chain smoking mixed with tasting acuity that I could never have hoped to emulate.

NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again?

JP: Sure, the 1976 vintage. That means that I would get to live my wine career all over again, right? Aside from that, I have no favorites. Each one has had its own quirks, challenges and successes. It is the variation and possibilities that keep wine making interesting. Beyond that, I still haven’t gotten a single vintage quite right, so I might as well keep at it. Perfection seems so near and yet so far away. My Hippie self just keeps telling me that it is the journey, not the destination that is important.

NC: Do you feel wine is an art or a science and why?

JP:  Art and science are not mutually exclusive. Science brings an understanding of your materials and process. Art is the personal statement that you bring to the assembly. With winemaking you are much better off if you combine both and try not to parse them.

NC:  What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?

JP:  The 1982 Sonoma County Cabernet. During bottling one of the vacuum pumps somehow leaked machine oil into the filler bowl. We bottled 300 cases of wine with a 1/8 layer of oil in every bottle before I caught the problem. It is a little disturbing to see an oil slick in my glass. It would have been less tragic numerically if I hadn’t gotten side tracked and had been more attentive to my QC. That one really hurt because 300 cases was a large percentage of my production and the 82 Cab was the best Bordeaux style wine I had made up to that point in my young career.

NC:  If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?

JP:  Taste as many interesting wines as you can. The rule of 10,000 applies equally to winemakers as it does to musicians. The only difference being that we use our organoleptic sense and they use the auditory/proprioceptive senses. Revere tradition and make intelligent diversions that please you.

NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku? 


Nature knows the way

do no harm honor spirit

Channel into wine

NC:  Are you working on any exciting projects now that you would like to share?

JP: Old vineyards have always been an obsession. I am currently working with the Historic Vineyard Society to designate famous historic vineyards with old vines as “California Historic Landmarks”. Also, the Heritage Vineyard project that I have been working on for many years with ZAP and UCD will be releasing four named Zinfandel selections from the Heritage Vineyard in Oakville that are free from viruses and have multiple years of viticulture metrics associated with them. We hope that this material from 100+ year old vines will form the basis for the next generation of 100+ year old vines.

NC: Thanks for your answers Joel!