Winemakers of New York: Peter Bell of Fox Run

Categories: Unscrewed

Lauren Mowery
New Yorkers live in one of the greatest winemaking states of our nation, yet we lack the close bond to our local wine market that, say, San Franciscans have with Sonoma or Napa. In an effort to start a dialogue with the winemakers of our backyard and spotlight the delicious juice being made only a few hours' drive away, we are pursuing a series of interviews with fellow resident vintners.

Last summer, I spent an evening drinking Finger Lakes wine at a potluck dinner organized by several winery owners and winemakers from around Seneca Lake. Fox Run vineyards hosted the affair, providing me the opportunity to break bread with two of four co-owners -- Scott and Ruth Osborn -- and head winemaker Peter Bell. Mr. Bell's studious fascination with wine led to an engaging discussion on yeast cultures and soil composition, a topic we explored with the fervor of those who debate the Jets v. Giants, but which we found significantly more exciting (Mr. Bell's enthusiasm rubs off).

In this interview, Mr. Bell converses about myriad topics including how working in New Zealand led him to Fox Run, why Riesling is the brightest but not only star of the Finger Lakes, and why his ultimate goal as a winemaker is to "chase deliciousness."

Where are you from originally?
I am sort of a diaspora child, perhaps better described as the academic equivalent of an army brat. My parents were from the Toronto area, but I was born in Boston when my Dad was doing his PhD at Harvard. We lived in the Boston area for quite awhile, then moved to Amsterdam for a year, then Berkeley, and finally ended up back in the nominal homeland of Toronto -- all before I was ten years old. Not too surprisingly, I ended up liking the idea of living in different places, and found homes in Spain, Holland, Greece, Australia, and New Zealand over the ensuing decades. I'm a citizen of both Canada and the USA, though I was inclined to feel fully Canadian during the Bush-Cheney era.

My wife and kids and I moved from New Zealand to the Finger Lakes in 1990, and we have been here ever since. I guess that fact puts paid to the idea of "once a wanderer, always a wanderer." The kids are long gone, but home for us is the little town of Penn Yan, New York.

When was Fox Run founded and how long have you been the winemaker there?
The tasting room opened in 1990. The first owners sold to Scott Osborn and his backer a few years later, and I was hired in 1995. Winemakers tend to move around quite a bit, generally, but I have been too happy at Fox Run to think of putting my wandering shoes on.

Why did you decide to plant yourself in the Finger Lakes after traveling and working in vineyards around the world?
My coming here was the result of a chance encounter with a guy I ran into at Cloudy Bay winery in New Zealand. I was over there borrowing a piece of equipment, and happened to mention to him that I was hoping to find a job in the northern hemisphere. He said, "You ought to check out the Finger Lakes of New York. They're poised to make great Rieslings there." So I did. I got hold of a map of the area's wineries, and I made a few random inquiries. I got a job offer on the second call. I had also been entertaining offers in British Columbia and Portugal, but I am so glad that the Finger Lakes prevailed.

What do you see as the great potential of the Finger Lakes?
I am asked this question pretty often, and I can provide a short answer (Riesling) and a longer, more nuanced one. Riesling is clearly our great strength, and we are all so thrilled that American wine drinkers are at last on board with these wines. It's pretty hard to believe that not too long ago we had to hand sell Riesling wines to a very limited, though cognizant and sophisticated, clientele.

The long answer pays lip service to several other vinifera grapes that do exceptionally well here, including Gewurztraminer, Cabernet franc, Merlot, and Lemberger. I am seeing a lot more interest in reds from cool climates, inasmuch as their lower alcohol levels, less overt jamminess, and much greater affinity for food make them a great deal more compelling than their warm climate counterparts. We enjoy a pretty lusty market for our dry reds, especially when we can come in at the $22-and-under price point.

As far as the future is concerned, we are all pretty upbeat about the current situation being viable for a while. Investment from outside interests is finally beginning to happen, and as long as these are individuals who understand the wine industry and aren't on an ego trip, that's a good thing.

What are the positives and pitfalls of working in the region?
There are plenty of both. On the plus side, we are not feeling any pressure from suburban sprawl or gentrification here. Land remains pretty cheap. And I have a 12-minute commute to work! The challenges include a very short growing season and fairly high disease pressure. Both can be mitigated to a large extent by careful canopy management, but there is always some nail-biting going on. And yes, we do have to travel pretty far to reach a large urban market. We are seeing less income from the tasting room in the last few years, as a direct result of all the new wineries on this lake, so getting placements in the NYC area is important. Fortunately, the wines have been very well received there now that the Millennials are calling the shots.

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