Weekly Interview: Peter Bell

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 04-03-2015

Peter Bell

Peter Bell

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. After completing a set of interviews of Walla Walla Valley winemakers, last week, we began a new set of interviews focusing on the Finger Lakes. This week, we continue our focus on the Finger Lakes with an interview of Peter Bell, the winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards.

The upcoming summer marks Peter’s twentieth anniversary at Fox Run. By Finger Lakes standards, that puts Peter squarely in the camp of seasoned veterans, armed with more vintages than most.

Check out the interview with Peter below the fold!

Let’s start from the very beginning. Where were you born and raised?
I took my very first breath at the charmingly- and anachronistically-named Boston Lying-In Hospital, founded in 1832. It’s now known as Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I lived in the Boston area until I was seven, then my family moved to Amsterdam for a year; then back to greater Boston; then Berkeley, CA; then Toronto. So while I can tell you where I was born, it’s harder to answer the question, “Where were you raised?”

When and how did you get into wine?
I’ve been fascinated by wine since I was in my late teens, but my interest really ramped up about a decade later. On a very superficial level, wine is just something out there to bring us pleasure, but I quickly realized that there was an immense amount to learn about it, and that increased knowledge correlated directly with increased pleasure. I decided to do all that it took to become a winemaker in the early 1980s.

When and how did you move to the Finger Lakes and start work at Fox Run Vineyards?
I had moved to the Finger Lakes from New Zealand in 1990 to take a job as winemaker at Dr. Frank’s. Five years passed, and then I was lured (easily) to Fox Run, which was under new ownership. This summer will be my 20th anniversary here.

What makes the Finger Lakes special as a viticultural region?
Well, it’s definitely a cool climate region, which carries its own positives and negatives. Let’s start with the latter: a short growing season, very harsh winters, and high disease pressure. Positives are way cooler: this is Riesling country, followed by some other things that are too numerous to list right now.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?
I always have trouble teasing out an articulate answer to that question. I bring a lot of chemistry, microbiology, and biochemistry into my winemaking, but also acknowledge that good wine is as much driven by creativity and emotion. I don’t do things in the winery to make oddball, tall-poppy wines, because I think those practices are mainly ways of attracting attention from the media. My mantra when working in the winery or lab is, “Will this action make the wine more delicious?”

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
My favorite person in wine history is Louis Pasteur, without hesitation. I hope I don’t need to explain. He was, of course, a scientist and not a winemaker. A guy I really admire, for his sense of humor and generosity of spirit as much as his wines, is Philippe Senard of Comte Senard in Burgundy. Let’s round off the list with Mick Morris, emeritus winemaker of Morris of Rutherglen in Australia, who will be mentioned later in the interview. Monsieur Pasteur was known to be arrogant and imperious, for which I forgive him. The other two are both humble, giving, salt-of-the-earth types who made me want to be like them.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
There are lots of them. The ‘why’ is because I now know that we will have ever greater wines being produced in the Finger Lakes for the next few decades, and because I am thrilled to be able to talk and taste with so many smart people on a regular basis. With a very few exceptions, the region is characterized by a very non-competitive atmosphere, where we all want to work together to make exceptional wines. Some of the notable recent arrivals on the scene include Kelby Russell, winemaker at Red Newt, and August Deimel, winemaker at Keuka Springs [we interviewed August last week – ayp]. There are many others in a slightly older cohort whose wines I admire: Peter Becraft (Anthony Road), Vinny Aliperti (Atwater and Billsboro), Sean Kime (Thirsty Owl), and Aaron Roisens (Hosmer). I have left many off this list.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
Close to home, I enjoy visiting the Niagara region of Ontario, because so many of the wines there are analogues of our own styles. Burgundy is always fun to spend time in, partly because the wine is so good and partly because the people are so down to earth and friendly compared to, say, Bordeaux. The aforementioned Rutherglen in Australia is hardly spectacular scenery-wise, but the fortified wines are unbelievably good.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
Whoa, so hard to answer either of these questions. The idea of “the best” has to be embedded in the total context of the event. Some of the very best wines I’ve had were in a clinical environment, so the capacity for unbridled pleasure was reined back somewhat. The best wine I drank, factoring in place and time, was a bottle of Veuve Cliquot 1986 that I opened as soon as I saw my name on the graduation list for my second degree, while I watched my young kids splashing in the pool one Australian summer.

The most interesting has to be an 1894 fortified Muscat that Mick Morris pulled from a barrel for me once in Rutherglen, Australia. Enough said. I have been very lucky in my life. I am not easily seduced by age or provenance, but that stuff was out-and-out, freaking amazing.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
I don’t keep a lot of old wines around. It’s more fun to drink other peoples’ older wines, since half of them are disappointments. The most expensive is probably a 2003 Grange Hermitage that a dear friend from Singapore brought me a few years ago. I want to wait until she comes back before I open it.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?
A bottle of Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado Sherry, which actually became empty a short while ago. I am a notorious Sherry lover, and have said in other forums that I need to keep the stuff at arm’s length because it turns me into a crackhead. I would like to be able to report that there are a few bottles of Fox Run 2012 red wines open, but a pal came over last night and together we drank them dry. Most of the time there is a bottle of Finger Lakes Riesling on the go.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Red: Fino Sherry in a red colored glass. White: Fino Sherry.

Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes, sometimes. It is the second-greatest drink ever invented. I order beer more often than wine when I go out, and have a bottle of beer with lunch on weekends. As with most foods and drinks, I am a pretty tough judge of beer. There are a lot of very good microbrews out there, but also quite a few that are either caricatures or just plain bad.

How do you spend your days off?
No more full-contact origami since I lost my youthful vigor. In its place, a bunch of tamer, more quotidian activities – cooking, being with my wife, practicing the banjo, going places, reading, doing volunteer work, and answering questions from pesky interviewers.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
1) I once tickled the feet of someone who was born in the year 1860. I was three; she was 99. She either pretended to be amused or was genuinely amused – probably the latter, since ease of amusement has to be one of the things that confers long life.

2) My great-great grandfather William Bell emigrated, in 1808, from Scotland to Canada at age 4 – something I would never have dared to do at that age.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Ruing the day I decided not to be a winemaker.

How do you define success?
Having a means of making a living that makes you want to jump out of bed every day and want to go to work. Being surrounded by people who fire love back and forth at one another. Accumulating far more happy memories than regrets.

Comments (1)

  1. A great article with some interesting facts about one of my favorite Finger Lakes winemakers.