Those of us dwelling in Tundraland could be forgiven for developing a bit of an inferiority complex about New York. No matter how rich our lives are, it can be hard to escape the notion that New York does it better. Architecture, fashion, restaurants, baseball — all realms in which Minnesota can prove formidable — often remind us that we still have a ways to go.
So, alas, does the local wine scene.
I just spent a wondrous week in the Finger Lakes region, tasting a raft of excellent rieslings, as expected, but also some swell cabernet francs, rosés, sparkling wines and lembergers (!).
The good news: Some of these wines are available in Minnesota. A few offerings from pioneer Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hermann J. Wiemer, Anthony Road, Ravines and Lamoreaux Landing, among others, can be found on Twin Cities retail shelves and restaurant wine lists, and are well worth seeking out.
The better news: More probably are on the way. A few local distributors are seeking out New York wines in general and Finger Lakes juice in particular. And several Finger Lakes vintners told me they are ready and willing to listen.
Until recently, the business model was to sell all their wine in two venues: their tasting room and New York restaurants. But as the buzz around the state's wines has grown nationally — last fall, Wine Enthusiast named New York "wine region of the year" — many winery owners are interested in spreading the wealth, so to speak.
"As a region, to develop a national reputation we need to get our wines out to other areas," said Steven Fulkerson, general manager of Fulkerson, whose grüner veltliner can stand up to its peers from Austria.
But like most wineries there (and here), Fulkerson is a small family-owned and -run operation — so down-home that it sells cheese curds in its tasting room — with slow, steady growth. It's also making small batches of a boatload of wines as it tries to figure out which grapes grow best where.
To wit: At Hermann J. Wiemer, where former University of Minnesota enologist Katie Cook is assistant winemaker, we tasted stunning rieslings from the recently planted Magdalena and Josef vineyards. A friend from a prominent California winery was so impressed by Wiemer's wines that she bought a mixed case.
This is, after all, a nascent industry. Grapes have been cultivated in what Big Apple denizens call "upstate" for more than a century. But the crop was entirely native grapes (vitis riparia and vitis labrusca; think Concord) and French-American hybrids until the late 1950s.
That's when a Ukrainian immigrant named Dr. Konstantin Frank decided that Europe's best grapes (vitis vinifera; think riesling and pinot noir) should work in the region, despite ridicule from the wine "experts" at nearby Cornell University.
"So he planted them," said his grandson, Frederick Frank, "and they did just fine. He was stubborn, didn't care what anyone else thought." FYI, it still gets plenty cold there: Growers "mound up" their vines with about a foot of dirt every autumn, Frank said.
That earlier start, plus of course the ability to harvest vinifera grapes that can't withstand our winters, give New York a natural edge over the even younger Minnesota wine industry.
But the Finger Lake folks have another advantage over their Minnesota brethren and sistren: more collaboration, at least according to another former U enologist, Anna Katharine Mansfield.
"I'd say that the factor that has been most important in improving overall wine quality in the Finger Lakes is the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that I see among industry members, and openness to working with Cornell researchers and extension," said Mansfield, now an associate professor of enology at Cornell. "Winemakers meet together frequently, taste together, share information and generally provide help and support.
"Things may have changed since I left Minnesota, but during my tenure at the U, I was surprised at the number of producers who felt that there was already too much winery competition, and who didn't want to share 'secrets' like yeast selection or processing steps."
That might explain why, even with the hybrid grapes, New York had the same number of double-gold awards in last week's International Cold Climate Wine Competition as Minnesota's one (for Parley Lake's Reserve Marquette).
My experiences with Minnesota vintners, alas, echo Mansfield's. Certainly there are no partnerships along the lines of Tierce riesling, a tasty collaborative concoction from winemakers at Anthony Road, Red Newt and Fox Run.
While Minnesota's wineries often band together on "wine trails" to lure visitors, I have found a lot of "go-it-alone" and even jealousy out there. People including Wild Mountain's Irving Geary and Parley Lake's Steve Zeller are working to change that.
Here's hoping they succeed.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.