There’s Just No Riesling with Some PeopleOct 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane
Earlier this summer I met some friends at Scale House Brewery in Hector to have some drinks and watch the local rock band PA Line blow the doors off the place. As usual, I ran into some customers from Lakewood Vineyards where I work in the tasting room. They were sitting front and center, beers in hand, totally gone to the sounds. They offered to buy me a beer. I took them up on a riesling. It’s not that I don’t drink beer. As a sommelier, sometimes people assume I only drink wine, but it was a muggy night, and I was craving something light and refreshing. Chilled riesling is perfect. That you can find a good glass at almost any bar in the Finger Lakes is something I cherish. It shows a reverence to the grape, how tied into the culture it is. Sometimes I’ll just order a Riesling and see what style they bring me. From bone-dry to sweet, I can drink any style of riesling. It’s fun to see what restaurants are carrying. On a hot night, I can’t be too picky. Even the sweeter styles are lifted and bright.
I received a glass of the 2020 riesling from Hazlitt Vineyards. Hazlitt is widely known for their line of sweet Red Cat wines, but they do fantastic dry wines as well. My glass was already wrapped in that special condensation. The wine was clear with green inflections. As I sipped, a floral aroma spilled forth, something I love about an aromatic white. This was a semi-sweet riesling with notes of summer peaches, honey, and an endless candied lemon finish. Sometimes I can’t get over how good riesling can be.
When the band went on break, people strolled outside to snap pictures of the sunset. My friend was having a smoke, the scent of tobacco mingling with the tall, sweet grass. The sky burned like a five-alarm fire, all those pinks and peaches broadcast on the old glacial sprawl of Seneca Lake.
I took my last sip and was thinking about getting another when I found myself lured into a neighboring conversation.
“They aged it in a tequila barrel,” said a man with a long beard, facial piercings, and a neck-load of Polynesian tattoos. “No joke, it was the best riesling I’ve ever had.”
“Have you met John?” my friend said, introducing me. “Terence works in the wine industry.”
“That’s cool,” said John. He gulped from a tallboy of Steel Reserve, something he must’ve smuggled in. “I was just talking about a tequila-barrel-aged riesling I tried. It blew me away.”
“Tequila-barrel-aged riesling?” I said.
“Have you tried it?”
I shook my head. “Seems like an odd choice.”
“Odd that I chose it?”
“No, an odd winemaking choice.”
“They usually leave riesling alone because it’s so good by itself.”
“My friend, this stuff was good. It tasted like a margarita.”
“I guess I don’t understand,” I said, still tasting the wine on my palate.
“So you don’t like margaritas?” A new edge had come into his tone.
“I do,” I said, “but that’s a cocktail.”
“So a riesling can’t taste like a cocktail?”
“Not really. That doesn’t show the expression of the fruit.”
“Oh, okay, so you’re a purist?”
“It’s not about being a purist. It’s about doing the right thing.”
“Why can’t both be right? Isn’t there room for both styles?”
I pictured the Oreo section in the supermarket, some fifteen kinds of Oreos. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
“Says who?! We wouldn’t be where we are today if people didn’t take risks and try new things.”
“Look,” I said, flustered now that I might be a purist, “drink whatever you want. If that’s what you like, then it’s what you like.”
“Now you’re contradicting yourself!” He spun around and laughed at the sunset. “You’re saying drink whatever you like, but not if it’s a tequila-barrel-aged riesling. Is that what I’m hearing?”
The certainty that I was right was beginning to take on water. I would learn that this heavily pierced and heavily inked individual was actually an IT professional and an avid home pickler, in other words a pretty smart person.
“You know what,” I said, “let’s call an armistice. We’re not going to see eye-to-eye on this.”
“I just have a more progressive view,” he said, calmer now that he’d bested me. “Then again, I’m not a winemaker like you, so I get that you definitely do things a certain way.”
“I’m not a winemaker,” I muttered, staring out at the lake.
“Wait, what?” he shrilled, now totally confused.
My buddy cut in. “Let’s get something to eat.”
Inside Scale House, we passed tables maxed out with pizza, bowls of meatballs, and foaming glasses of cold beer. As I went to order, I noticed a pizza that stood out from the rest. A spiral of yellow mustard and ketchup coiled in toward the gooey center. Here and there were clumps of browned beef. Crispy pickle chips glinted in the light. Maybe I’d gone a little tequila-riesling, but it made sense. Mustard, pickles, beef, and cheese. Fats and acids. That’s how we approach wine pairing. There has to be a clash of flavor to create a harmony.
I was met by the server who’d brought me my wine.
“There’s a pizza,” I said, “with pickles.”
“Yup,” she said, “that’s our cheeseburger pizza.”
“I’ll take one of those, please.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw John sidle up to the bar a safe distance away.“Did you need another wine?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “I’ll go with a pilsner,” then, looking at John, quickly corrected myself. “Make that two.”