Talking to Peter Becraft is an unexpected treat—many winemakers express a sort of taciturn shyness and meet the media under duress—it’s part of the package deal of self-promotion. But Becraft is the opposite. He’s gregarious, funny, charming and intense about his mission. But there was something about his looks and mannerism that I found confoundingly familiar. In fact, it began to bug me to the point that I could not concentrate on the conversation, which was centering around NY 81, a Cayuga-Riesling clone that has made some waves among Finger Lakes growers for its hybrid character and delicate vinifera flavor profile.
I know, right? How could my attention have been diverted from such a stimulating exchange? All’s well that ends well, though, and I snapped back to attention as soon as I had worked out who Peter Becraft reminds me of…
Vladimir Lenin, only with hair and a grin.
His resumé explains part of the personality: The pleasantly social part, not the toppling the Russian Empire part. Becraft comes from a fashion photography background, with a degree in sculpture and a seven year stint with one of the busiest studios in New York. He parlayed that into a career in retail wine sales, which got him closer to winemaking, perhaps, but it’s still a little like a used car salesman becoming a top designer at Ford.
In fairness to the vagaries of history, Lenin was a paralegal before he invented the Soviet Union.
The trajectory that took Peter Becraft from a boutique wine shop in Manhattan’s Financial District to rural Yates County a is tinged with as much tragedy as triumph. With his wife Cary, the decision to pull out of city life and move to land spreadin’ out so far and wide followed their experiences on 9/11, which they witnessed firsthand from SoHo. Plenty of New Yorkers re-evaluated their lifestyles in the wake of that nightmare, but according to Becraft, “I had already begun that process. I was working two jobs, full-time in the fashion industry and the other, my job of passion, part-time in wine.”
Cary—a pastry chef and chocolatier—had dreams of a work/live space in Finger Lakes wine country, where Peter was sure he could find a hands-on job in the industry, even if it was working in a tasting room.
In fact, it was a happenstance encounter in the Anthony Road tasting room that led to the Becraft family career change: “It was the last stop on our wine tour—it was slow, and Cary convinced winemaker Johannes Reinhardt to give us a barrel tasting. In the course of that, he mentioned that help was needed for the upcoming harvest, and that worked out perfectly for me. I did the harvest, went to work in the cellar and took over full-time for Johannes in 2014.”
Reinhardt, one of the region’s most respected winemakers, remained as a consultant while devoting more time to his own venture, Kemmeter Wines.
Becraft’s first vintage was a test of skills honed as Reinhardt’s associate for six years, but the wines—true cold-climate exemplars with big racy acids and bright fruit flavors—prove out the balancing act that all grape masters in this fickle terroir must add to their bag of tricks.
Throughout the course of our conversation, we tasted through a lot of these 2014 wines—almost to a glass they showed a pedigree of purity—and that is a part of Reinhardt legacy that Becraft intends to maintain, even while putting his own stamp on the label. “My goal is the same as Johannes’,” he says. “To showcase the fruit we grow, not make it into something it shouldn’t be.”
To that, inevitably, he will add his flair for art, a term he does not mind applying to his craft. He is a trained artist first and a winemaker second, at least in terms of chronology.
In fairness, I can’t contrast Becraft’s style with that of his predecessor, but those that I experienced showed delicacy and depth, the tension and symmetry that is the stylish signet that characterizes the best wines from Finger Lakes. His 2014 Dry Riesling—the vintage that didn’t see acid levels drop until the was nearly curtain time—maintains a nice equilibrium with sugar content, showing an attractive citrus streak and a mineral core. Unoaked Chardonnay from the same harvest is likewise crisp—a pH of 3.13 set against a residual sugar of 5.8 g/L (for geeks, a typical California Chardonnay would hit this sweetness with a pH of about 3.4).
I was equally charmed by Devonian White, a blend which I hadn’t before encountered—70% Riesling, 30% Pinot Gris. At $13 a bottle, this is an entry-level table wine, but juicy and dry, loaded with Bosc pear, pineapple and a sprinkle of herbs.
Reds have typically been the challenge for the appellation—few dark-skinned varieties are willing to display peak performance in these terroirs. Anthony Road has a counterpart to Devonian White, called (to no surprise) Devonian Red. It’s a combination of early-ripening Cabernet franc and Lemberger—two grapes that seem to thrive here. The former pick up deep blackberry and plum flavors while Lemberger, a.k.a. Blaufränkisch, develops into a brooking, mulberry-laced wine of considerable sophistication. Neither display Cabernet sauvignon’s overarching tannins, which may act as a structural framework on which a wine can age, but often overpower the fruit in younger incarnations.
Anthony Road’s line-up also includes single varietal wines from each of these grapes and each proves out the stellar heights that ripe fruit can produce in Finger Lakes red wine.
But, perhaps it’s time to shift focus from the whippersnapper in front of the camera to the man—and woman—behind the curtain. Ann and John Martini are the Romanovs of this saga—the Mensheviks, the landed gentry, the ruling class. In 1973, they purchased a hundred acres overlooking Seneca Lake in the 1970s and began to grow grapes for Taylor Wine Company—the clearinghouse for wine grapes among most of the farmers here. At the time, John worked at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in nearby Geneva while Ann tended the vines along with their four kids.
Anthony Road Wine Co. was born in 1990; winemaker Johannes Reinhardt came aboard a decade later after debarking from Germany, where his family has been in the wine business since 1438—no, that’s not a typo. He did the (evidently) requisite stint with Dr. Frank over on Keuka Lake, then joined the Martinis in 2000. He has been instrumental in helping define not only the Anthony Road’s groove, but in ways, the direction the entire region has taken: Largely unadorned wines that articulate purity in the fruit’s expression. This seems like a fairly universal winemaker’s end-game, but in truth, cooler climates tend to produce wines that ring with the sort vibrancy that actually shuns barrel fermentation or lees aging.
“Mother earth gives us this great beverage,” he say. “I believe in giving the wine a chance to express itself with a minimum of manipulation.”
In the opening of the piece, I mentioned NY 81, the interesting clone developed by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and growing on a couple of donated acres at Anthony Road. Although they don’t produce a commercial product yet, Peter Becraft has words of praise for the fun, frothy fermenting fluid they pour during the wineries pre-harvest Federweisser—a festival featuring NY 81 grape juice in a fizzed up formula, the ideal companion to the provided onion pie, brats and German potato salad.
This year’s festival, the fourteenth, will be held at the winery on September 12.
Another significant upcoming date is October 25, which will mark the 98th anniversary of Bolshevik Revolution. The fact that I initially said that Peter Becraft had a Lenin-esque quality is not meant to be taken as anything more than the observation of a jaded journalist on his beat—but, let’s say it’s more than coincidence. In that case, during any subsequent universal agricultural collectivizations, I want to be on the side of whoever ends up with Anthony Road Wine Company.