By Terence Lane
Photos by Heather Ainsworth
When Dave and Melissa Pittard of Buttonwood Grove Winery acquired Toro Run Winery in Ovid, they asked themselves a question: What are we going to do at this winery that’s different than Buttonwood? The answer was Six Eighty Cellars, a winery dedicated to alternative fermentation vessels and techniques.
Situated atop a hill, the vineyards spread down a slope overlooking a vast expanse of Cayuga Lake. From the bottom of the lake to the top of the property is an elevation change of six-hundred and eighty feet, a statistic from which the winery takes its name.
Upon entering Six Eighty, a smell of stone steals through the air. Positioned around the room is a startling array of Italian clayvers, terra cotta eggs, cocciopestos, and an enormous 1,800-liter concrete tulip. In the adjacent tasting room sits a newly acquired thousand-liter French amphora.
“We’re still not sure what’s going to go in there,” says Ian Barry, head winemaker at Six Eighty. His amused uncertainty tracks well with the winery’s spirit of experimentation and having fun while taking some chances. What these clayvers and terra cotta eggs will do for the wines is still being evaluated.
“Part of the story is we’re figuring it out,” says Barry. “It hasn’t even been a year working with these vessels. It’ll take some time to really dial it in. But everything we’ve tried we really liked. I was hoping we’d find some things we didn’t care for and rule them out, but not really. We weren’t expecting that.”
When the Pittards and Barry took over Toro Run Winery, it came stocked with plenty of leftover bulk wine. Part of the transition into Six Eighty was determining how to move forward with leftover product.
“The wines that were here were in good shape,” he says, “but not all of them were wines we wanted to brand. We kept what we wanted to work with and put the rest on the bulk market.”
The concept of concrete and terra cotta fermentation may sound novel to some, but such winemaking practices have been used around the world for centuries. The revered Chateau Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux has in recent years implemented concrete vats into their production. Current-release bottlings of Cheval Blanc fetch more than $700 apiece. Zuccardi Wines in Argentina’s Uco Valley is built of concrete and stone and utilizes the former for its ‘Concreto’ mountain-grown Malbec. Even Cakebread Cellars in Napa has come on board, fermenting their Sauvignon Blanc in custom-made concrete eggs.
Concrete, while not nearly as porous as terra cotta, oxidizes the wine in a very subtle way. Stone vessels impart texture without the spicy vanilla/wood tannin signatures of an oak barrel.
“It’s all about texture and nuance, emphasizing more of the savory,” Barry explains. “We’re trying to get a wine that’s not just fruit-driven, although there’s plenty of fruit in the skin-ferment Riesling.”
Among the techniques being used are a semi-carbonic maceration (switching to full carbonic this year) and an appassimento-style wine made from dried-down Cabernet Franc grapes. The appassimento pulled out of terra cotta egg was woodsy and rich. It’s a bruiser of a wine loaded with sticky fig, forest and stewed blueberry notes. California Cabernet Sauvginon and Port drinkers will swoon. The portfolio extends to a cocciopesto-aged Gruner Veltliner, Cabernet Sauvignon rosé pét-nat, a Pinot Pinot (blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), Rieslings, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and a round and creamy rosé made from Pinot Noir.
“It’s all about texture and nuance, emphasizing more of the savory.”
–Ian Barry, Head Winemaker
Advocates of alternative wine vessels tend to be united in their devotion to highlighting the regional nuances of the fruit. They also tend to lean more natural in their approach, although Six Eighty is not entirely hands-off.
“There’s an assumption that wines made in clay vessel will be natural,” says Barry. “But we’re not necessarily letting the wines go on their own. It’s a combination of old world and new world practices.”
The aim at Six Eighty Cellars is to showcase the regional character of the fruit by any means possible. Evolving attitudes about food and beverage have fostered a welcoming environment for alternative winemaking. Pét-nat wines, for example, are no longer the sacrament of Brooklyn baristas but sought out by an ever-expanding base of consumers.
“People are more openminded then when I got into this business twenty years ago,” says Barry. “The somm world is totally different. There’s this emphasis on farm to table. The younger generation have open minds. It’s cool to want to try new things.”
Six Eighty Cellars, located at 3050 Swick Road in Ovid, NY is open Thursday to Monday. Reservations are strongly recommended and can be made at sixeightycellars.com. The $25 experience includes a 45-minute guided tasting and charcuterie board. 315.530.2663.
Terence Lane is a Certified Sommelier whose wine writing and short fiction has appeared in a number of periodicals including Wine Enthusiast. He lives in the Finger Lakes. Heather Ainsworth is a photographer who regularly contributes to Edible Finger Lakes as well as numerous other publications