The agricultural and winemaking history of the Finger Lakes region of New York is full of all kinds of stories, and most often these stories chronicle the lives and times of a single family. These stories are a particular type of time capsule, history being written by one generation and narrated by another.
On a recent visit to Wagner Vineyards I had the pleasure to meet Laura Wager Lee and hear her recount stories of how her father, BillWagner, and the family he helped create literally raised the winery out of the ground, blood, sweat (and likely) tears and all. A sincerest thank you to Laura, and as well Katie Roller with whom I arranged our visit.
The initial part of our tour took us a down a hallway past the tank room. On the opposite side of the walls were family and winery photos broken into different decades/groups. Laura pointed to all sorts of pictures, black & white, color, Polaroid and high res, there are photos there of vines, grapes, vineyard work and all the messy tasks of winemaking. There are also so many pictures of digging, the erecting of walls and the construction of the winery buildings. There were so many smiles in the family and company photos I could feel the excitement behind the do-it-yourself stories presented.
Wagner Vineyards has 250 acres under vine and produces a full suite of white, red and blush estate grown wines. It is one of the oldest wineries in the region, opening in 1979. With the addition of a restaurant, brewery and event space Wagner has become a very popular Finger Lakes wine country destination. Visiting in the off-season affords the luxury of time to tour and taste, but after hearing stories and thinking you are missing out on pub nights on the deck, bands, special events and the buzz of the tasting room you promise yourself you’ll fix this real soon.
In the tasting room the talk immediately turned to Riesling. Hey, I’m a sucker for it so let’s just say I love the Finger Lakes. Objectively, I enjoy tasting aromatic white wines like Riesling and believe I have developed a decent palate for these wines. With 50 acres of Riesling vines Wagner produces six styles in most years. I tasted three during my visit.
The 2008 Dry Riesling is dry and focused with a balance of moderately potent fruit and mineral aromas. A crisp finisher with a decent run of fruit to the end. The 2009 Semi-Dry is driven with orange and melon and is yet again dry enough to be a dry wine to me. The citrus laden finish cleans out nicely. I am still preferential to the 2009 Finger Lakes Rieslings, but I need a few more years to really be sure. The 2011 Select Riesling is a young wine, but is luscious and sweet with plenty of potential for aging. It was the sweetest of the three with a much riper and fuller nose. To me peach initially dominated the palate, but additional sips produced a bevy of exotic and tropical fruits. The wine has a noticeable viscosity to it, and finishes sweet.
I teed up the 2010 Gewurztraminer next, filling in more of that story if you will. Orange and white flowers lit up the nose and the palate was a tart mix of exotic fruits and ginger. The spiciness is one of the things that initially drew me to Gewurztraminer, and although it isn’t present in all wines made from the grape, I still get excited when I find one.
Moving on to reds I selected the 2010 Reserve Pinot. Touches of raspberries and chocolate were present. Light bodied and smooth. The wine is dry with some soft tannins. It didn’t resonate with me to drink right now, and any mellowing couldn’t hurt such a subtle wine.
The Meritage 2007 caught my eye and I went in for it. A blend of 55% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot it is moderately darkly hued and projects lively aromas of cherry. I found it a little dusty, my word for dry earth minerality, and ever so lightly oaky. Adding this to my Meritage journey around the Other 46 (smaller winemaking states), I was happily impressed. This wine has aged gracefully and is drinking well.
I finished my tasting with the 2008 Vidal Ice Wine. The nose on this wine could make an honest person lie. Readers will know that I haven’t met many dessert wines that I didn’t like. Despite such experience I still find it hard not to be biased in favor of ice and dessert style wines. This wine was well built, with juicy dehydrated fruits and some wild streaks layered in honey. There is enough tartness to it to keep the sweetness manageable, something that might increase, to its benefit, with years of age.
Stepping out on the back deck Laura talked about the summer events and people spilling out onto the lawn to enjoy the natural beauty during the warm seasons. The view on our cloudy day was muted, but having been in the area on sunny warm days, I don’t need to imagine it. But that doesn’t mean Margot and I won’t be back!
Wagner Valley Brewing is the beer yang to the wine yin for the Wagner family, no wait, I made that up. Margot and I were both gunning to try some more New York state beer and Wagner didn’t disappoint. Our favorites were the Sled Dog dopple and trippel bocks, both exuded a dense malty sweetness and plenty of alcohol! Brewing these monster beers requires the complete brewing setup to be dedicated to processing the malt bill. That’s getting the job done! The Stout and the IPA are both solid beers, and my firsthand Superbowl drinking experience confirms their ability to pair with food, TV and friends. Life is good! Margot had a growler of the Sled Dog Dopplebock filled to go, don’t you just love her, and we finished our visit in the wine retail shop.
Picking a few favorites from the tasting (Select Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Meritage) Margot and I expressed our thanks and said our goodbyes. With kickoff looming we needed to get back to Ithaca, grab some sandwiches and settle in for the annual commercial entertainment. With the amount of wine and beer we hauled out to the car, we could have had a pretty big party! We’ll save that for the Spring and friends at home.
Wagner Vineyards is located on the East side of Seneca Lake, about 45 minutes from Ithaca. They have daily tasting hours, a full service restaurant and seasonal events. And don't forget the brewery. Call ahead for specific information on what’s happening when you plan to visit. Thank you Laura, Katie and the whole Wagner family and community for sharing your lives and stories with us.