Winemakers of New York: Peter Bell of Fox Run


New Yorkers live in one of the greatest winemaking states of our nation, yet we lack the close bond to our local wine market that, say, San Franciscans have with Sonoma or Napa. In an effort to start a dialogue with the winemakers of our backyard and spotlight the delicious juice being made only a few hours’ drive away, we are pursuing a series of interviews with fellow resident vintners.

Last summer, I spent an evening drinking Finger Lakes wine at a potluck dinner organized by several winery owners and winemakers from around Seneca Lake. Fox Run vineyards hosted the affair, providing me the opportunity to break bread with two of four co-owners — Scott and Ruth Osborn — and head winemaker Peter Bell. Mr. Bell’s studious fascination with wine led to an engaging discussion on yeast cultures and soil composition, a topic we explored with the fervor of those who debate the Jets v. Giants, but which we found significantly more exciting (Mr. Bell’s enthusiasm rubs off).

In this interview, Mr. Bell converses about myriad topics including how working in New Zealand led him to Fox Run, why Riesling is the brightest but not only star of the Finger Lakes, and why his ultimate goal as a winemaker is to “chase deliciousness.”

Where are you from originally?
I am sort of a diaspora child, perhaps better described as the academic equivalent of an army brat. My parents were from the Toronto area, but I was born in Boston when my Dad was doing his PhD at Harvard. We lived in the Boston area for quite awhile, then moved to Amsterdam for a year, then Berkeley, and finally ended up back in the nominal homeland of Toronto — all before I was ten years old. Not too surprisingly, I ended up liking the idea of living in different places, and found homes in Spain, Holland, Greece, Australia, and New Zealand over the ensuing decades. I’m a citizen of both Canada and the USA, though I was inclined to feel fully Canadian during the Bush-Cheney era.

My wife and kids and I moved from New Zealand to the Finger Lakes in 1990, and we have been here ever since. I guess that fact puts paid to the idea of “once a wanderer, always a wanderer.” The kids are long gone, but home for us is the little town of Penn Yan, New York.

When was Fox Run founded and how long have you been the winemaker there?
The tasting room opened in 1990. The first owners sold to Scott Osborn and his backer a few years later, and I was hired in 1995. Winemakers tend to move around quite a bit, generally, but I have been too happy at Fox Run to think of putting my wandering shoes on.

Why did you decide to plant yourself in the Finger Lakes after traveling and working in vineyards around the world?
My coming here was the result of a chance encounter with a guy I ran into at Cloudy Bay winery in New Zealand. I was over there borrowing a piece of equipment, and happened to mention to him that I was hoping to find a job in the northern hemisphere. He said, “You ought to check out the Finger Lakes of New York. They’re poised to make great Rieslings there.” So I did. I got hold of a map of the area’s wineries, and I made a few random inquiries. I got a job offer on the second call. I had also been entertaining offers in British Columbia and Portugal, but I am so glad that the Finger Lakes prevailed.

What do you see as the great potential of the Finger Lakes?
I am asked this question pretty often, and I can provide a short answer (Riesling) and a longer, more nuanced one. Riesling is clearly our great strength, and we are all so thrilled that American wine drinkers are at last on board with these wines. It’s pretty hard to believe that not too long ago we had to hand sell Riesling wines to a very limited, though cognizant and sophisticated, clientele.

The long answer pays lip service to several other vinifera grapes that do exceptionally well here, including Gewurztraminer, Cabernet franc, Merlot, and Lemberger. I am seeing a lot more interest in reds from cool climates, inasmuch as their lower alcohol levels, less overt jamminess, and much greater affinity for food make them a great deal more compelling than their warm climate counterparts. We enjoy a pretty lusty market for our dry reds, especially when we can come in at the $22-and-under price point.

As far as the future is concerned, we are all pretty upbeat about the current situation being viable for a while. Investment from outside interests is finally beginning to happen, and as long as these are individuals who understand the wine industry and aren’t on an ego trip, that’s a good thing.

What are the positives and pitfalls of working in the region?
There are plenty of both. On the plus side, we are not feeling any pressure from suburban sprawl or gentrification here. Land remains pretty cheap. And I have a 12-minute commute to work! The challenges include a very short growing season and fairly high disease pressure. Both can be mitigated to a large extent by careful canopy management, but there is always some nail-biting going on. And yes, we do have to travel pretty far to reach a large urban market. We are seeing less income from the tasting room in the last few years, as a direct result of all the new wineries on this lake, so getting placements in the NYC area is important. Fortunately, the wines have been very well received there now that the Millennials are calling the shots.

Why does Riesling continue to persist as a favorite of somms and wine enthusiasts, but still fall short of other grapes like Chardonnay as far as consumer popularity?
Well, you ask any Riesling producer that question, and you’ll get the same answer: “Damned if I know!” I am certainly not here to denigrate Chardonnay, but it’s not a terribly food-friendly wine unless it happens to be a tight, lean, Chablis-style wine. The intense passion for Riesling among sommeliers, writers, and enthusiastic drinkers is really more than we could ask for at the moment, since they drive sales of these wines, and give us all kinds of good lovin’. Meanwhile we have to remember that the typical American wine drinker is still pretty intimidated by the subject of wine, and wants nothing more than a safe haven. That usually comes down to familiar, if unexciting, varietals.

Last summer I was at an international Riesling conference in Seattle, and one speaker prefaced his remarks by referring to Chardonnay as “fucking Chardonnay,” as if it were the nemesis of Riesling producers. The next speaker retorted, “Excuse me, it’s not fucking Chardonnay, it’s fucking Pinot Grigio that’s the problem!” (You can see we get quite passionate when we are with our tribe.)

Research indicates that most American wine drinkers remain reluctant to purchase a bottle of Riesling because they aren’t sure if it will be dry or sweet. Most of us are using a sweetness scale on the back label, which is working well to make clear what’s in the bottle. In any case, we are easily selling all the Riesling we make, so the idea of consumer resistance is actually a bit abstract to us.

Winemaking takes all forms: From a non-interventionist, hands-off approach, to running highly technical analyses of the wine’s development and perceived needs and deficiencies, from vineyard to bottle. Where does your style fall in the spectrum and why?
Let me preface my response by saying I don’t try to be a bandwagon winemaker. It’s very popular to declare that filtration hurts wine, that selected yeast cultures rob a wine of its terroir expression, and so on. All that stuff resonates with a certain audience, and has some romantic appeal, but I would have to place myself in the skeptical camp on those issues. My approach to winemaking does invoke a lot of science, particularly biochemistry and microbiology, but my most potent analytical tool remains my nose. I let the wine tell me what it wants done to it based on sensory analysis, and I stress that approach with my assistants and interns. The final arbiter of a winemaking decision remains the question, “Will this action make the wine more delicious?” We chase deliciousness.

Can you comment on vine age — how old are the regions’ vines, generally speaking? Do you think they are still young, just now showing potential, or in a stage of maturity?
Most of the vineyards around here were planted within the last quarter century, and even though some vineyards are a lot older than that, very few original vines remain. We do a lot of vine replacement around here — perhaps three percent per year on average. We can’t apply a warm-climate-style reverence for old vines here, to be honest, but that’s not really a problem. Grapes from five- and ten-year-old vines make fantastic wine.

Has the Finger Lakes wine community discovered distinct sub-regions around the lakes?
I was tasting Riesling tank samples recently with my colleague Kelby Russell, winemaker at Red Newt Cellars. He has twenty or so separate lots of Riesling from various sites on this lake (Seneca), and though there is a clear common thread (Finger Lakes Riesling), we did see subtle differences in style. So yes, site does have a lot of power. We are not yet ready to declare any one site as being better than the rest, though — they’re all just different, and it remains impossible to tease apart site contributions and human factors.

What kind of experimenting are you doing in the vineyard or winery, if any?
We are really happy with the varieties we have in the ground, especially since they are led by the illustrious Riesling. There is always some buzz in the region about a new grape, which is fine, but we are not looking to expand our portfolio at Fox Run. Any time we replant vines, we delve into the topic of rootstocks and clones, but these are long-term projects that may or may not turn up any useful data.

Our biggest project in this area is to produce Riesling wines from grapes grown on two very different soil types, one a classical glacial deposit and the other an ancient river delta. So far we are seeing some very interesting differences in wine characteristics, and my quasi-scientific interpretation attributes these differences primarily to soil hydrology. That’s really the behavior of water in soil, and it is a less romantic, but probably more accurate, interpretation of what terroir is all about.

On top of this investigation of the effect of site on wine flavor (And I chose Riesling over all other grapes, because of the ‘naked’ winemaking that it demands), we are looking into the effect of different fermentation strategies on wine quality. We produce small lots of Riesling which are fermented using a method called pied de cuve, a French term which does not translate well into English.

It’s actually a rather old practice. Customarily, in the days before freeze dried yeasts, winemakers picked a few lugs of grapes a week or two before the regular harvest, and allowed that juice to start a spontaneous fermentation, which was then used to inoculate the tanks.

P de C really involves a much, much smaller yeast cell population, using a culture that is somewhat acclimated to the fermentation conditions. It is not nearly as risky as uninoculated (spontaneous) fermentations, but the fermentation can drag on for several months, opening up the possibility of oxidation and spoilage from errant microbes. It really helps to use Riesling for this practice, because the pH is so low.

The resulting wine is different in aroma and mouth feel. It’s not as exuberantly fruit-driven; the aromas remind me of honey and sweet dried grass, and the texture is lusher, as if there is more sugar than there really is.

We will probably never deviate from our traditional style for many of our Rieslings, because they are so good and the market laps them up. But yes, we do want to push boundaries with smaller lots.

Tell me about the Tierce wine label and your collaboration on it with Anthony Road and Red Newt?
This has been one of the most rewarding projects of my career. Back in 2004, my colleague Johannes Reinhardt asked me and Dave Whiting (of Red Newt) if we’d like to collaborate on a dry Riesling blend that would, somewhat ambitiously, represent the quintessential expression of what the Finger Lakes can do. We did a few weeks of blending trials and came up with a blend of each producer’s Rieslings that was pretty spectacular. The three of us have subtly different approaches to making Riesling, and it’s a wonderful challenge seeing what we can do to make a blend that expresses that fact.

Tierce has become quite a cult wine for us and has enjoyed all kinds of critical success. The influential California wine critic Dan Berger called it “the best Riesling ever made in America,” and it was chosen to be served at President Obama’s inaugural luncheon last year.

Do you feel the wine regions of New York are as connected to NYC, for example, as those of California are to San Fran? If not, why do you believe this disconnect exists and persists?
That’s a pretty complicated question. I can’t speak for Long Island, other than to say that I think they have done a pretty good job of overcoming the anti-local-wine bias in NYC. For the longest time drinkers (then, almost all Baby Boomers) wanted French wine or nothing at all. Those days are long past.

The Finger Lakes remains a bit of an enigma to some NYC drinkers, though we hear less and less often comments like, “You make wine up there?” We do a lot of hand selling in the city, but I think that is true of just about anyone who is hawking wine there. The fact that we have people like Paul Grieco going to bat for Riesling is an enormous help.

What’s your impression of the wines of Long Island and other New York regions?
It’s fascinating to be so close to a region that has a strong maritime climate and to taste those wines regularly. I have to admit I am most fond of the many white wines that are being made on Long Island, especially Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. I’m not as familiar with the Niagara region of New York. The Hudson Valley has a lot of potential, and I’m seeing more and more distinctive and tasty wines from there.

What do you drink at home?
I love good, fresh Fino Sherry more than just about any drink, but try not to have it on hand too often, because it’s a little too addictive. I am not able to sip that stuff. There’s almost always a bottle of Riesling in the fridge, usually from the Finger Lakes. Pinot Noir when it’s good is a favorite of mine, but I have to admit I’m sick of tasting substandard stuff, of which there is a lot out there. I have a strong aversion to big, alcoholic, and jammy reds; in fact I can’t get more than a few sips down. I have also never cared for red wines made in the rustic European style, because they tend to have too many aroma defects for me.

If you could be traveling anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
Well, sandy beaches manage to thrill me for about half an hour, and then I start to ask, “What else you got?” So I would prefer to be in Paris, whose cafes and museums thrill me; Jerez, so I could be tasting Sherry all day; or back in Australia, visiting my favorite wine regions and many close friends.

Give one surprising fact about yourself.
I think of myself as occupying a small place on a continuum of Finger Lakes winemakers. Wine has been made here for well over a century and a half, and will presumably be made here for a very long time. In addition to doing the best I can to make good wine, I try to make a point of engaging with other winemakers regularly, and mentoring as many younger winemakers as I can. I’m very happy to have had a part in the ascendency of quite a few very talented people still in their twenties. As my generation begins to contemplate riding off into the sunset, it’s a great feeling to realize that this industry will be led by such a skilled cohort in the decades to come.