McGregor Vineyard’s Field of (Vinifera) Dreams

It’s the story of a Kodak physicist’s quest for quality grapes to make his favorite wines, and the rise of red vinifera in the Finger Lakes.
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Bob McGregor’s unshakeable faith in red vinifera, and its 50-year Finger Lakes legacy

by Sarah Thompson

photos by Lyndsi Stoltzfus

I first tasted McGregor Vineyard’s Black Russian Red 22 years ago, when my then-fiancé and I were visiting Keuka Lake. I wasn’t familiar yet with Riesling’s myriad styles, but I knew rich New World reds like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon—none of which you could really find in the Finger Lakes then. And if you did find them, the wines tended to be acidic and underripe.

The McGregor wine was dark red and ripe, with tangy edges softened by oak. Why weren’t other wineries making a red like this? Speculation turned to skepticism; we assumed the wine must be adulterated with sugar or—God forbid—juice from California.

Seven years ago, while doing research for my book, I found the truth to be much less sinister and much more interesting. It’s the story of a Kodak physicist’s quest for quality grapes to make his favorite wines, and the rise of red vinifera in the Finger Lakes.

(top right) Dan Jimerson, assistant manager; (bottom right) John and Bob McGregor

VINIFERA VISION

This year, McGregor celebrates the 50th anniversary of its original vineyard—one of the oldest commercial vinifera vineyards in the Finger Lakes. In 1971, founder Bob McGregor planted a mix of vinifera and French-American hybrids. For years, he and his wife, Marge, would drive down from Rochester each weekend with their four kids to camp on the property. In 1980 they opened a farm winery, but Bob didn’t leave Kodak until 1986.

McGregor was an anomaly in the early 1970s, a time when the Finger Lakes wine industry was inching closer to collapse. The few remaining corporate wineries were canceling grape-grower contracts or demanding planting of newer hybrids. There was no market for vinifera grapes, and no one except Dr. Konstantin Frank was planting vinifera for commercial production.

Yet Bob says he never felt like an oddball. “There were a few others doing similar things [Gold Seal Vineyards, Frank], and it was really just about doing something I believed in,” says Bob, now age 85. “But there was still work to be done with variety selection, root stocks and pruning technique.”

Bob did the work, bottling his first vinifera wines in 1976. Then, in 1980, he planted Saperavi, an obscure European red variety he’d acquired by way of Dr. Frank and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. In 1985, he released his first vintage—a field blend of mostly Saperavi labeled as Black Russian Red. It exploded on the scene in the early 1990s, offering a glimpse of what Finger Lakes reds could be.

What was the secret? Bob tightly controlled yield to maximize quality, but Saperavi was made for the Finger Lakes. It’s a cold-hardy variety that makes deeply colored, acidic red wines, with looser fruit clusters less prone to rot. Oak was the final key.

From the beginning, Bob barrel-aged the wine for two years. When John McGregor, Bob and Marge’s son, took over the winery in 1999, he and longtime winemaker Jeff Dencenberg started reserving some wine in barrel for three or more years.

“It was a real eye-opener,” John says. “It’s a huge amount of time for oak aging, but done well, it makes a helluva wine.”

No other Finger Lakes winemaker knows Saperavi better than Dencenberg, who believes all McGregor reds would benefit from longer oak aging.

“But it’s a big deal for Saperavi, and three years in barrel makes a very different wine,” he says.

McGregor’s customers agreed, snapping up its reserve bottlings. Soon, other wineries took note. Today, Saperavi has been dubbed “revolutionary,” and the next “great red grape” of the Finger Lakes. And many of the region’s winemakers have adopted extended barrel aging to coax the best from their red vinifera varietals.

(top left) Lilly Deforest- Campbell, tasting room staff
(top, left to right) Daughter Anne Sheehan, Bob, Marge and John McGregor. (bottom) Jeff Dencenberg, winemaker

A LEGACY WITH LEGS

This legacy, says John, is why it’s time for change. Last year, the winery quietly rebranded. Their new labels, designed by John’s sister Anne, are elegant, crisp, clean. But the big news is that McGregor has retired its iconic Black Russian Red label.

The approval in 2016 of Saperavi as an American varietal encouraged John to make the switch. Now, his Saperavi labeling follows a traditional Georgian three-tiered aging system. The Saperavi, aged for one year in barrel, is the least expensive. Saperavi Reserve is barrelaged for two years and the Grand Reserve for three or more years.

“Black Russian Red has always been mostly Saperavi,” says John. “These label designations help clearly differentiate the styles for consumers who aren’t familiar with the varietal.”

Some of McGregor’s own longtime customers fall into this category. Yet the winery remains as grippy as a good red. Jeff has been winemaker for 31 years, John has been running the winery for nearly 20, and dozens of wine club members have stayed for three decades. “They’ve watched me grow up,” says John, who was in high school when he started helping in the winery.

Vinifera in the Finger Lakes has grown up too. Jeff says they could barely get Cabernet Franc to reach 18 Brix when he started. Now, Finger Lakes reds are carving out an age-worthy, regional style. This was the future Bob had believed in.

“It was never an easy path, and we didn’t know what lay in store,” Bob says. “But Marge and I are incredibly proud to have helped do the groundwork necessary to get the region to where it is today.”

Sarah Thompson’s first Liquid Assets column was about Federweisser. She lives in Penn Yan and is the author of Finger Lakes Wine Country (Arcadia, 2015).

Lyndsi Stoltzfus is a Penn Yan–based photographer, inspired by light and capturing genuine emotion. Find her work on Instagram at @lyndsiphotography.

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