Like most winemakers in New York’s Finger Lakes region, Johannes Reinhardt is concerned about the damage the East Coast’s “polar vortex” might inflict on grapevines this winter. Injuries to trunks and vines won’t be fully known until late spring, but East Coast winegrowers already know that some vines likely will need to be replanted, and that yields will certainly be reduced.
This is a challenge, of course, for Reinhardt, the winemaker for Anthony Road Wine Co. in the Finger Lakes’ Seneca Lake region since 2000, and who launched his own brand, Kemmeter Wines, in 2013. Yet his most arduous challenge was in securing a green card that would allow him to continue to produce wine -- most importantly his beloved Riesling -- in the United States.
Reinhardt was born near Frankfurt, Germany, to a family that has produced wine since 1438. Yearning to establish himself outside of his family’s set-in-stone traditions, he emigrated to the U.S., settling in the Finger Lakes region. He was a student-visa intern at Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars, then joined Anthony Road in 2000, where he won the 2009 Governor’s Cup (best in the state) for the 2008 Anthony Road Semi-Dry Riesling.
He’s not the first German to find potential in the Finger Lakes, of course, as Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer blazed that trail years ago, finding the Finger Lakes to be most hospitable for growing Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and other cold-climate varieties. Yet Reinhardt stands with them for the high quality of his wines and his deep belief that the Finger Lakes is a premiere region in not just the U.S., but in the world, for producing Riesling.
I was a judge at the 2009 competition that decided the New York Governor’s Cup, and met Reinhardt at Anthony Road the following morning. He poured several wines, explaining each with an obvious yet softened German accent. I didn’t know that Reinhardt was running out of time in America.
At the 2010 Riesling Rendezvous event in Woodinville, Wash., I ran into him and his wife, Imelda, and word was spreading there that his work visa was about to expire. Admired not just in the Finger Lakes, but throughout the country by those who appreciate Riesling, Reinhardt found himself inundated by folks offering to write letters to the Department of Labor in support of allowing him to stay in the States. With his deep knowledge of cold-climate varieties and impeccable character, it would be an un-American injustice to deport Reinhardt.
The letter-writing campaign, and Johannes and Imelda’s vigilance, won out, as Reinhardt’s application for permanent worker status was formally approved in 2012, after several rejections. That freed him to purchase vineyard land across the road from Anthony Road on Seneca Lake, and obtain a winery license. He wasted little time in launching Kemmeter Wines; after all, he’d had more than seven years to think about it, considering the length of the legal battle he waged to earn permanent worker status. It even got to the point that Johannes and Imelda contemplated relocating to another country. The green card came just in time, and a party was thrown in celebration and relief.
In addition to Kemmeter and Anthony Road, Reinhardt is one of the three partners in Tierce, a Riesling he makes with Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards and David Whiting of Red Newt Cellars from Finger Lakes grapes. Served at President Barack Obama’s inauguration lunch in 2013, Tierce ($30) is one of the most complex and focused U.S. Rieslings I’ve tasted. Made in small quantities, Tierce likely won’t be available outside of New York, but grab a bottle should you find one.
Bell has known Reinhardt for years, and told me when Johannes was named one the “20 Most Admired People in the North American Wine Industry” by Vineyard & Winery Management magazine in November 2013 (disclosure: I edit copy for the publication):
“Johannes will say to me almost every time we talk, ‘I will do anything for you, OK? Just call me. Please.’ Such is his generosity and openness. Yes, Johannes is one of
the most accomplished winemakers in America, but what makes him so eminently worthy of this honor are his remarkable personal integrity, modesty and ethical sensibility.”
In fact, Reinhardt shuns the limelight. He’s a bashful, unassuming sort. He’d rather not take to the stage to accept an award; let the winery owner do that. Compliment him on one of his wines and he’ll be pleased, but he’ll also credit the vineyard. He’s more interested in a writer enjoying his wines than in the scores he or she gives them.
Yet he has a wry sense of humor. We were once on the same panel at a New York competition, judging East Coast wines. When I said a particular wine was medal-worthy, Reinhardt turned to me and said very gently, “So Linda, you like peanut butter, yes?” I replied, “I do, but why do you ask?” The other two judges, from the East, snickered. His response was that the wine was flawed, showing a peanut butter aroma attributed to the presence of at least one multi-colored Asian ladybeetle crushed with the grapes. I hadn’t detected any peanut butter in the wine, but I had a good laugh and a teaching moment on a pest not seen in the West Coast.
The Kemmeter Rieslings released in 2013 are of very different styles, produced from purchased grapes. Kemmeter is the maiden name of Reinhardt’s maternal grandmother, and his label depicts the family crest. Vines will be planted this year, polar vortex allowing: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Zweigelt.
Reinhardt will continue at Anthony Road and for its supportive owners, John and Ann Martini. He expects to produce approximately 2,500 cases a year of Kemmeter, which currently includes a bracingly dry 2012 Riesling from Red Tail Ridge Vineyard; an off-dry, medium-bodied 2012 Riesling from White Pine Vineyard from Lake Ontario; 2012 Sonero, a medium-sweet, easy-to drink Riesling named for a salsa singer (the Reinhardts are fans); 2012 SanSan Riesling, sweet and balanced by racy acidity (SanSan is the Chinese name for the greatest blessing in life -- Johannes’ tribute to Imelda); and my favorite, the 2012 Sheldrake Point Vineyard Riesling, off-dry and enervating, with mouth-filling ginger, apricot and citrus flavors. Typical price for the wines is $24.
As Reinhardt told Evan Dawson, managing editor of the New York Cork Report, "I don't know how to thank everyone involved in supporting me. This has been a dream, but you never know which way it will end up. So many people have been so passionate in their support, and I will always remember that."
Sometimes, good guys win.