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Q & A: Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards
By Tina Caputo
Mar 13, 2012
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For those of us who live in California, getting our hands on East Coast wines isn’t easy.  Most wineries just don’t make enough wine to ship out of state, so there’s basically no chance of coming across a bottle of, say, New York Riesling or Virginia Cab Franc in a local shop. 

But despite their limited distribution, the wines are not impossible to get:  You can visit local wineries during your travels and bring bottles home, or you can order directly from producers that are allowed to ship to your state.  It’s not as convenient as popping down to the corner wine merchant, but the potential rewards are significant. 

One East Coast producer that’s worth the extra effort is Fox Run Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes region.  With 55 acres of vineyards, Fox Run makes a variety of wines -- including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Franc-Lemberger -- but it’s the winery’s Rieslings that really stand out.  Fox Run is one of three Finger Lakes wineries that combines its efforts to produce Tierce, one of the country’s best Rieslings. 
 
The man behind Fox Run’s wines is Peter Bell.  Born in Boston and raised in Amsterdam, Berkeley and Toronto, Peter studied enology in Australia and made wine in New Zealand before settling in the Finger Lakes.  He was the winemaker at Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars for five years before joining Fox Run in 1995. 

I caught up with Peter for a chat last week while judging the International Eastern Wine Competition -- and he even shared some Tierce with me at dinner that night.    

Wine Review Online (WRO): When did you first take an interest in wine?

PB: Looking back, I can put a few pieces of the puzzle together.  I remember going to a German wine tasting when I was 18 in Cambridge, England, and I was madly scribbling down these extremely long words on the labels -- not knowing which word meant what -- and trying to actually write some tasting notes. 

WRO: When did you decide to turn that interest into a career?

PB: My first degree is in cultural anthropology, and you can imagine how many job offers came rolling in from that.  Meanwhile, I began to develop an interest in wine academically, and my wife and I were drinking wine two or three times a week.  I got very serious all of a sudden in my late 20s, and that coincided with a need to have a career of some sort.  The rest happened quite quickly. 

WRO: Where did you study enology?

PB: In Australia, at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga.  My first attempt to get into studying wine was with UC Davis.  When I contacted them they said, “You’re from where?”  I told them, and they said, “Well, what are your credentials?”  I said I didn’t have any, so they said, “If you do apply you’re most likely not going to get in.  If you do get in, you’re going to have to come up with $20,000.” I had about $2,000 saved, so that was out. 

WRO: How did you decide on Australia?

PB: My wife and I ended up taking a year-long trip around the world in 1983 and `84, and we eventually ended up in Australia.  I found out there were two universities that had degree programs there, so once back in Canada, I wrote letters to both of them.  One ignored me, and one wrote back and said, “Sure, come on over.”

WRO: Did anything about the winemaking program surprise you?

PB: It didn’t surprise me how terrified I was of the science, but it surprised me how I managed to get through it all.  I had to go back and get my high school chemistry and physics and math before even thinking about this. 

WRO: A lot of people seem to think of winemaking as an art form, and don’t realize there’s all this science behind it. 

PB: Right.  There’s analytical and physical chemistry, microbiology, biochemistry, organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry, calculus -- a lot of it I didn’t end up ever putting to use.  To this day I couldn’t solve a differential equation to save my life.

WRO: Any good surprises?

PB: I guess I didn’t realize how much of a world community winemakers are.  Once you’re established as a winemaker you can pretty well go anywhere in the world and be welcomed by winemakers, and that’s a fantastic feeling.  You have this incredibly deep bond -- even if you don’t speak the same language you can taste wines together.  I love that. 

WRO: How did you end up in the Finger Lakes?

PB: That was one of those fluke-y chance encounters.  I was working in Marlborough, New Zealand, as an assistant winemaker and not liking it very much -- they didn’t like me either, and it was just a very unpleasant, toxic kind of atmosphere there.  I knew something had to change, and at that point I had two young kids and had to find a way to make a living pretty fast. 

So I happened to be over at Cloudy Bay -- it was a neighboring winery -- borrowing something, and this American guy who was working vintage came up and started talking to me.  I kind of voiced my concerns about what to do next, and he said, “You know where you should go?  The Finger Lakes of New York.”  I asked him why, and he said, “Because they’re poised to make great Riesling there.”  So I took his advice. 

WRO: How did you find a job in New York?

PB: Someone sent me a map of the Finger Lakes wineries, of which there were maybe 20 at the time -- this was in 1990 -- and I recognized exactly one name:  Taylor Wine Company.  So I called them up and asked if they were looking for a winemaker.  The woman on the phone said, “Are you kidding me?  Don’t you know what’s going on with Taylor Wine Company?” I said I didn’t, and she told me they were about to go bankrupt.  And then she said, “But I’ll tell you who does need a winemaker -- a guy named Willie Frank, right up the street.”

WRO: So how did you go from Dr. Frank’s to Fox Run?

PB: My boss Scott Osborn and I knew each other from judging together at the International Eastern Wine Competition on several occasions, and we’d admired each other’s palates and knew each other’s personalities.  He purchased Fox Run with a partner in 1993 and realized quite quickly that he couldn’t wear every hat at the winery.  So he called me up.  It was hard walking away from all the wines I’d made at Dr. Frank’s, but things worked out great. 

WRO: How much wine do you produce overall at Fox Run and how is it distributed?

PB: We’re hovering at about 15,000 cases a year.  We sell probably 30 to 40% in our tasting room, and we have a distributor on the East Coast.  Most of the wine is sold within a 100-mile radius of our winery. 

WRO: Do you ship wine to people in other parts of the country?

PB: Absolutely.

WRO: How would you describe your personal winemaking style?

PB: I’m not a “bandwagon” winemaker.  I’m not really a traditionalist or dogmatic, but it takes a lot to convince me to do things like not inoculate my wines with yeast, or not filter.  I’m happy to try various things with native fermentations, but some of the aromas that are produced get in the way of the pure varietal expression.  That’s when I lose my patience.  All I really want to do is make wines that are delicious and refreshing -- if I’ve done that I know I’ve made a good wine. 

WRO: One of the wines you make is a blend of Cab Franc and Lemberger.  For those of us who haven’t encountered a lot of Lemberger, how would you describe it?

PB: That’s actually our best-selling wine in New York City right now.  The tannins are there, but the acid tends to be a little high, which needs some modification sometimes.  Flavors can range from black pepper to blackberries and sometimes blackberry jam.  Once the acid is adjusted downward it’s a very plush wine, and it ages well.  It also drinks nicely as a young wine. 

WRO: What’s the story behind the Tierce Riesling?

PB: It’s something that’s very near and dear to my heart.  It’s a collaborative effort between Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road, Dave Whiting of Red Newt and myself.  I give credit to Johannes for birthing the idea.  He said, “We all have very clear, distinct styles of winemaking, yet we have the same philosophy in making Riesling.”  Embodied in that philosophy is a love of austere, drier styles, rather than sweeter, fruit-salad-oriented ones.  So he said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we made a wine that was composed of a third of each of our contributions?”

I thought this would be a great idea, not only for the reason of making good wine, but also to serve as a metaphor for what goes on in the Finger Lakes, which is all about collaboration among winemakers.  We love working together and we love sharing ideas.  We don’t consider each other competitors, we’re collaborators and co-conspirators.

WRO: What other producers’ wines do you admire?

PB: I’m open to drinking just about everybody’s wine in the Finger Lakes -- my favorites tend to be the collaborators that I’ve already named -- but it’s a pretty long list.  Beyond that my tastes have evolved more toward whites than reds.  I love Champagne, I could drink a bottle of it every week, and it’s great to see that other regions are making wines that are just as good.  Schramsberg is unbelievably fantastic, to name one.  I sometimes dream of having unlimited access to Hunter River Semillon.  Lastly, I’m a fino Sherry junkie -- that’s the one wine I can’t really have in my fridge, because it turns me into a crackhead….