Our paths first crossed between Michigan and New York; same latitude, same longitude, exact same moment, with a scant 30,000 feet between us.
That’s because while I was driving to Finger Lakes to interview winemakers, Finger Lakes winemaker Peter Bell was flying to Lansing to judge the Michigan Wine & Spirits Competition. When a few days later we actually touched palms at sea level, Bell reported that the Michigan wines he judged were outstanding. I reported that the Finger Lakes wines he makes were outstandinger.
Thus ended the circle jerk and we got down to business.
First, some history:
Fox Run is owned by Scott and Ruth Osborn (and family); Scott picked up his share from a fellow described as ‘a wealthy psychiatrist who’d fancied the life of a gentleman farmer’. In the mid 1980s, the good doctor had purchased a dilapidated farm on Torrey Ridge overlooking Seneca Lake and hired a Barnum and Bailey-quality winemaker who promptly and completely FUBARed the operation. The shrink’s investment value shrunk accordingly, so he put place up for sale.
Rather than being one, most folks considering buying a winery need a psychiatrist, but Scott came with a bag of tricks from Pindar Vineyards in Long Island, where he’d been the General Manager. Part of his plan to bring Fox Run from bust to boom involved luring Peter Bell away from Dr. Frank, a locale to which Bell himself had been lured five years before.
More on that in a flash.
Part of the growing pains of any vineyard is determining the size that makes the most sense in terms of intent, both in aesthetic impact and financial reward. On that front, the Osborns were burdened with a freewheeling legal albatross (the son of one of the original investors, who’d inherited 40% of the place) who neither understood nor cared to understand the wine business. It wasn’t until Osborn’s brother and sister-in-law bought out the playboy partner a few years ago that the Fox Run ship was truly set on the course toward the carefully measured success, both financially and aesthetically, that the winery enjoys today.
Incidentally, for Fox Run Vineyards, that ‘magic number’ wound up being around 15,000 cases annually.
“In the 25 years I’ve been in Finger Lakes, I’ve happily watched the ascendancy of Riesling,” Peter Bell says. “When Scott Osborn first took over Fox Run, his primary focus was seeing these vineyards repaired so that Riesling’s true potential could be realized. Winemaking here had been sketchy, canopy management lacking; the whole act had to be gotten together.”
Vineyard manager John inherited 25 acres of largely untended Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon suffering from drought stress and an unsophisticated support system that consisted of a rudimentary three-wire system. First order of business for John and Scott included attending a lecture on the Vertical Shoot Positioned trellis system touted by Joetta Kirk of Rhode Island’s Sakonnet Vineyard, then retrofitting Fox Run acres to take advantage of this revolutionary technique.
Combined with a proactive hedging, shoot tucking and a leaf removal program, the resulting Chardonnays, according to Peter Bell, showed “aromas of figs, peaches and tangerines with an intriguing spiciness that I’d never before seen in Finger Lakes fruit.”
I like hanging out with Peter Bell. He has a charming way of being simultaneously relaxed and hurried. He’s on his way to this or that event or family responsibility and only has a minute; by the time that minute is up, he’s late and I’m out of questions. Whether or not he knows it, his wines reflect that dual nature as well—tension with time to spare. His 2013 Silvan Riesling is, perhaps, a paradigm of counterbalance, with zesty sweetness in point against taut acidity; an essential Finger Lakes minerality playing against an unusual touch of creaminess the wine develops with a barrel-age regimen. Equally intriguing is what he does with Lemberger, another signature varietal—it exudes chocolate and spice, mulberry and smoke, everything sewn together in a package both taut and unconstrained.
Bell’s background has many dimensions as well. He’s Canadian, but he learned winemaking in Australia and New Zealand, a nation of humans he refers to as ‘toxic’. Desperate to get out, he talked to an American at Cloudy Bay who offered up some contact information from Finger Lakes, then (as now) a region with a vast and largely untapped potential in the viticultural landscape.
“I made two phone calls,” he says in a customary brew of hubris and humility: “I got two job offers.”
His tenure in New York has raised the bar on a lot of the specialties of the local house; I was impressed with his 2014 Traminette—a cold-hardy scion of Gewürz that, if handled with care, can easily match (and often outstrip) its parent. His 2011 Reserve Riesling has begun to take on characters of a classic Rheingau with a couple years under its belt; the lime zest has integrated with deeper notes of smoke and petrol and the acidity, which can be unpleasantly electric in younger Finger Lakes Rieslings, has been grounded with minerality.
“I’ve seen our wines improve at a steady, manageable pace,” he claims. “The challenge we have tackled is making wine within the parameters appeal, but with individual character. No robotics, no shortcuts. We embrace wines that are subtle, nuanced, yet still easy to understand and appreciate.”
Across the board, I find this to be an accurate summation of Fox Run’s portfolio. Bell’s wines steadfastly avoid rough edges—he despises the sort of noisy wines—what he calls the ‘squeaky wheels’ that often command attention from critics. His wines are exceedingly well crafted and essentially without flaws.
And I must say, rooting out life’s flaws is a task at which he remains ever-vigilant: In the course of our last interview, he pointed out a typographical error on my business card that neither I, nor anyone else in five full years, had noticed (!)
Thank you, sir. Thus, never send to ask for whom Pete Bell toils:
He toils for me.