Keuka Spring’s Dan Bissell Approaches Each Vintage Individually

Dan Bissell, Winemaker, Keuka Spring Vineyards
Dan Bissell, Winemaker, Keuka Spring Vineyards (Photo Provided)

“Blaufrankisch is a variety that we really believe in for the region,” says Dan Bissell, head winemaker for Keuka Spring Winery in the Finger Lakes. Also called Lemberger by some of the wineries in the region, there are an estimated 70 acres of Blaufrankisch planted throughout New York state. The majority of them are found in the Finger Lakes, and the low acreage does not indicate it’s a new grape. It’s been a tried and true grape for the Finger Lakes for decades.

“I believe Len Wiltberger’s first plantings here were in the 80s and Blau was not very far behind,” says Bissell. Wilberger and his wife Judy Wiltberger founded the winery in 1981. “When I came here, it was a variety they were heavily invested in and I was happy to see that because that’s the way I feel about it as well. 

Bissell believes the grape works well in the Finger Lakes and the region can develop it in a way “that puts us in the conversation globally.”

He came to Keuka Spring as the assistant winemaker in 2020. He took over as head winemaker for the 2021 vintage, just in time to make an award-winning Blaufrankisch. 

At the 2023 New York Wine Classic, Keuka Spring’s 2021 Blaufrankisch took home the Best Red Wine award in the competition that’s scored by the Beverage Testing Institute (BTI)  in Chicago and sponsored by New York Wine & Grape Foundation. BTI’s team of trained sensory panel tasters made up of beverage directors, sommeliers, top bartenders, retail buyers, and educators scored the 749 entries submitted by 108 wineries from across New York. Overall, BTI awarded a total of 10 Platinum, 320 Gold, 294 Silver, and 81 Bronze medals.

A Difficult Vintage

“Most winemakers will tell you 21 was a difficult vintage for us. We’re kind of having PTSD still from it and hoping that this year doesn’t look like that. In 2021, we had a really rainy end of summer, and when it was not raining, we had cloud cover,” says Bissell. 

That led to a lot of issues with ripening as well as disease pressure. 

“For a vintage like that, that’s when winemakers have to step in and get involved a lot more as opposed to a vintage with pretty fruit where we’re more stewards of guiding the fruit into bottle, just making sure nothing wrong happens,” he says

For the 2021 vintage, Bissell had to involve himself more with the grapes after harvest so he leaned into classic cool climate winemaking. Rather than manipulate the Blaufrankisch to be deeper, darker, and bolder, he crafted a lighter bodied, fruit forward style wine. He approached the other reds from the vintage the same way.

He was surprised the wine did well in a competition, especially given the color. 

“It’s really pale in comparison to the 2020s and the 2022s,” he says, “The 2021 is a much more delicate wine. The nuances are more integrated early on. The wine is softer and prettier. One of the strengths of this wine is that it’s almost unassuming in a pleasant way. All of the components work really well in tandem with each other to put a bow on the whole experience.”

Democratizing the Wine Experience

Although he had years of experience working in wineries, immediately before coming to Keuka Spring, Bissell owned a bar in Geneva for five years. His mindset there was to never make anyone feel stupid about what they didn’t know about drinks. 

It bothers him that sometimes the wine and spirits industry can project an atmosphere of exclusivity. He worked to combat that in his bar by getting on his “high horse with a megaphone” and telling everyone “this is just like any other product.” 

“[Wine is] meant to be enjoyed and people are meant to have the experience that they want, and I think we should be a lot more open about that,” he says. 

He appreciates that the Finger Lakes wineries don’t have that exclusivity mindset, and when it comes to the tasting room staff at Keuka Spring, he sees they, too, eschew snobbery.

“When I have meetings with the tasting room staff, I’m able to see how they share my passion and relay that to the customer,” he says. He wants those who come to the winery’s tasting room to know they aren’t wrong if they don’t like a wine or differ in opinion from a review they read online or in a magazine.

“Wine is a personal experience,” Bissell believes. He knows it applies to those who judge competitions, too, so he’s happy the wine did well in the New York Wine Classic.

“It’s always incredibly exciting, and it’s wonderful and I’m truly honored,” Bissel says of the Best Red award. “I think that most winemakers, we crave validation. When you spend that much time with a product, it’s not something that comes in one day. You make it and then send it on its way. Between when I see the fruit to when I get an opinion on a finished product, a year and a half can pass.” 

He also puts that validation in perspective, knowing he can’t rest on this one laurel. 

“I’m trying to stay focused on developing my winemaking style and growing it from year to year.”

He’s excited to put out wines from other vintages and demonstrate how he approaches seasons differently and how vintage variation affects the wine.

Keuka Spring Vineyards 2021 Blaufrankisch

  • Vintage: 2021
  • Varietal: Blaufränkisch (Lemberger)
  • Appellation: Finger Lakes
  • Alc. by Vol.: 12.5%

Winemaker Notes: Blaufränkisch, also known as Lemberger, is an Austrian grape grown selectively in the Finger Lakes. This dry red wine has an earthy nose with wonderful smooth black cherry and pomegranate tones. Fuller than a Pinot Noir, try our Blaufränkisch with pork loin, burger, and steaks.

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 the 2023 competition took place from April 15th – June 15th, 2023 and included 749 entries from 108 wineries from across the state. A total of 10 Platinum, 320 Gold, 294 Silver, and 81 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.