Weekly Interview: Lindsay Stevens

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 04-24-2015

Lindsay Stevens

Lindsay Stevens

Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. We continue our focus on the Finger Lakes this week by featuring Lindsay Stevens, the winemaker at King Ferry Winery.

Located slightly off the beaten path, on the east side of Cayuga Lake, King Ferry Winery was founded in 1984 by Peter and Tacie Saltonstall. The winery is particularly known for its Chardonnays, in addition to the Finger Lakes staples, Rieslings and Gewurztraminers.

As you’ll read below, Lindsay has a no-nonsense approach to winemaking that is highly practical. But it is also evident that she has thought extensively about what winemaking means to her. Consider the following excerpt: “Food is a form of love for me. Love is preparing a meal from scratch and being willing to live in the moment believing that it’s time well spent. Wine is just another part of sharing that love. It’s my hope that the time and effort that I put into making wines will translate into a part of that love being spread around your own table.” I personally reflected deeply on that and Lindsay’s other insights.

We hope you enjoy the interview. Check it out below the fold!

Let’s start from the very beginning.  Where were you born and raised?
I was born in the Binghamton, NY area, but I remember, growing up, splitting my time between my divorced parents’ homes. One was in Virgil, NY, right across the street from a small ski area called Greek Peak, to where we would walk across the street after school to ski or snowboard. The other was a Cayuga Lake house not far from where I work now, located on a one lane dirt road that was once a narrow railroad bed from the Lehigh Valley Railroad line. In the 1970s the line was disbanded. My grandfather acquired a small piece of lake front property there and parked a trailer on it for summer use. My father built a permanent residence on the property in the early 1990s. So I was lucky enough to spend my winters snowboarding and my summers water skiing and boating on the lake.

When and how did you get into wine? 
I have always been a foodie. I enjoy cooking and eating with others. I think wine has just been a natural counterpoint to that. I grew up in a family where family meals and spending time together was important. It wasn’t about gourmet meals every night of the week – it was about spending time together preparing the meal and just enjoying each other’s company. Food is a form of love for me. Love is preparing a meal from scratch and being willing to live in the moment believing that it’s time well spent. Wine is just another part of sharing that love. It’s my hope that the time and effort that I put into making wines will translate into a part of that love being spread around your own table.

When and how did you move to the Finger Lakes and start work at King Ferry Winery?
I have really grown up in the area so being able to find something that I have a passion for that allows me to be near to my family is really special. I attended Cornell University for Food Science concentrating in Fermentations. I was a guinea pig for the Enology curriculum that was being developed while I was attending the university. I took everything except for the enology classes because they hadn’t yet hired faculty while I was doing my studies. I was able to piece together my studies to reflect my interests while still getting to do some cheese and dairy processing, which translates well into winemaking practices. While I was at school I gained experience at a few of the local wineries. I started in the tasting room at Lamoreaux Landing in Lodi, NY and then at Sheldrake Point Winery in Ovid, NY. I gained some experience with Martha Gioumousis at Lamoreaux and then working with Dave Breeden at Sheldrake. After I graduated from Cornell, I was able to take a position with Dave as his assistant. I worked with him for two years when the position as Winemaker became available to me at King Ferry Winery. It’s funny because Dave was working as the assistant at King Ferry Winery before he took his Winemaker position at Sheldrake.

What makes the Finger Lakes special as a viticultural region?
The collaborative environment of the Finger Lakes is really special. I have a great set of colleagues with whom I can discuss any sort of issue or question with. They are willing to taste my wines and give very straightforward answers and I can choose to take their advice or not based on my best judgment. It’s really a great group here. The Finger Lakes as a growing region offers a lot of diversity and growing conditions and seasonal as well as vintage variability. Making wine here certainly keeps you on your toes. I think the name of the game is don’t get comfortable because growing conditions can change at any second, and there is a lot of variability from vintage to vintage. No textbook can prepare you for that.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?
I think my personality plays into how I make wine. I am a very practical, frugal and logical person. I think this plays into my winemaking philosophy heavily. I think it’s important to have a rhyme and reason to anything that happens in the winery after the grapes have been picked. That means that I utilize commercial yeast cultures, I take data daily during fermentation and I filter before bottling. I like the traditional ways of winemaking. We do a lot of barrel fermentation on Chardonnay. At the end of the day I think a lot of emphasis gets placed on the Winemaker for whether a wine is good or not, and a wine can certainly be ruined in the winery, but I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on what happens in the vineyard. A wine is really formulated while it is on the vine and it’s the winemaker’s job to play up and tease out the goodness and just try not to mess up the really beautiful qualities of a wine during processing. That being said, I think the artistic part is knowing when not to mess with something: certain finesse is required in winemaking. Rushing in and trying to fix everything right then and there can be more hazardous then waiting it out and seeing what might come about with less intervention or a well thought out action plan.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
I think that as a whole winemakers in the Finger Lakes are humble people. I think that because we have identified the region with a white varietal we have somehow had to overcome this little dog mentality in the wine world. For some reason there is this underlying current of a lack in self worth because we aren’t making big, fruity, heavily tannin driven red wines every year. I think that just now the energy is starting to shift and the world just might be able to accept us for what we are which is a cool climate growing region. We are never going to make those big wines and so why not embrace ourselves for what we are and leave behind the awkward teenager years of growing up and become confident in what we know what we can do? Which is making really beautiful cool climate wines like Riesling and Chardonnay for that matter.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
I really enjoyed meeting and talking with Bob Bertheau of Chateau St. Michelle. He was a really nice man and very humble. I had a chance to ride with him on a tour of his Columbia Valley vineyards and I got to pick his brain about all sorts of things. He was so patient with me. At the time I was a nubbie and wanted to know about all aspects of what he did.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Jacob Altmann of Ryan William Vineyard. He is the winemaker and also the vineyard manager at Ryan William Vineyards. He gets the opportunity to see the grapes intimately everyday during the growing season. He has a great feel for a hands off kind of wine making that allows the grapes to fully express themselves. I really like his Pinot Noir.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I really love what’s happening in Washington State right now. I think that I feel a kindred spirit with what is happening there and here in the Finger Lakes. They have some really great wines coming from there.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
I think my favorite wines come out of my favorite experiences. I think the best wine I’ve ever tasted was at a dinner party and it was an evening that I’ll not soon forget. My chef friend Paul went all out and cooked us a delicious multi course meal. The most memorable course was the bacon lardon course. Bacon lardons, if you don’t know, are brined pork belly that had been sous vide cooked and then cubed and fried. The lardons are most delicious cubes of heaven when paired with a cool climate Chardonnay. (It happened to be Treleaven Reserve Chardonnay that night.) The combination of the oaky and acid driven Chardonnay paired most amazingly with the pork belly. The Chardonnay stepped in as the smoke component and reminded me of typical bacon. The chardonnay finished cleanly and prepared my palate for another bite of delicious crunchy melty fat and crisp meat. It doesn’t hurt to have great company either. I love those guys! So much fun, good wine good friends.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
The oldest bottle is a 2007 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon and the most expensive might be a vertical flight of Turley Zinfandel starting in 2010.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?
We are in the process of gutting and redoing our kitchen right now so there are several empty cans of Yeungling Black and Tan strewn about. Haha. I have set up a temporary camp kitchen in my dining room. There have been many sandwiches for dinner and I figured out how to hard boil eggs in an electric kettle.  We opened a bottle of Landmark Overlook Chardonnay over the weekend to go with grilled chicken over a chef salad, which was great.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Well, I think I would like Pol Roger Champagne for the white because why not, right? Let them eat cake. Sparkling wine goes with everything. I recently had Avante a Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, Spain. It was nice, not too heavy on the tannins ripe fruit. I’d have that again.

Is beer ever better than wine?
I think there is a time and a place for everything. Beer definitely has a time and a place.

How do you spend your days off?
I’m a mom so days off are filled with laundry, playing in mud puddles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It’s good to look at the world from a different perspective. I think it keeps me fresh to go back and forth between two very different worlds. I love doing both things.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
After the kids go to bed I enjoy spinning wool into yarn and knitting. I enjoy dyeing my yarns and being artsy fartsy. Sweater knitting is my destresser. It’s like Candy Crush except when I’m done I get a sweater out of it. Handy when you work in a cold cellar.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I think winemaking is a very good outlet for my skillset, but if I wasn’t doing this I might be cheesemaking or maybe a chef.

How do you define success? 
It’s different in every aspect of my life. As a mom, success is defined as making sure my kids are taken care of and reasonably happy.  As a winemaker, it’s feeling joy seeing others enjoy my work.

Comments (1)

  1. Honestly I think commerical yeasts shroud the vineyard.