Winemaking is a labor of love, an industry adage that’s especially evident in the Southern Finger Lakes region of New York. While the area is now known as one of the country’s top destinations for wine-lovers, that distinction was decades in the making. Wines were created in Hammondsport, New York, before the Civil War, but a post-World War II innovation allowed the cultivation of grapes to boom—laying the groundwork for the region to produce the varietals that are popular today. The story of winemaking around the Southern Finger Lakes is about passion, perseverance, and how one local winemaker found a way to overcome a tiny pest that threatened the future of the industry in the region.
Tracing the Roots of the Industry
As is the case with any agricultural products, conditions have to be right for crops to grow. For winegrowers, the French term “terroir” encompasses the entire environment in which a particular wine is produced, including the soil, topography, climate, and hours of daylight. The terroir in the Southern Finger Lakes region sets it up well for successful vineyards.
When winemakers originally began planting here during the first half of the 20th century, it was thought that the vinifera, a common European class of grapes that serve as the primary source of Old World wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris would be an excellent fit because the terroir in the region mirrors that of many European regions. But early experiments growing these grapes proved disastrous. As it turns out, a tiny pest called the phylloxera aphid lives in American soil, and it plagued the European rootstock and wiped out vineyards with devastating effect in the early 1900s.
In the 1950s Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant trained in viticulture in Europe, figured out that by grafting the European vinifera vines to American vine rootstock, which is resistant to the pest, European varieties could indeed be grown in the Finger Lakes. This discovery would eventually revolutionize the wine industry in New York State.
How Wine Gets Made
The planting of the vines is just the first step in an involved process. Grapevines must be at least three years old before producing a quality harvest that can be used in winemaking. Opening a winery is a long-term gamble, with pitfalls that can arise anywhere along the process. Here’s the basic timeline of what must be done before wine ever makes it to the bottle:
Planting: For any new plantings, the soil is carefully prepared, and the delicate young vines are covered with a carton to protect them from the elements. The new vines are watered more frequently than older vines, and they are closely monitored for pests and disease during those first three years.
Bud break and flowering: Bud break is the first sign of the vines coming out from their winter dormancy. Shoots of leaves begin to appear around March, and several weeks after that bud break flowering begins. Many types of grapevines are self-pollinating, which is the next step in the process.
Fruit set: Closely following pollination is fruit set, when the small green clusters of the grapes begin to grow. Not all vines will pollinate, so the fruit set will be the first indicator of how much the grape harvest might yield.
Veraison: Another French term, veraison refers to when the magic happens—those tiny clusters have grown and start to ripen. The red grape varieties begin to change from green to purple, and white varieties take on golden hues. This is also when the all-important sugars begin to develop in the grapes, which will eventually ferment and turn to alcohol after they’re harvested. Winemakers closely monitor sugar levels, which in industry terms is known as the Brix value, to determine optimum ripeness and when harvest should begin.
Harvest: Once the fruit has fully ripened, the harvest season begins. The exact time of the year depends on the specific variety of the grape. Sparkling wines are harvested first due to the lower sugar content needed. Next up is white varieties and then finally the reds, which have a higher sugar content.
Following the harvest, it's finally time for the winemaking process to begin. Most vineyards follow these steps in order to create the wine that eventually ends up in your glass.
Crush: The first step after harvesting is the crush, in which skins of the fruit are broken. All grape juice begins clear. Those lovely deep hues in red wine come from contact with the grape skins.
Press: Next the grapes for white wine will be pressed to extract all of the juice. This typically happens quickly to limit exposure to the skins, stems, and seeds. Some winemakers even choose to skip the crush and take white wine grapes directly to the press. Red wine grapes won’t be pressed until after primary fermentation.
Fermentation: This is a critical step in the creation of wine (or any alcoholic beverage): when the yeast converts the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. Red wines will now be pressed, and all wines will be put into barrels (or another vessel) to be aged. Depending on the variety and the method, aging can last for several months to a couple of years.
Racking and bottling: As the aging process is wrapping up, the winemaker samples the wine often to evaluate its development and flavor profiles. When it’s deemed ready, it will be racked, filtered, or both to remove sediment. After that, it’s bottled, labeled, and—cheers!—ready to drink. Wine will continue to mature in the bottle (with proper storage), but once it’s in the bottle, it’s ready for consumption.
See the Winemaking Process Yourself
Of course, that’s a quick rundown of the highly complex winemaking process. To learn more about the history of winemaking in the Southern Finger Lakes, there is no better spot than from the oldest wine producer in the area at the Pleasant Valley Wine Company’s Great Western Visitor Center.
Touring the center is part history lesson and part crash course in oenology (the science and study of wine and winemaking). Historic exhibits detail the origins of winemaking through the pioneering work done in the Finger Lakes. Elaborate winemaking displays detail everything from the grapes to the corks. Of course, after you see it all, you’ll want to stop in the wine-tasting room as well.
Bully Hill Vineyards has the on-site Greyton H. Taylor Wine Museum with a massive collection of antique winemaking equipment and historic artifacts from the early New York State wine industry. Visitors here can also enjoy the Walter S. Taylor Art Gallery.
Of course, nothing helps you appreciate the winemaking process like tasting the wines. The vineyards of the Southern Finger Lakes are beautiful places—and there’s no better way to enjoy the views than with a glass of wine in hand.
Written by Lisa Collard for Matcha in partnership with Steuben County.