Master Somm, Winemaker, Restaurateur & Hot Dog Stand Owner
Master Somm, Winemaker, Restaurateur & Hot Dog Stand Owner
Posted June 03, 2016
Meet Christopher Bates, Elements Winery
Christopher Bates has quite a resume, from earning his Master Sommelier certification to starting a winery and opening a hot dog stand and a restaurant along the way.
I know which accomplishment I would be most proud of.
Bates is also a Cornell University alumnus, a graduate of their renowned School of Hotel Administration (insert: shoulder brush). I commented on the prestige of the school and its associated hotel. Humble by nature, Bates neither agreed about the reputation of the school nor spoke about how well he did there. Rather, he said, “I thought Statler was a cooking school, so for my first two years I was mad it wasn’t a cooking school. For the next two years, I was happy I didn’t go to cooking school.”
Bates developed his passion for food at a young age. If only all parents could be blessed with sons who baked croissants on a regular basis….starting at the age of eight. His passion for food brought him through home kitchens and restaurants, all the way to the not-a-cooking-school Statler Hotel - that’s where the wine comes in. His father Robert (now co-owner and day-to-day cellar master at Element Winery), as well as his professors and peers, encouraged him to branch out from single malt scotch and start learning wine.
One issue of Wine Spectator got him going. And look where he is now!
He's right back home - after being named Best Young Sommelier in America (2011), Best Young Sommelier in the World (2012) and TopSomm (2013) and earning his Master Sommelier certification.
After winemaking stints in Germany and Italy, Bates came home to the Finger Lakes of New York. There, he established Element Winery with his father, the man who started it all by giving his son a magazine. Element is extremely small, producing less than 1,000 cases per year (plus any experiments Bates decides he wants to work on, i.e. apassimento style wines - he spent some time making wine in Valpolicella after all).
When Bates agreed to present his wines at our Wine Talk Wednesday, I booked him as ASAP.
Post-seminar, I asked Chris a few questions (including where I should stay on my summer trip to Finger Lakes Wine Country!)
Q: You own a hot dog stand, so what is your favorite hot dog and wine pairing?
A: Zweigles and richly styled whites.
Pause: What is a zweigle? At first, I thought I misheard the man. Zweigelt? No, zweigles. It’s an upstate thing, and I’m a born and bred Jersey girl.
Zweigles are white dogs made from pork and veal and sweet spices.
These dogs are awesome paired with viscous, richly-styled whites, like those from the Northern Rhone or Chenin Blanc blends from South Africa.
Please note: we did not discuss toppings for hot dogs - he offers a ton of different options at his hot dog stand.
Q: I ask most winemakers the same question: What was your first wine?
A: I always took wine from my mom’s boxed wines, so I’d have something to drink on the weekend. Honestly, I drank a lot of Red Cat as a teen.
It’s amazing how much of that stuff is made each year!
Q: What wine is your Eureka wine - what is the wine you really love?
A: Mosel Riesling.
In his seminar, Bates addressed the Finger Lakes-Mosel comparison. Many people draw similarities between the two regions: their geography, climate and wines. Bates, as a Mosel lover and a Finger Lakes winemaker is extremely qualified to offer this counterpoint: Mosel Rieslings are delicate, elegant, ethereal. Finger Lakes Rieslings, in contrast, are bigger and more powerful, more akin to those from Alsace than those of the Mosel.
“It took many failed sales calls to realize my Riesling was so powerful it was pummeling my Pinot Noir,” Bates commented. That’s why, at our recent sampling, we served the Riesling dead last, after - gasp! - three reds.
That’s right, our Finger Lakes wine sampling was dominated by red wines. But why? How?!
Something Bates has learned over the years is that the greatest wines are made at the extremes. We’re talking wine regions on the edge of what’s considered suitable for viticulture, regions like Chablis, Champagne, Mosel, Central Otago… and growing reds in the Finger Lakes. Everyone always said it was impossible. It’s only almost impossible.
The Finger Lakes has a considerable winemaking history. Bates is honored and thrilled to be a part of its evolution, moving away from sweet wines made from native and hybrid grape varieties, to high-quality wines made from European vinifera. Bates is especially passionate about establishing the regional identity of the Finger Lakes, determining what characteristics of a wine would belie its Finger Lakes origin. He is working towards a Finger Lakes wine identity, not in relation to something else, but as a distinct wine region in its own right.
Unlike many producers, who are steering toward “singularity” with single vineyard and single clone wines, Bates makes only blends. This goes back to his quest to characterize Finger Lakes terroir. He uses grapes from different vineyards to capture what the Finger Lakes as a whole tastes like.
Finger Lakes is the type of region that draws winemakers looking for a challenge. There’s extreme vintage variation. The market cache is hardly there. The region's identity is rapidly evolving. There is no clear road - you’ve got to pave one as you go.
Bates is up for the challenge. His wines - from his delicate Pinot Noir to his peppery Syrah and from his elegant Cabernet Franc to his powerful Riesling - all prove it.
As one guest noted, I'm from New York - this Riesling tastes just like New York.
Don't miss any of our upcoming events, with seminar topics ranging from South African wines to Greek!
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