Q&A with Eric Bauman, sparkling winemaker at Chateau Frank
Interview by David Falchek
One of the last things legendary vintner Willy Frank did before he died was hire Eric Bauman at Chateau Frank, a sparkling wine house associated with Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, in 2005. A Rochester native, Bauman had been helping make sparkling wine at J Vineyards in California and looking for an opportunity to return east. He took the chance at the winery north of Hammondsport that had been writing a new chapter of sparkling wine’s story in the Finger Lakes.
Sparkling winemaking is many times more complicated and more expensive than still (non-sparkling) winemaking. So much so that it has its own lingo. Before you set out to talk with a sparkling winemaker, a review of methode champenoise, the process pioneered by the Champagne region, could help. Sparkling wine undergoes a second fermentation, the one that puts the bubbles in the bottle. That second fermentation, which takes place in the bottle that will be labeled and sold, is kicked off in a base wine by a liqueur de tirage, a blend of wine, yeast and sugar. Wines can be “in tirage” for years as carbon dioxide and flavors develop. The yeast and particles form a plug in the neck of the inverted bottle that is chilled and disgorged in a messy process, the lost volume replaced by a dosage, a blend of wine and some sugar.
Edible Finger Lakes recently spoke with Eric to chat about Finger Lakes bubbly and his work at Chateau Frank.
Edible Finger Lakes: Sparkling wine has long been viewed as a celebration wine. Do you see that changing?
Eric Bauman: I hope it has changed. I have seen nothing but improvement in the way people enjoy sparkling wine. Our production and sales are great and have not slowed down. I hope people are favoring sparkling wine for its versatility or food friendliness and not just that it has bubbles.
EFL: What makes the Finger Lakes a good place to produce sparkling wine?
EB: A lot of it is climate and soils, going back to the way the glaciers formed, giving us a situation similar to Champagne. Our long growing season is better for sparkling wine, giving a natural activity from our vineyards. I don’t have to monkey around with the chemistry. In California, cellars have bags and bags of tartaric acid to bring up acidity. Every year is different, but I always know the natural acidity in our fruit will be high, and you need that to make great sparkling wine.
The fruit here offers blending options. So if we get a thin of Chardonnay I’ll look to the body of Pinot Noir to produce a balanced brut. The Finger Lakes lacks in not knowing what sites and clones are best for sparkling wine, but we can play can play around with aging and different sites.
Much of what we have here at Chateau Frank was never recorded and we lost a lot of information when Willy died that either wasn’t kept or wasn’t found. There is a risk in not knowing.
We are looking at our vineyards now to take the next step. Our Pinot Meunier vines are down because they are such old vines. We are thinking now about sparkling wine clones and thinking about whether we want more yield or concentration of fruit or if we want a to make a different product.
Ten years is a short time in life and a wine career. But I have seen so much aging potential for Chateau Frank wines. They can go so long on tirage to develop the autolytic character (from yeast). On one end, you may want this aged, vanilla, bread, doughy type of character. The other is a neutral fruit and acidity. Our stuff is more neutral fruit and acidy with a bit of that bready and doughiness. That takes eight years in tirage to achieve that.
EFL: Toiling in a dark farmhouse basement seems pretty lonely and solitary. What are the pros and cons?
EB: I get to work with the product from the vineyard to the bottle and see it through the whole process. I can control the product. I don’t, and can’t, pawn the work off to someone else. When you have sparkling winemaker that shows up at crush and dosage, they don’t have quality control.
I’m never really alone. Winemaking is a team effort with Barbara Frank and others offering guidance on tasting trials and I can always go to the Dr. Frank side. I get so many great wines from Dr. Frank’s to play with for dosage. I may try barrel-fermented Chardonnay or Salmon Run Chardonnay and make a dosage with that.
If there is a con, it’s the space. There’s a charm to it, but it’s small.
EFL: How many times would you say you touch a bottle?
EB: I only hand-riddle for dosage trials and have gyro pallet for production, so that cuts it down. Still, I’d say I touch every bottle about 24 times before it leaves. Moving bottles in the line, stacking them out of the bins, disgorgement, moving, hand labeling and packaging.
EFL: Dr. Frank wanted nothing to do with sparkling wine, describing it a fall back for regions where grape would not ripen. How would you try to convince him it was worthwhile?
EB: I’d urge him to consider what Champagne has done over the centuries and how far the Finger Lakes and Chateau Frank have come in such a short time.
We had French winemakers at Gold Seal and other New York wineries generations ago, so the style is part of our history. Now, because of his work and that of Charles Fournier, we have the varietals to make world class sparkling wine.
I’ve seen other producers turn to sparkling wine because grapes don’t ripen. They don’t do it out of intention. At Chateau Frank everything we do from vineyard, where we have matched sites with (grapevine) clones, to bottling is with the intention to make a fine sparking wine in five styles. It’s not a fall back.
If Dr. Frank had came back, I’d say look at what we have done so far and imagine what we will do. I think he would be surprised.
Photo courtesy of Chateau Frank