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Wine world comes to Geneva; expert likes local vintages

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Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2014 5:00 am

GENEVA — Three of Dan Berger’s favorite things to do with Finger Lakes wines are:

Taste them.

Write about them.

Talk about them.

The California-based, nationally syndicated wine columnist did all three with enthusiasm at this weekend’s second annual Wine Symposium of the Finger Lakes in Geneva.

A Brooklyn native who moved to Los Angeles as a child, Berger is so enthusiastic about the growing quality of Finger Lakes wine that he stopped tasting them Friday night and spent a half-hour talking about them.

Berger was an Associated Press general assignment reporter in California for 10 years. During that time, he began to write about the California wine industry.

“I became fascinated by wines, how they differed from place to place. How the same variety of grape could produce different tastes in a wine,’’ Berger said at the Geneva Events Center tasting event Friday night.

“I was intrigued. I had endless surprises as I experienced and wrote about wines,’’ he said.

His first trip to the Finger Lakes was in November 1977.  He spent five days driving around to Finger Lakes wineries, which were just in their infancy and dominated by people Berger called “characters’’ such as Walter Taylor and Konstantin Frank.

“I was captivated by them. They were so passionate and yet so different. I began writing about them and their rivalry, since the New York wine explosion was off on the horizon back then,’’ Berger said.

“The wines I tasted on that first trip were very good. I began to write about them and I went back in 1982, this time as a syndicated wine columnist,’’ he said.

It was that second trip five years later that made Berger realize what was happening in the Finger Lakes. “It was eye-opening to me to see that many wine hobbyists of five years earlier were now joined by professional winemakers who were trained in Germany, France and at the University of California at Davis,’’ he said.

“It was like an out of control freight train. The wineries were growing so fast that at first, the quality couldn’t catch up,’’ he recalled.

Berger is animated as he talks about Finger Lakes wines. He said in 1988-89, the growth of wineries and grape-growing in the Finger Lakes was tremendous. “The last 17 to 20 years, that quality has caught up to the quantity. There are now many world class wines being made here and I find it a joy to taste them and talk about them,’’ he said.

He cited the high number of gold medal-winning wines from the Finger Lakes in world competitions, which, he notes, are done on a blind tasting basis. The judges don’t know where the wines are from when they taste them.

“It’s not just the whites, the Rieslings. They are making great reds as well. I’m proud to have opened up people’s eyes to Finger Lakes wines over the past twenty years,’’ Berger said.

He said he loves the diversity of Finger Lakes wines and the amazing grapes that are being grown in its soils. He raves about a Spanish grape called albarinó. He said the wines made from that grape “are beyond what I could ever imagine from New York soil.’’

He said his columns are written with the wine drinker in mind, not so much those who technically analyze the acidity, composition and chemical makeup of a wine.

“I analyze the wines and have a gut reaction. I write about that and urge people to investigate themselves,’’ he said.

Being from the West Coast (he now lives north of San Francisco), he acknowledges  a certain wine snobbery by West Coast winemakers. He said they like to poke fun at East Coast wines.

“The East Coast wines don’t make it out West much.  It’s a market risk, even as good as they are. They need to be sure they’ll sell well to make the investment in shipping them worth it,’’ he said.

That is slowly changing as West Coast wine drinkers get exposed, slowly, to the Eastern wines.

“But the judges recognize them and the word is slowly spreading. It’s a slow process. They’re sticking their toe in the water to see how it is,’’ he said.

Berger is a vegetarian. He finds Finger Lakes wines go better with vegetarian cuisine. “It has to do with the tannin. California wines have more, Finger Lakes wines have less,’’ Berger said.

Friday, Berger was taking notes on each of the  26 local Rieslings he was tasting.

He will incorporate those notes into his wine column. He also writes for a wine newsletter, which is written in a more technical style for real serious wine connoisseurs.

On Saturday, Berger gave a seminar on cold-climate red wines, including two from the Finger Lakes.  “The Experiment Station here has a new grape called Noiret that was developed in 2006 that is showing some good results. It has a great future,’’ he said.

 He said the California wines in Eastern markets are often not the best, but the least expensive.

Friday night’s grand tasting of Finger Lakes American Viticulture Area (AVA) Riesling Challenge finalists and trophy winners featured a  cooking demonstration by Dan Eaton of Y News Channel 14 and hors d’oeuvres. It was sponsored by the Finger Lakes Times.

The Finger Lakes AVA includes 11,000 acres of vineyards and is the largest wine producing region in the state. It encompasses the 11 glacial Finger Lakes, concentrated around Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga lakes.

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