On our recent trip up to Ithaca and the Finger Lakes (FLX), one of my favorite regions for wine in the US, even though I had specifically set aside this day on the east side of Seneca Lake as a day for ‘Amie’s Winehouse business’ (that is, ‘Amie as wine professional' – tasting, taking notes, writing critiques and blogs) I had the bad habit of leaving my business cards in the car at our various winery stops. My affable and gregarious boyfriend, however, kept me on point. More than once in the course of a conversation, he made mention of my writing and insisted on running out to the car to get my cards for me.
What I learned from this particular tasting day was the reward of announcing myself - not in a pompous way - just stepping more fully into my role as someone with solid wine knowledge and a viewpoint. Each time I did this, we were treated very some special tastings. Even better, however, were the rich conversations. It was great to hear personal accounts, stories, and philosophies of the people connected with the wines, whether they make them, market them, or serve them. These conversations reminded me of why I want to move up to this wine country eventually. I want to surround myself with like minded folks; people who are excited about art and science of grape growing and wine making; fellow passionate foodie types; people who love the four seasons, are active outdoors, enjoy the lake vistas, and are excited about the art and music culture that surrounds these lakes.
People like Michael Cimino, who is the subject of the first of a three-part blog about the Finger Lakes and, more specifically, a few wineries in and around Burdett and Hector, NY, on the east side of Seneca Lake. This area is REALLY special.
FLX Fun Part I -- ‘Living the Dream’
Michael Cimino, Tasting Room Manager – Damiani Wine Cellars
Michael Cimino has a warm, easy manner that speaks to the fact that he is truly in his element as the new tasting room manager at Damiani Wine Cellars. Our conversation began with literal shared common ground, having both spent years in New Jersey. Michael told us he had ‘grown up’ in the food and beverage business in Northern New Jersey. He got his start in the family business but ultimately wore many different hats over the past few decades. Michael earned his Sommelier Society of America Certificate in 1993 and has served as a General Manager/Wine Director at an upscale restaurant in Park Ridge, NJ, as the Director of Food and Beverage at two elite country clubs in Alpine, NJ, and as the Sommelier/Food and Beverage Consultant for several NJ/NY restaurants, including a 5 year stint at a top rated Relais and Chateaux property in NY. Michael has even authored a wine service education book and has been given multiple wine list honors by the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Yet, while his resume is impressive, it was not what captured my attention at all. In fact, I wouldn’t have known much of this chronology from our conversation -- he made little mention of it (most of his professional history I learned through a bit of research after our meeting).
What struck me most about Michael was his sincere passion for the Finger Lakes area and his personal story on how came to be living and working there. “Many years ago I wanted to learn more about the growing and wine making process so I traveled up to work at the vineyards during harvest and the crush,” he explained to us. “I stayed at a small bed and breakfast called Maxsom’s B&B and the owner, Hilde, made me feel like family. I fell in love with this area -- the lifestyle, the countryside, the people. The pace appealed to the musician-artist in me, a side of myself that I wasn’t fully tapping in my restaurant consulting role 'downstate'. I knew that eventually I wanted out of the ‘hustle’ of the restaurant business in the suburbs of NJ/NY.” Michael continued his work in and around NYC, but had the idea that he would find his way up to the Finger Lakes eventually. I shared with Michael that my boyfriend and I were also interested in coming north eventually and had talked about the idea of owning a B&B.
As he poured us another taste, he became more animated. “It is funny how things happen. As it turns out, when I came up some years later, I found out that the owner had decided to sell the B&B. I couldn’t believe it. The 200 year-old inn I had stayed at while working the harvest was for SALE! It was a sign to me – it was time for me to follow that idea, seize the dream. So I bought the inn and reopened the B&B as Cottage Views last year. We’ve got three rooms available, which we book all year. My fiancé was able to continue her NJ based patient coordination job remotely, and we really are ‘living the dream,’ in wine and hospitality.”
And what about Michael’s inner musician-artist side? As it turns out, Michael is getting to share his love of music as well. While the upper level of the Damiani tasting room is a bright and airy affair with regular rotating shows of local visual artists on the walls surrounding the tasting area, expansive views of the lake, and decks on which to enjoy a glass of wine, Michael is equally excited about the cozy lower level of the building. It has the casual wood-hewn feel of an intimate pub/wine bar with doors that opens onto a grassy hill with bocce courts at the ready, called ‘The Cellar.’
“Part of my vision for Damiani and what I am really working on right now,” Michael told us “is making ‘The Cellar’ a destination for live music talent, locally sourced Finger Lakes food and, of course our outstanding wine. I am personally thrilled that we have a terrific summer music schedule with funk and blues every Thursday at 7pm and open mic night starting at 8pm. On Fridays we are featuring different artists and music styles from folk to jazz to rock—I even have Joey Molland from Badfinger coming up to share stories and play for us next week. With only 60 seats, it is going to be a really amazing and intimate show.”
Curious about the space, we retired from the tasting room and made our way downstairs where we sat at the bar and Michael poured us each a glass of the Damiani 2010 Reserve Davis Vineyard Pinot Noir. We snacked on a charcuterie plate of two homemade chevres, fresh sweet peppers, olives. We also had handmade, tender, and perfectly seasoned salami from The Piggery, an outstanding Ithaca based butchery. Michael excused himself to attend to a small group of industry people in for a celebration tasting. As it turned out, a local winemaker was getting married and Damiani was the winery of choice to host an afternoon tasting and discussion, by winemaker Phil Arras, of Damiani wines as part of the warm up before the rehearsal dinner taking place just down the road.
The pause gave me a chance to reflect on the Damiani 2010 Reserve Davis Vineyard Pinot Noir we were drinking, which opened up nicely as we ate and listen to the lively discussion at the tables behind us. The wine had a deep ruby color with red fruit/cherry aromas, which became deeper and more jam-like as it opened. There was red fruit and spice/vanilla on the palette with some earthy, savory, smoke and black tea on the finish, giving it some old-world Burgundian style complexity. The wine had a full body and round tannins. It was great foil for our plate of treats.
Michael returned to us, smiling, as we finished our wine. “When it rains it pours – either it’s quiet or crazy busy… but I really enjoy the bustle here,” he shared. “Listen, if you are up here again, come visit our house—even if you don’t stay, though you are always welcome. I’d love to show you some of the work we’ve done on it. If you DO decide to make your way here and follow YOUR dream…well, I hope you’ll stay in touch with us here at Damiani. Don’t hesitate to me look up. ” Then Michael added, “and the good news is I can find you too, now that I’ve got your card!” I smiled. I could tell that he was being completely sincere.