Keuka Lake Vineyards’ Unconventional Success Story Continues With Best Red Trophy

Keuka Lake Vineyards snagged Best Red Wine at the 2022 New York Wine Classic for their 2020 Leon Millot, adding another accolade to an unconventional success story for the small, farmstead winery in the Finger Lakes. 

The New York Wine Classic’s judging process is comprehensive and painstaking: between April 15 and June 15, 694 entries from 101 wineries across the Empire State are sipped, assessed and analyzed. A total of seven platinum, 234 gold, 324 silver and 110 bronze medals were awarded. 

Governor Kathy Hochul announced the official winners in July, and Keuka Lake Vineyard founder Melvin Goldman says that he was “absolutely floored” by the honor, and thrilled that the Hammondsport winery, but also the “unique, complex and beautiful” French hybrid Leon Millet grape earned pride of place alongside the Vitis vinifera selections that were also honored. 

Mel Goldman’s Journey Into Wine 

Mel Goldman, Keuka Lake Vineyards (photo provided)

Goldman’s journey into winemaking was long and meandering. The wine bug first bit him at a kibbutz in the early 1960s. 

“For a summer during college, I went to Israel and worked at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu,” Goldman says. The kibbutz is a pioneer in organic agriculture and biological pest control, growing—among many other things—table grapes.

“There were tiers for the grapes,” Goldman says. “The best went to Paris and London, then there were second and third-tier cities all over Europe. Some were kept for Israel, and some were kept to make wine from. It was a wonderful experience for a city boy who grew up in Pittsburgh and Detroit, and cemented my love of wine, and my interest in grape-growing.”

Real life intervened, as it is wont to do, although Goldman continued to pursue his interest in social and economic justice and agriculture. He met his wife Dorothee in the Peace Corps in Nepal and went on to pursue a career in industrial and agricultural development that took him around the world. (With many opportunities to sample the local fermented product.) 

“When I worked in Bogota, we had access to the most incredible Chilean wines that no one in the U.S. could try,” Goldman recalls, adding that wherever he settled or visited, he made it a point to taste wines widely and visit local vineyards. “I always knew I wanted to plant a vineyard and to make wine, but I just couldn’t find a place that felt right.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s, on a family camping trip and visit to Cornell University that Goldman found a region that ticked all of the boxes: it was relatively close to his family’s current home base in D.C., the wine already being made there was delicious and the community of winemakers felt welcoming. 

“So I took early retirement,” Goldman says. “The move and transition weren’t immediate though. We purchased a few acres of the old Taylor vineyard, but it wasn’t until 1997 that we moved here full-time.”

He planted Riesling, Pinot Noir, Leon Millot and Vignoles. While all the grapes did well, Goldman admits that he and Dorothee have a soft spot for Leon Millot. 

Leon Millot is a French-American hybrid grape born in 1911, when Eugene Kuhlmann crossed Goldriesling with a North American hybrid. It is the genetic twin of Marechal Foch, and thrives in challenging growing regions like the French region of Alsace and the Finger Lakes. 

The light to medium-bodied blue-skinned Leon offers fruit-forward flavors, with low tannins. Grape-growing pioneer Charles Fournier introduced Leon to the Finger Lakes in the early 1950s, planting two clones, Boordy and Foster. 

Early on in their wine-farming career, Goldman says that he and his wife experimented with a few small batches of Leon Millot, and brought their bottled results to France. 

“My friends there set up a blind tasting, and I decided to enter our wine,” Goldman says. “We were up against 25 other French wines, including Alsace Grand Cru. I was shocked when our wine came in second place against such stiff competition!”

Leveling Up at Keuka 

Goldman decided that it was time to take Keuka to the next level and actually make wine. The first vintage in 2005 was produced with the guidance of Morten Hallgren, of Ravines Wine Cellars, and since then he has focused on managing the vineyards, and working with highly trained winemakers who are adept at coaxing the best expression of the vineyard’s terroir into the bottle. 

Ben Sherman, Keuka Lake Vineyards (photo provided)

The Leon Millot that won Best Red Wine was made by Ben Sherman, who studied neuroscience and chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, and fell into winemaking after a motorcycle trip to Ushuaia that sent him through high-altitude vineyards in Chile and Argentina. Sherman trained at the University of Bordeaux and did viticultural stints across France, Napa and New Zealand, before connecting with Goldman and joining Keuka during the pandemic. 

Sherman’s hand, along with an unusually fine stint of weather in 2020, sealed Keuka’s success.

“Because the weather was so dry, the flavors were softer, more fruit forward—all cherries and currants,” Goldman says. “Just a beautiful wine.”

Despite being small, and relatively new, Keuka has earned its share of recognition. Just a few weeks ago, Keuka’s 20 Rows Dry Riesling 2020 was awarded a Gold in the 2022 Le Mondial des Vins Blanc Strasbourg Competition.

So what’s next for Keuka? While Goldman started out with just a few acres in the 1990s, since then, he has built it up to more than 35 acres, with an additional nine about to come on board. 

“Right now, we’re at 3,000 cases, but we will be at 5,000 within three years,” Goldman predicts. “The new acreage is Seyval, and we have young Cabernet Franc vines about to be ready for the bottle. We have had incredible success with a Vignoles Pet Nat, and while we plan to initially make a Pet Nat out of the Seyval. And eventually, create a Champagne method bottling.”

Keuka Lake Vineyards 2020 Leon Millot

  • Harvested: Sept 05 @ 24.5 & Sept 10 @ 26
  • Production: 55 cases
  • Final Analysis: 0.66 g/L R.S. 14.2% alc. 6.4 g/L TA 3.89 pH

Winemaker Notes: Leon Millot is a grape developed in Alsace, France in the early 1900s with blue skins and small berries. Charles Fournier, a winemaking and grape growing pioneer in the Finger Lakes, planted 1 1/3 acres of two clones, Boordy and Foster, around 1950. In 2009 and 2014, KLV planted another 1 + acres with cuttings from the Fournier Vineyard. The Foster clone and the newer vineyard are farmed on VSP trellis to permit airflow and limit shading, while the one acre of Fournier loose clustered Boordy clone remains on its original umbrella trellis allowing shoots to be tucked downwards to help check this variety’s high vigor. The soils are silty loam with large stone fragments from glacial till, allowing for good drainage but high erosion. Each year we blend the wine made from the two different clones in making our neutral-oak aged, medium-bodied red wine.

About the New York Wine Classic

Organized annually by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, the New York Wine Classic celebrates a diverse selection of world-class wines from producers within the State. Judging for this year’s competition took place from April 15th – June 15th, 2022 and included 694 entries from 101 wineries from across the state. A total of 7 Platinum, 234 Gold, 324 Silver, and 110 Bronze medals were awarded.

Picture of Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves' work frequently appears in Wine Enthusiast, Wine Searcher, Wine Industry Advisor, and many other publications. They co-founded Thinking Outside the Bottle, which provides communications services to the drinks industry.