8 Buyers, 1 Store, 8000 Wines

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Nicole DeCicco, a partner at Upstate Wine Co. and purveyor of some of New York State’s finest wines, chatted with Ben Wood, our New York State wine buyer, to talk about some of her favorite wines.

What is your wine background, or your background in general? After all, few six-year-olds tell their parents that they want to work in the wine business, and even fewer parents would find that a promising sign.
I took my first Oenology class as a science requirement through Cornell during my undergrad (I was a French Cultural Studies major). At the time, I thought it was a really fun and fascinating perspective and way to learn more about this side of French history, geography, and culture —  and to tie that into a science — but I quickly got very keen on learning more. I took my first job at a wine shop in Ithaca and was lucky enough to be around folks that were constantly tasting. When I moved to New York City, I found myself following this passion, even unintentionally, and learned a ton working with the former sommelier at Il Buco and then with some amazing folks at Smith & Vine in Carroll Gardens. Patrick Watson (the owner there) was a huge inspiration to me, and when he was consulting on the opening of Brooklyn Wine Exchange, he brought me in to gather and orchestrate a comprehensive New York State section. At the time, it was the largest selection of local wines, representing over 60 wineries.

What about your other interests, studies, that sort of thing?
Writing stories, cooking (with as many local ingredients as possible, duh), yoga, and hiking are all I have time for these days! I’ve enjoyed throwing blind tastings and pairing dinners in the past ... more to come there.

So, after working in a store for a while, what made you want to shift your focus to selling New York wines?
I grew up in a farming community at the base of the Adirondacks, and have seen that region struggle over the past couple of decades as business went to bigger, more commercial farms. When I moved to New York City, I was surprised to find how scarce the availability of local products, especially New York State wines, was, and how reluctant people still were to try them because of their reputation as sweeter schwill. I was visiting the Finger Lakes region frequently after moving away (it’s kind of addicting that way) and so reconnecting with a lot of these people during the opening of Brooklyn Wine Exchange was the anchor. The idea of a distribution company seemed to be a natural collaboration of what I was already trying to do here in New York City — constantly trying to connect somms that I knew and worked with to the wineries I had made contact with upstate. I met Kevin Faehndrich, who at the time was the assistant winemaker at Thirsty Owl [Wine Company] doing outside sales to the New York City market during that time.  He’s from New Jersey and was really keen on making these connections, and so it was his idea to get this ball rolling. 

How does Upstate Wine Co. choose which wineries to represent?
We choose wineries that are driven by a passion to farm, nurture and produce wines that are unique, terroir-driven, and expressive without unnecessary manipulations. All of our wineries use estate-grown fruit or fruit from nearby farms within the region, which promotes local farms in the economy. Each of our producers are unique in that they have pushed boundaries or set a new standard in the region for something. The ones that I find the most successful are those that are continually striving to do something a little better. Not one winemaker in our region follows a formula to get a homogenized product every year. Our vintages are brutally different, and there’s tension and beauty in that that a good winemaker recognizes and promotes. Each vintage is a thrill, and every year we learn a bit more. Those are the folks we like to bring down to the New York City market with us.

What wines do you love?
From my portfolio, I have a love affair with Red Newt Cellars Curry Creek Vineyards Pinot Gris (’08 and ’10 are current), Tierce Riesling ’09 (a collaboration between Anthony Road, Fox Run, and Red Newt), Damiani Davis Vineyard Pinot Noir ’10, and Silver Thread’s Blackbird blend ’09 (or ’10) — and obviously, as it’s placed most prominently in the New York City market, Fox Run’s Lemberger.

What about wines that are not from New York — any favorites there?
Anything quirky, plus underdogs and game-pushers. I do dig sharp, acidic whites and earthy, funky reds (I’m still a Francophile at heart), but I’m recently more and more intrigued by the new wave of California —  Donkey and Goat and Broc Cellars wines have come home with me a lot over the past year.

You’ve worked very hard to become the face of many of these wineries in the City, so how do you think the effort to get these wines into the hands of consumers is going?
I think we’ve come a long way, even since we started UWC in ‘10, but there’s still a reluctance on the consumer level to pick up a bottle of local wine without the assurance or recommendation of a somm or sales team. I think that with more and more recognition in the New York City market — at the forefront of shops, in their glasses at restaurants, and in more publications — we can really change that and redefine our state on the global scale. I think that the wineries I work with, as well as a handful of others, are pioneers in terms of quality and style for New York State, and I hope that we can all redefine and rebrand so that the consumer is confident in what they’re getting. The next big hurdle we need to jump is marketing and branding; because our labeling is still so hokey, I think it’s hard to take some of the wines seriously.

Nicole, is there a pairing you’ve developed in working with these wines that you think is really special? Or a few?
OK, obnoxious as it might be, Cab Franc Ice Wine with Grandma’s chicken liver paté. I’m not feeling extremely creative with this one today!

And bringing in the food angle, what about restaurants in the city, or upstate, that you love and that have some good New York wine?  (They can have other wines, too.)
I love everything chef Rob Newton cooks at Seersucker (he has a great selection of American and New York State wines and was our first restaurant client). Dear Bushwick in Brooklyn, too. Home Restaurant is a secret favorite, as is Cookshop. I don’t travel to Ithaca without at least one meal at Bandwagon Brewpub.

Finally, can you choose a favorite winery for the public to visit? In your opinion, what’s the very best part of the wine trail?
Silver Thread [Vineyard] is off the beaten path, down a windy, bumpy dirt road on the Eastern shore of Seneca Lake. It’s easily my favorite view and there are a lot of other great wineries nearby, so it’s the easiest to hit if you’re up for a short trip. Red Newt, Atwater, Damiani, Finger Lakes Distilling, and Bloomer Creek are all nearby.
Your company has a focus on environmental responsibility. Could you please let us know what that’s about? How does Upstate Wine Co. pursue sustainability, and what do you require from your wineries in this regard?
Each of the estates that we work with follow a sustainability checklist program, either through Vine Balance or Cornell University. There’s no certification or labeling yet for these types of programs, but the checklist provides guidelines to sustain a healthy ecosystem.  Some key initiatives of these programs are: using only organic sprays that biodegrade within 30 days; minimizing blanket spraying for disease and pest resistance; spot treating; promoting a balanced surrounding wildlife; natural predation; dry farming; and composting for redistribution in the vineyards. In addition, some are part of the Lake-Friendly Farms program, which ensures that there’s no hazardous material that will affect the lake water being used in farming. These programs are different in each region. 

What do you think about the proliferation of locally produced spirits, and is this something you would look at representing? In other words, would Upstate Wine Co. consider a spirits producer as a portfolio member?
There are some laws right now that [Sen. Charles] Schumer is actually looking at rewriting, laws that prevent us from distributing local spirits without having to jump through licensing and a million hoops. If that happens, and we’re able to distribute under the umbrella of “New York State-made” goods, I would be very pumped to work with some of the spirits that are being made.

- Ben Wood


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