Post-TasteCamp North interviews: Lenn Thompson of the New York Cork Report

Here is a new installment in that series of interviews following up on discoveries made at TasteCamp North, held on both sides of the Niagara river on May 13-15, with some thirty-some wine bloggers and writers present. I’m particularly glad, today, to post the Q&A from Lenn Thompson, the founder of TasteCamp, without whom none of this fun stuff would be going on.  Returning the favor on requests he made to bloggers for the two previous editions of TasteCamp, I’ve asked him to answer a short series of questions detailing their impressions of the region. He adds an organizer’s point of view to his reflections on the event, the region and the wines.

Was this your first visit to Niagara – in Canada and/or the US?

Yes to both.

Had you ever had any Niagara wines before? If so, what was your impression of them?

I’ve had several U.S.-side wines and some have been among the best pinot noirs and cabernet francs I’ve tasted from New York.

As for the Canadian side, I’ve only had a handful of wines — mostly wines that you, Remy, have shared either at TasteCamp or on other visits — but the cabernet franc and rieslings were standouts.

After your visit to Niagara, how much has your impression changed?

I didn’t have the “they only do ice wine, right?” opinion going in. As a strong believer in drinking local — no matter where local is for you — I went in with a hopeful, open mind.

And, after tasting a couple hundred wines over the course of the weekend, I certainly would not mind drinking local on either side of the border. In fact, I’d relish it. There is seemingly endless potential for a variety of grapes and styles. Not all of the styles being made today are to my liking, but there were plenty of wines that I’d be happy to drink any day of the week.

What did you appreciate the most?

We only visited and tasted a sliver of the entire region, but I came away appreciating the thoughtful approach taken by the winemakers I spoke with. “Terroir” is invoked so often these days that it can very easily become white noise, but hearing people like Paul Pender, Brian Schmidt and Ann Sperling discuss their winemaking philosophy, it goes well beyond the use of terroir for marketing and messaging.

Similarly, it was refreshing to hear Ann and Paul discuss organics and biodynamics without even a trace of holier than thou attitude. They are proving that it can be done where many think it can’t be — but it’s not their entire message. It’s clear that the wines come first — they just happen to think that growing grapes biodynamically is the best thing for their wines too.

Perhaps most of all, I appreciated the enthusiasm on both sides of the border. Everyone I spoke to seemed genuinely excited to be pouring for the TasteCamp group. I think that enthusiasm was returned by the attendees as well.

What impressed you the least – or what needs improvement the most?

I think that some of the people who spoke to us didn’t keep the audience in mind. Some of the discussion was far too vague and basic — as though we were general tasting room visitors.

Also, I’ve since done quite a bit of research online to understand the geography better, but I wish there had been a bit more discussion — and maybe a simple, easy-to-understand map — to make it easier to know where different wineries were located and where/what this mythical “The Bench” is. With so much geological variation within mere miles, I think more about this would have been helpful and interesting. It seems like the region is very unique in the intense variation in soils, climate, etc. from site to site. I found myself wanting more details.

There was a LOT of discussion about terroir, but there was also a LOT of oak in many of the wines I tasted — which would seem to cover up at least some of the intricacies that I expect from terroir-driven wines.

I also hope that eventually people stop talking about awards and medals — at least when speaking with a group of writers.

The last thing — and this isn’t really something that needs improvement, it’s more something that I’m curious to watch — is the focus on chardonnay. We tasted some delicious chardonnay-based wines with great acidity, but I wonder if it’s even going to matter. No matter how delicious they may be, are they distinctive enough to make an impact on the global wine market? If they were $20, they might be, but at the prices being charged by many, I’d think most would just reach for Chablis or white Burg.

What was the most unexpected thing for you, during TasteCamp?

I definitely did not expect the grandeur that we found at the wineries themselves. Large, beautiful buildings with state-of-the-art facilities. It certainly seems that no expense is spared. That includes hiring and paying top winemaking talent too.

I think the U.S. side is going to need a similar influx of capital and talent to reach its potential.

What would your wine of the weekend be?

It’s impossible to single out one wine — because I enjoyed many of the wines we tasted — but I can offer a few that stand out without even looking at my notebook:

  • The rieslings at Vineland Estates
  • The pinot noir at Tawse
  • Cave Spring sparkling wine
  • Thirty Bench rieslings and cabernet franc
  • Cabernet from Freedom Run
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