In the summer of 2020, Finger Lakes wine country saw droves of visitors thirsty for wine and a change of scenery after the lockdown. With itineraries for European travel and cruises canceled, the region was more popular than ever, with many people visiting for the first time. The appeal of dazzling lakes, vineyards and farm-to-table gastronomy is immediate. It’s equally appealing to winemakers passionate about cool-climate viniculture. Three wineries recently have joined the Finger Lakes community, and while their stories are different, a devotion to the craft of highquality wine unites them.
While traveling through Rock Stream on NY-14, it’s virtually impossible to miss the sign for Pompous Ass Winery. No passerby can escape the cheeky appraisal of the monocled donkey. Fans of the winery may have noticed additional signage as ownership has changed hands.
In September of 2020, Jayne and Mike Gibbs, longtime Finger Lakes oenophiles, took over the reins at Pompous to create Toast Winery. Devotees of the former brand’s fruity elixirs should not be alarmed. The Gibbses have retained Pompous Ass as a second label. The donkey remains. And so does the winery’s dressed-down appeal. During their first six months of ownership, the Gibbses sold nothing but Pompous Ass wines as they developed their infrastructure and acquired growers for the fruit that would comprise their Toast Winery selections.
Toast wines are done in the Finger Lakes school of clean, crisp and dry. Among their offerings, customers will find unoaked Chardonnay, smoky Blaufränkisch and three styles of Riesling. Their rosé from Cabernet Franc is bright and lean, showing notes of savory apricot and jalapeño skin. Moving forward, the winery will continue to produce a limited selection of Pompous classics.
“People are less upset when they see the stuff they remember,” said Mike Gibbs. “A majority of the response has been positive.” The story of Toast began as a winemaking hobby that consumed the Gibbses’ basement and kitchen. The process quickly proved unsustainable and the couple packed up and moved to North Carolina, working with grapes outside of Charlotte in the Yadkin Valley AVA.
“It just wasn’t the right fit,” said Mike, reflecting on their time in the South. “The Finger Lakes felt like home. There were opportunities here that we didn’t have before.” “We have a lot to learn,” confessed Jayne, “but we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”
The Toast name comes from the firetoasted interior of a wine barrel. Barrels can be heavily charred or lightly toasted, the latter most often reserved for winemaking. Individual barrel staves reflecting the various degrees of toast adorn the wall above the tasting bars.
What has been most reassuring for the Gibbses in their new venture is the unblinking support received from the community. “It’s just incredible,” said Jayne. “Each one of us brings our success as a whole.” Tastings: Walk-ins only. Groups of nine or more must call in advance.
In the Finger Lakes, where Riesling dominates and brings acclaim to the region, an enterprising young couple have created Scout Vineyards with an eye to Chardonnay. The story of Daniel Budmen and Olivia Todd’s Penn Yan winery began in California Wine Country.
“For most of our time in Napa, we tasted wine as frequently as we could,” said Daniel, then employed at Constellation Brands, Olivia at Whitehall Lane Winery. “We would pass on Chardonnay. It’s not something we were open-minded about at the time.” But a visit to the Hess Collection changed their tune. “The Chardonnay was mineral-driven and beautiful and we were very excited about it,” said Daniel.
Transferred by work to the South Island of New Zealand, Olivia and Daniel were sampling Sauvignon Blanc berries at harvest when they stumbled onto a block of fruit that tasted different.
Daniel recalled saying, “This isn’t Sauvignon Blanc, but whatever it is it’s super delicious. We thought about what it could be, and it reminded us of the Hess Collection Chardonnay, mineral-driven with some really nice stone fruit flavors.” Sure enough, those berries were Chardonnay. Subsequent tastings of the variety reminded Daniel more and more of a style of Chardonnay he’d enjoyed in the Finger Lakes, where he and Olivia had gone to school. That was when they knew what kind of wines they wanted to make and where they wanted to make them.
Arriving in the Finger Lakes in 2016, Olivia worked as cellar master at Hermann J. Wiemer and Daniel as assistant winemaker under the masterful hand of Johannes Reinhardt of Kemmeter Wines. The singular wines of Kemmeter are driven by vintage. There’s no commitment to bone-dry or semisweet wines, only to capture the seasonal character of the fruit of each vintage. Daniel carried those lessons with him to Scout.
“We don’t want to make the same wine every year,” he said. “Yeah, we want consistent quality, but in terms of the wines tasting identical year to year, it’s just not what the Finger Lakes gives us.”
Scout Chardonnays come from fruit sourced from various sites on Seneca Lake including Lahoma Vineyard and Nutt Road. The wines are racy, intense and quintessentially cool-climate, ideal with local cheeses and salty Amish butter. Daniel and Olivia produce one spontaneously fermented Riesling, and while it’s chalky and floral and fresh, they’re on a different journey.
“So many of our neighbors produce amazing Rieslings so it isn’t our focus. We like to offer it and each year it’s done in a slightly different style,” Daniel explained. “In previous years, it’s been off-dry but this year’s is dry with higher alcohol. We’re not fans of higher alcohol Riesling, but it was hot and the fruit was ripe. It was what the season gave us.”
- Tastings: By appointment only.
SONG HILL WINERY
Conor Gallagher’s pastoral Song Hill Winery in Victor has a rich history steeped in songbirds and horses. His grandmother purchased the property in 1981 for her nephew, a horse trainer whose endeavors rapidly outgrew capacity. In 2012, Conor and his family took over the property and converted the former stable into an intimate winery and tasting room. Enormous black walnuts rise toward a paddock-vineyard of Diamond and Isabella grapevines. A sense of bygone charm befalls all who enter the premises.
The name of the winery was inspired by the property’s natural abundance. “It was a lot more wooded than it is now,” remarked Conor. “The whole place was teeming with songbirds and my grandma was, like, ‘I’m naming it Song Hill.’”
The private wine tasting experience is leveraged by exquisite canapés prepared by Conor’s mother, Janet Gallagher. Her flight pairings include Pajarero fig with honey goat cheese, seared scallop and corn butter, and rare lamb with egg gravy.
The Song Hill Cabernet Franc is arresting and pulls you into the glass on the nose alone. Its palate of bruised Black Forest fruits and leather parallels a good-quality Bordeaux.
The star-bright Pinot Noir is full of candied and tart cherry character. A slightly oaked Tavel-style rosé is medium-bodied and textured. But it is the sparkling wines made from estate-grown Diamond and Isabella grapes that prove this winemaker to be a true champion of the region’s vigorous hybrid varieties.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one doing méthode champenoise Diamond in the area,” said Conor, overlooking his paddock-vineyard of Diamond and Isabella. “It showcases how the grape can be of a higher quality. It has much bigger potential than how it’s been used.”
Tastings: Walk-ins or reservations welcome for general tastings. For the curated wine and food pairing experience, reservations are required.
Terence Lane is a Certified Sommelier whose wine writing and short fiction have appeared in a number of periodicals including Wine Enthusiast. He lives in the Finger Lakes.