Weekly Interview: Tom Higgins

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 06-17-2011

Tom Higgins. Photo courtesy of New York Cork Report.

Each week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 16 questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Tom Higgins, the owner and winemaker of the Heart & Hands Wine Company in the Finger Lakes.

I learned about Tom by reading Evan Dawson’s excellent new book, Summer in a Glass. Dawson’s book chronicles a number of winemakers in the Finger Lakes, and Tom was one of the guys that immediately jumped out at me. (Dawson has also written about Higgins for the New York Cork Report.)

Tom’s passion for wine — detailed in Dawson’s book by what almost became a Sisyphean search for limestone soil — leaped from the pages. Heart & Hands opened in 2008, and produces just 1,500 cases of wine each year, split  between Pinot Noir and Riesling. Check out our interview with Tom below the fold.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

The arrival of hot and humid weather in the Finger Lakes means that dry Rosés are making their appearance. Rosés from Spain and Provence are open tonight on the counter.

Courtesy of Heart & Hands Wine Company.

How did you decide to pursue a career in wine?

Growing up in the Finger Lakes provided me the opportunity to work at my friend Leigh’s winery — Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards. That planted the seed of interest in wine, but I went to college to pursue a career in Accounting and Business Computer Systems. I worked in the tech industry for a while, but after a summer vacation to the Finger Lakes, we decided that it was time to switch gears and remove the pager from my hip (after one too many pages at 3am).

My first foray into the wine industry was in sales at Zachy’s Wine & Spirits, which opened my eyes to the world of wine and allowed me to create a number of wine relationships that I still have today.

How did you learn to make wine?

A hell of a lot of reading. Then questioning that reading. Then reading some more.

Apprenticeships at Chateau La Lagune and Calera Wine Company helped reinforce the basics and give me a broader foundation for my skills. Honestly, though, I continue to learn every day and am constantly humbled by the challenges that  this beautiful product throws my way.

How do you spend your days off?

A day off — what is that?  In the brief time when I’m not “working” I enjoy playing on the water in the morning or dining with good company in the evenings. Currently, there are no days off at the winery.

Courtesy of Heart & Hands Wine Company.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history?

Josh Jensen — a pioneer of Burgundian techniques in California and an incredible personality to work for. His efforts are truly remarkable.

David Whiting & Peter Bell — Two of the “Best of the Finger Lakes” winemakers, these two have laid a strong foundation for the emergence of Finger Lakes wines. They are always an incredible soundboard for ideas and provide experiential wisdom. They have great palates, open minds and are open to collaborating and sharing ideas — and this allows the region to learn and advance as a whole.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

Mike Waller of Calera. He exudes passion for the product he is making and loves tasting wines from all over the globe. An absolute joy to be around.

Jeff Pisoni of Pisoni Vineyards. Open mind, open palate. He doesn’t command the room like his father Gary, but don’t let that fool you. He has a knack for turning out some of the best that California has to offer.

Ian Barry of Keuka Lake Vineyards. If what he did at Swedish Hill Winery is any indication of his future success, we are all anxiously looking forward to experiencing the fruits of his labor from  the 2011 vintage at Keuka Lake Vineyards — his latest endeavor. He has a soft-spoken nature, but he creates beautiful balance in the glass which allows the wine to speak for him.

What mailing lists, if any, do you purchase from?

These days, our budget is focused on buying vineyard and cellar equipment, so we’ve pulled back from mailing lists. Swapping seems to be the best tool for getting some cool stuff in the cellar along with pulling out a special older bottle from the cellar from time to time.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

Usually with Pinot it’s not the best wine, it is the epiphany wine. 1998 Gros Frère et Sœur Grands-Echezeaux was that wine for me. A colleague of mine brought it do dinner and it changed my mind about Pinot Noir forever. With so many layers of complexity and a balance of intensity and silkiness, it was just harmony in a glass. A lasting memory.

Courtesy of Heart & Hands Wine Company.

I do believe, however, that the power of the experience in the glass has a great deal to do with the company and the situation. Some of my customers “best wine” experiences are celebrating an anniversary or special occasion or the addition of a new family member.

My most interesting experience was an ’00 Kistler Chardonnay (Kistler Vineyard). We were celebrating our second anniversary and “won” this bottle. At the time, I was not a fan of Chardonnay — I was in the ABC camp. When one of my Zachy’s colleagues told me that she would trade me any bottle in her cellar for this wine, I decided to give it a try.

Susan and I paired the wine with  bacon wrapped scallops and lobster and it was simply heavenly. It changed my view of California Chardonnay forever. Later, I asked my colleague why the rest of California couldn’t make a Chardonnay like that — that’s when the wheels really started spinning.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

We have some ’74 and 75 Bordeaux (birth years). In the past few years I’ve lost track of “wine values” but I know we’ve got a ’00 & some ’01 Lafite and an ’01 DRC Grand Echezeaux

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

With July being that month, I would be just fine with Pinot Noir for the red (what a surprise). The white is a bit trickier. There are a tremendous amount of white wines available this time of year, but I would have to defer to the regional queen — Riesling. There are just so many stylistic differences from house to house, it would be fun trying to taste them all in a month’s time — not to mention some with some age… delicious.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

Not being a winemaker. That is, tending to all the other business needs that have a tendency to pull me away from the “winemaking activity.” We are a small business, so I need to tend to vineyards, meetings, marketing, dropping wine off, consulting, taking out the trash, walking the dog, breaking equipment, fixing broken equipment, calling someone to fix your “fixed” equipment.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?

I have an affinity for Burgundy in my heart but “affordable” Burgundy is tough. A wise person told me it takes $1000 to find a great bottle of Burgundy – you have to buy ten $100 bottles to find one great one. They are still wise and Pinot Noir is still the heartbreak grape.

Is beer ever better than wine?

When you’re on the crush pad when it is 90+ degrees out and your washing down the equipment at a ridiculous hour of the day, beer is a necessity. After all, it takes a lot of beer to make good wine.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I love wakeboarding. At age 13 I was behind a boat with a surfboard. Watching the sport progress rapidly over the past 20+ years has been an incredible ride. There is just nothing in the world like the sound of a board carving through a lake as calm as glass. It is pure freedom and such a rush.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

I probably would have tried my luck at running a wakeboarding school in FL. And then vacation in the Finger Lakes in the summer.

How do you define success?

Pursuing and accomplishing your dream. Aim high and don’t ever let anyone tell you “you can’t” when you know in your heart that you can.

Comments (1)

  1. […] He succeeded, and according to Dawson, is making some pretty delicious wines. (Higgins was recently featured in our Weekly Winemaker Interview […]