Something Old, Something NewOct 01, 2021 08:00AM ● By Jan Bridgeford-Smith
It’s intentional, deliberate, enticing—a venue inspired by a passionate love for a beverage whose existence relies on the kindness of nature and near-constant attention from mere mortals. Rick Rainey, managing partner of Forge Cellars, on the east side of Seneca Lake, appreciates this relationship and never tires of sharing his knowledge and pithy observations on the complex and unpredictable adventure of wine making.
At Forge Cellars, Rick, in collaboration with master building contractor Bruno Schickel, created a beguiling space they call The Salon to embody his poetic ideas of the emotional experience possible when a human mouth encounters a superb wine.
Spending time in The Salon turns a visit to Forge Cellars into an exceptional event.
From the moment you enter, it’s evident why “salon” is such a suitable designation. The word first appeared in France in the sixteenth century to refer to a popular style of Italian gathering where educated, amusing individuals were brought together for an evening of sophisticated conversation and mutual enlightenment.
The French version of this social function, which flourished in urban centers across Europe from the seventeenth century onward, became a forum for the exchange of ideas, particularly by writers, philosophers, academics, and artists—think spending the evening eavesdropping on the chatter within small groups of TED Talk enthusiasts. Wines, spirits, coffees, and assorted foods were served to keep the atmosphere relaxed and rumbling stomachs from competing with lively discussions. This centuries-old French custom of drawing people together to share ideas and intimate conversations over drinks and small plates of edible delicacies inspired The Salon at Forge Cellars.
The French influence at Forge isn’t a happy accident or pretentious façade. Rick’s partner in the winery is Louis Barruol, owner/winemaker at his family’s vineyard Château de Saint Cosme. Located in the Southern Rhone valley town of Gigondas, Saint Cosme has been producing wine from their own vineyard for generations, eighteen to be exact, since 1570. In 1992, Louis took over management of the estate after a stroke affected his father’s health. Louis was twenty-three.
Two decades later, a 2013 profile inWine Spectator credited Barruol with transforming Saint Cosme into “the top winery in Gigondas, and arguably into one of the best estates in the Southern Rhône.” The architecture mirrors his winemaking, a mix of tradition and innovation.
While Louis’ path to master of Saint Cosme, traced through centuries of ancestors, has an Old World vibe, Rick’s journey to Forge presents as thoroughly New World. He was born in Florida, then his family moved to Pennsylvania when he was ten. He began his work life in restaurants around Philadelphia, the upscale Ritz-Carlton being his last stint in the city.
Recruited by the late Dano Hutnik, celebrated chef and owner of Dano’s on Cayuga and later Dano’s Heuriger on Seneca, Rick arrived in the Finger Lakes in the early 1990s. Learning how fine food is prepared led to an appreciation for the complexity of flavors, textures, and emotions emerging when people share a meal. Rick came to understand the experience could be deepened and enhanced with wine selected to complement the fare. “Wine at the table,” he says, “should elevate the pleasure of the meal, spur conversation and slow down the experience.”
By the late 1990’s, Rick immersed himself in the world of wine when he went to work for Winebow, a national distributor of fine wines and spirits. It was as a member of the Winebow Imports team, when he first crossed paths with Louis. A beautiful friendship unfolded between the American and the Frenchman, a one-off replay of the Rick Blaine-Captain Renault alliance in the movie classic Casablanca.
Rick stayed with Winebow for years, forming a close, professional connection with Louis. He developed a keen respect for Louis’ knowledge, management skills, and commitment to winemaking as a collaborative process.
Working for Winebow also brought Rick into contact with Dewi, a successful businesswoman who became his life partner. Formerly the owner of the popular Ithaca restaurant, Maxie’s Supper Club & Oyster Bar, Dewi Rainey now owns Ithaca’s Red Feet Wine Market & Spirit Provisions. She, too, became entranced with the art and craft involved in the making of fine fermented beverages.
Rick credits Louis with convincing him it was time to act on the challenge of developing a winery in the Finger Lakes, a venture the friends had often discussed. Louis, interested in establishing a presence in the U.S., agreed to a partnership. By all the metrics, Rick figured it was an insane move on his part. After all, it was a commitment to a way of life based on passion, rather than a sound business decision based on profitable return for a reasonable investment. But his heart screamed, “Do it!” loudly enough and often enough to finally drown out the practical voice in his head. Forge Cellars was formed.
Louis and Rick began the hands-on work at Forge in 2009, with a third partner, Justin Boyette, winemaker and co-owner of the nearby Hector Wine Company. Justin moved on several years ago to concentrate on his own projects.
Rick calls himself a slow decision-maker when it comes to taking risks, a curious paradox given that everything about winemaking is one giant gamble. But he exudes a humor, energy, and temperament ideally suited to an endeavor he calls “amazing and addictive while handing you a daily spoonful of humility.”
For eleven years, Rick kept his day job at Winebow while developing and refining the Forge Cellars business. He kept a brutal daily schedule starting at 4:30 a.m. with most workdays continuing through late evening. Still, Rick kept up the marathon pace until September, 2021, when he decided he was ready to give Forge his full attention. He’s gradually getting used to the slower rhythm of ten-hour days—though they’re often longer in harvest season.
A storyteller with earthy, philosophical overtones, Rick has a flair for social interactions with strangers, a gift that resonates with customers, suppliers, growers, and colleagues. His chin-length, corkscrew-curly reddish-blonde hair tumbles from his head and frames his face rather like a lion’s mane. His appearance and expressive countenance command attention, adding to his appeal as a raconteur.
When he speaks of wines and vines, soils and fruits, climate and harvests, he talks as if he were the composer of a symphony who understands that the exquisite balance of tones and notes and rhythms all contribute to the score. But he also recognizes he’s the conductor of the orchestra playing the composition, the man who knows every night the music will be different, depending on factors over which he has little or no control.
He frames it this way—“There’s no other business where you only get one chance, one chance, to cook the product. And if it falls flat, you have to wait a whole year before you get another chance to make it right.” But he makes this statement with a gleam in his eye and a hint of laughter in his voice. It’s not just Rick’s talent for talk or enthusiasm for engaging with new people that’s served to establish Forge Cellars’ reputation as a premier winery. There is, after all, the wine.
The mission statement on the Forge website sets the tone on the approach Forge takes in the making of its wines:
“Our goal is for our wines to reflect the place that they come from, because this is where the pleasure is. When you smell a wine, you should be transported to its origins and see the landscape. It should relate to good memories, and provide a strong feeling of identity. This is why we try to listen, be soft and transparent in our winemaking.”
How Forge realizes their goal of expressing terroir—“wines to reflect the place that they come from”—is boldly spelled out in the subsequent paragraph. This winery makes choices in the cellar, to protect the uniqueness of each vineyard where their grapes were grown.
Simply put, this boutique winery proclaims its love for the old ways—harvesting and sorting by hand, loading the fruit presses by hand, and shoveling the vats out by hand. A process of spontaneous fermentation is utilized, which, according to Bon Appetit, “is what happens when a winemaker leaves the inoculation (the moment when yeast and bacteria come in contact with the liquid) up to whatever organisms happen to be in the air or on the fruit that they are fermenting.”
Fermentation at Forge happens in small lots, a protocol allowing for a better sense of the expression of the character of individual vineyards each year. This means making their red wines in small—228 liter to 600 liter—barrels of neutral French oak. Neutral, in this context, means the barrels are four to twelve years old, making the oak’s contribution more subtle.
Batches of the same varietal are kept separate by vineyard of origin, each with its own story and personality.
Taking a stroll through the room where the barrels live, each its own handmade work of art from the hands of a master cooper, adds to the winery’s seductive power as Rick talks about his reasons for using these expensive containers, about $2,500 or more per barrel depending on size, with a useful life of not much more than a dozen years. It’s one more old-school element he believes aids in the transformation of grapes into singular wines.
Forge makes wine from grapes harvested from seventeen different vineyard sites. Fifteen of them are located on an eight-mile stretch along southeast Seneca Lake; two are on the western edge of Cayuga Lake. Rick specializes in producing bone dry Rieslings, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir. In 2020, the winery scored a major accolade when its 2018 Forge Riesling Seneca Lake Dry Classique was named to the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List.
But even an award-winning winery needs a way to distinguish itself in a small region crowded with all manner of beverage makers, and Rick knows it. He’s positioned the winery as an accessible yet exclusive destination. For example, no signs offer a clue to Forge Cellars’ whereabouts just off NY State Route 414, the main north-south road on Seneca Lake’s east side where most area vineyards and tasting rooms are located.
Unlike proprietors of other establishments along the Seneca Lake wine trail, Rick isn’t interested in attracting limousines and mini-vans filled with tourists. If you know the address, 3775 Mathews Road, Burdett, are familiar with the area, or have a well-functioning GPS, the winery’s location isn’t difficult to find and, once on the road leading to the site, it’s impossible to miss. Some distance before you reach the driveway onto the property, two sleek, shiny black steel structures rise up, like the mythical Brigadoon, against a backdrop of hills dotted with stands of trees, lush meadows, farmed fields, small ponds, and scattered houses of varying eras and styles. Looking a mile or so to the west, Seneca Lake shimmers or glowers, depending on the cloud cover du jour.
The first unusual thing a guest spots on arrival is a newly constructed, small white building with red trim. This is Forge Cellars’ Summer House where guided wine tastings are conducted. Reservations are required and currently only available Wednesdays through Saturdays at specific times. Well-behaved dogs are welcome, according to the website, while lateness to a tasting is politely, but firmly, discouraged.
Light-filled, the pine-paneled, airy space can accommodate a maximum of twelve guests seated at two tables and a small, bar-styled counter. The room’s bleached white furnishings are modern, minimalist surroundings meant to minimize distractions while tasting is in progress. The entrance to The Salon at Forge Cellars is a few yards away, directly across from the Summer House.
It’s hard to imagine a more vivid embodiment of the Forge Cellars approach to the significance of wine than the Salon, a seasonal pop-up in the production areas of interior press room and exterior press pad. Through the creative arrangement of carpets and comfortable, colorful chairs, small couches, and tables into semi-private lounge areas, a working area is transformed into gathering spots where guests can share stories, ponder the primordial questions of humankind, reflect on the meaningful moments in their own lives, read a book, or simply breathe.
Depending on where seated, the guest might be witness to the daily hum of winemaking activities inside the winery, or an outdoor view of work in Bellows Vineyard, the winery’s home vineyard where Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc grapes are grown. Spectacular pine barn door panels on two sides of the press pad may be slid open in fine weather.
The Salon’s rich, honey-colored knotty pine interior infuses the area with an inviting warmth resulting in a cozy ambiance despite its sixteen-foot-high ceiling.
Forge Cellar wines can be enjoyed by the glass, bottle, or flight as well as a selection of wines from Forge’s sister wineries in France, Chateau de Saint Cosme and Chateau de Rouanne. To accompany the wine, guests can also create a plate of tapas (snacking) fare from artisanal delicacies such as baguettes, local cheeses, tinned fish, and imported ham.
In France, Rick says, there is no comparable word for winemaker. The closest French word, vigneronne (feminine) or vigneron (masculine), translates as winegrower. The making of wine is never the handiwork of one individual. Instead, it’s a communal affair involving an assemblage of cooperative, passionate people to get the wine in the bottle.
It’s certainly true at Forge where the entire staff numbers four, including Rick. Kristina Rose, Director of Operations, works on Forge’s visual design, organization, communications and accounting. Cellar Master Julia Alvarez-Perez holds a master’s degree in food culture from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Josh Falco worked with nationally known wine producers in Napa and Sonoma Valley before returning home to the Finger Lakes.
Standing with this small group are a cadre of farmers and growers, cork makers and coopers, bottle producers and label designers, truckers and pickers.
Beyond the human connections, wine demands its human helpers also be intensely engaged with the natural world—from bugs to bacteria, sunshine to soil, precipitation to blight. From this perspective, producing a bottle of wine is like raising a child—it takes a village.
Evidently a winery is not a business for the faint-hearted. The margins are razor thin and the outcome of a season can turn on a dime with the track of a storm, a change in the wind, a bolt of lightning, or a shift in how the surface of the ocean and the atmosphere in the tropical Pacific come up against each other. So what, exactly, was the appeal of this venture, beyond satisfying a romantic sensibility? When I ask Rick, he laughs. “Maybe,” he says, “it’s knowing that every season you might, just might, produce an affordable bottle of great wine. That’s the golden ring, you know. Making a great affordable wine against all odds.” He pauses. “Yeah, it’s crazy.”
Connect with the winery or plan a visit at forgecellars.com or call (607) 622-8020.