Driven, detail-oriented and always thinking about the long game, Fred Merwarth started his winemaking career in the Finger Lakes just over 20 years ago. His beginnings at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard read like an old-school apprenticeship, working under the tutelage of a brilliant but gruff mentor.
“He’s going to show you once and you better watch,” said Merwarth remembering his early days working with Hermann Wiemer, one of the forefathers of Vitis vinifera winemaking in New York who successfully grew Riesling around Seneca Lake starting in the early 1970s.
When Merwarth started, it was just him and Wiemer maintaining the entire operation—from working the retail shop to cleaning tanks, pruning, bottling and everything else from the vineyard to the cellar. It was then his trial-by-fire education in enology and viticulture was solidified.
In August 2007, a sea change was afoot when Merwarth, his wife, Maressa Merwarth, and business partner Oskar Bynke gained ownership of the winery after Wiemer retired. The continuation of Wiemer’s pioneering spirit remained at the fore, yet the new owners had the vision to bring the winery to a whole new level.
“That led to a lot of discussion about the potential of the Finger Lakes in terms of the diversity from one site to another, one side of the lake to another, one hedgerow to another hedgerow, the soil variations, the mesoclimates,” says Merwarth. “The question became ‘how do we best express that?’ ”
In the mid- to late 2000s, the winery began bottling its single-vineyard Rieslings—HJW, Josef and Magdalena—which propelled the discussion around finding terroir or a sense of place in the Finger Lakes, a topic not many other wineries in the region were exploring at that time.
Merwarth and his team have more recently ushered in biodynamic farming practices, with the aim to better combat the vineyard disease pressures that arise in difficult vintages. The conversion started in 2015 with a small block in the HJW Vineyard. In 2019, 33 acres of the vineyard were converted, making it the only biodynamically farmed Riesling and Chardonnay in the state. These are bottled separately under the winery’s HJW Bio labels.
While Riesling remains Merwarth’s calling card, his experience across the varietal and style spectrum is quite broad and ranges from dry to late-harvest Rieslings, to traditional method sparkling wines, rosés and Cabernet Franc. In 2017, Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard acquired Standing Stone Vineyards on the east side of Seneca Lake, which brought the entirety of the estate-owned vineyards to 131 acres.
The Standing Stone property brought with it opportunities for Merwarth and his team to dabble with new sites and varieties, like old-vine Riesling and Chardonnay, and some of the largest contiguous plantings of Gewürztraminer and Saperavi in the state.
“We have really tried to push ourselves and push the region to compete on a global level,” says Merwarth. “That started with Hermann and it’s continued with Oskar, Maressa and I. I think it isn’t necessarily on one person; it takes the team that we have here.”
For his continued drive and passion to push the boundaries of Finger Lakes wine, Fred Merwarth is recognized as Winemaker of the Year.