Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard continues to set the standard for Finger Lakes winemaking
Written by By Nicholas Baldwin, photos by Jan Regan
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2015 Wine Issue edition of the magazine.
As a child, Hermann J. Wiemer, spent the summers working in the Moselle River region of Germany working on his family’s vineyards. He specifically worked on grafting rootstock in the vineyard nursery after World War II. His father taught him about the importance of grafting vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, to preserve the life of the vines, and that the best grapes come from cared-for roots. The Wiemer family roots stretch back more than 300 years on the steep slopes along the Moselle River. Hermann tended vines there until the early 1960s when he immigrated to the small town of Dundee, New York, and purchased 80 acres of land, now known as the HJW Vineyard site, on the western shores of Seneca Lake. He first planted Riesling and Chardonnay, which he believed would thrive in the Finger Lakes climate. His first vintages of those varietals won gold medals in New York State wine competitions. For more than 30 years, Hermann’s unique firsthand knowledge of grafting, tending root nurseries and winemaking has helped Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards become a premiere vineyard that set the standards for all vineyards to come after.
Today Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards is operated by Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke, friends who met while attending college at Cornell University. Growing up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, Merwarth started Cornell as a horticulture major, but eventually switched to business studies. At the age of 23, he studied abroad in Fryberg, Germany, where he first tasted the exceptional Rieslings of Germany and Alsace, France. He specifically remembered how well the wines tasted with the local cuisine. When he returned to Cornell, he immediately enrolled into Intro to Winemaking and Wine Appreciation classes. When both Merwarth and Bynke finished school, they remained friends, but Bynke headed to New York City and came to work with Moët Hennessy USA. In 2001, with an interest in going back to Germany to study winemaking, Merwarth cold-called Herman J. Wiemer and asked if he would help make some contacts with friends and colleagues back along the Moselle. Hermann said he didn’t have many contacts left in the business back in Germany, but he offered Merwarth a job with him. During Merwarth’s first harvest at the vineyard, the vineyard manager left and Merwarth assumed many of the responsibilities and learned quite fast. “It was a trial by fire,” Merwarth says. At the same time, Bynke was traveling back and forth from New York City, where he was working in wine sales, to help out at the vineyard. Working closely with Merwarth and Bynke over the next few years, Hermann realized he was getting older and would have to retire soon. When Hermann was finally ready to settle down and pass the responsibilities on, he, Merwarth and Bynke agreed to terms, and Merwarth and Bynke took over the vineyard in 2007.
Merwarth and Bynke forged forward with new initiatives to help “stabilize production and bring back the health of current vines,” Merwarth says. They did not want to increase their output, but they did plant 10 new acres of Riesling and 5 acres of other grapes to have available when needed. They also went full steam ahead into sustainable viticulture methods, which began as early as 2004. They switched to organic fertilizers, ended mechanical weeding and began composting. They currently hand pick 80 percent of their crops, but hope to be at 100 percent in the near future. They employ a skilled vineyard team that works year-round to ensure the health of the vines. The team’s strengths lie in the deep knowledge of their vineyards and vineyard blocks, whereas an outsourced harvest crew wouldn’t understand the lives of each vine planted. Merwarth says their main goal is to “live with what happens in the vineyard.” Merwarth and Bynke will not allow chaptalization, which is the addition of sugars to the wines after harvest. They do not filter or fine the wines, or supplement with additives. The hard work of Merwarth, Bynke and the rest of the Wiemer team has not gone unnoticed.
Jon D’Ettore, director of web sales for Lisa’s Liquor Barn in Penfield, New York, says, “we are proud of our New York State wine selection, and Hermann J. Wiemer has always been a favorite among customers and staff. Their Rieslings are some of the best region has to offer.” Wine publications such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits Magazine have all consistently scored Wiemer wines anywhere from 90 to 94 points for their current vintages—the highest scored in the Finger Lakes region. It wasn’t always a loving relationship with the media, but the young duo began to invite the media in. The wine world always knew the potential of the Finger Lakes and the superior quality of wines that were being made, but not very many people gave the region second glances. Hermann J. Wiemer was a large part of taking the region to the next level by letting the media visit and taste in the vineyards.
“Our goal for the future of Wiemer is to remain sensitive to the changing markets and to focus on the micro aspects of the vineyards, instead of the macro,” Merwarth says. Over the next few years, Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards expects to become fully environmentally sustainable. They also are working to become 100-percent estate grown and bottled to keep their full attention on every grape that goes into a bottle.
The one component to the winemaking that they will not stray far from is their roots. Though Hermann is retired and lives in Ithaca, he still visits every few weeks and checks in on the vines and the nursery. The most prominent vineyard sites are the HJW, Magdalena and Josef vineyards. All are the oldest vineyard blocks and were planted as far back as 1976. With each new vintage, these vineyard blocks show even more character than the year before. The key to the continued success of Hermann J. Wiemer is the current team’s dedication to and heartfelt bond with the German heritage of the vineyard, and care of the rootstock and vines. The roots grow deep at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, on the vines and in the people.
3962 Route 14, Dundee, 607.243.7971, wiemer.com