Meet Chris Stamp – Winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards

It’s been 30 years since Lakewood Vineyards opened their winery to the public. Prior to that, the Stamp family had been growing grapes for other wineries since 1951. Today, there are three generations of the family working in the vineyard and winery, producing a wide range of wines and actively promoting the region more broadly.

When Chris Stamp became interested in winemaking in the late 1970s, his family was still focused on grape growing. His first job as a winemaker following his graduation from Cornell University was at Plane’s Cayuga Vineyards, and three years later he began working in Ohio as a research associate for the wine industry.

In 1988, Lakewood Vineyards began producing its first vintage, and Chris returned home to be the winery’s first winemaker. Thirty years later, Chris has been the winemaker for every vintage of wine, from the traditional lineup of classic wines to the innovative new canned wines.

I was excited to get the opportunity to interview Chris and learn more about his approach to wine.  Not only is he producing fantastic, award-winning wine, he is making wine that is true to the region and celebrates the natural flavors of the grapes. Learn more about this family tradition, and when you get the chance, head down to Lakewood Vineyards so you can sample the wines for yourself.

Winemaker Chris Stamp tastes a tank sample of Riesling. Photo courtesy of Lakewood Vineyards

TVP: What is your winemaking philosophy?

CHRIS: First in my hierarchy of importance is making good sound wine that represents the Finger Lakes region. So, we never bring in fruit that wasn’t grown locally. We have 85 acres of grapes, but we still purchase some grapes from local growers with whom we have long term relationships. I’ve never wanted to be a wine factory. We want all of our wines to have a sense of place. All other philosophical elements must be in harmony with this first rule. Another part of my philosophy is, as a winemaker, it’s my job to ensure every wine is the best it can be. I’m not a control freak, but I’m also not a radical non-interventionist. As winemakers, I believe it’s our duty to coax the wine in the best direction, not leave it in the hands of chance. We love to experiment with new ideas, and take some risks, and we budget for this, but these experiments are small batch tested for several years before they ever see large-scale implementation. We aren’t into jumping on every winemaking fad that pops up.  

TVP: How is your approach to wine impacted by your family’s history?

CHRIS: I think being just grape growers for so many years, which around here is synonymous with not being rich, instilled in me the notion that it had to be done right. We couldn’t afford mistakes. So right from the start it was clear that no matter the how late you had to stay, you had to give it your best effort. I’ve always been aware of the work that goes into growing high quality fruit and the effort and expense it takes to get the grapes to your press house. The burden is on the winemaker to not screw it up.    

TVP: Lakewood was the first local winery to get the machinery required to carbonate wine, and you’re one of the first to can a sparkling wine here. Any thoughts on what trends are coming next?

CHRIS: We have definitely seen a rise in the popularity of sparkling wines. Both our Bubbly Catawba and Bubbly Candeo showed good growth this past year. We’re excited about the prospects for our canned Bubbly Catawba. We haven’t had it out long enough to really gauge the full potential, but we have enough information to move ahead with a canning run on our Bubbly Candeo in time for next summer. I was very skeptical about the whole canning thing, but my older kids, Ben and Abby, who are my assistant winemakers really pushed for it. I really count on them to follow the trends and keep me from being an old stick in the mud.

TVP: What new approaches are you hoping to take?

CHRIS: I don’t see any radical changes. We have a notebook in my Lab. Anytime someone gets a new idea, no matter how off-the-wall it might sound, we write it in the book. Before harvest, we look back at that list and jury the ideas to see what we might want to try out in the upcoming vintage. We’ve launched some pretty interesting and successful products over the years that got their beginning on that “What if?” list.

TVP: To celebrate the 30th anniversary, you’re releasing a traditional method Blanc de Blanc. Why did you choose this varietal and method to celebrate the anniversary?

CHRIS: This is actually our second 100% Chardonnay, Methode Champenoise. We produced one in 1992. Making this style of sparkling wine has always been a once-in-awhile endeavor. I love doing it, but it is so labor intensive that it’s difficult to make it much more than a breakeven proposition. So we make a classic Methode Champenoise every 5 years or so, just because we enjoy the process. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to us that we could release a new vintage every 5 years to mark those winery anniversaries. Over the years, we’ve done blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir a couple of times and a straight Blanc de Noir from 100% Pinot Noir. We chose the 100% Chardonnay because we haven’t done that in quite awhile.

TVP: What advice would you give to aspiring winemakers?

CHRIS: First, with every process you wish to perform or not to perform, put the viability of that action before your ego. Know that there are precious few secrets in the wine business. It may not fit with people’s romantic notions, but great wine is 95% the result of know-how and hard work, and the remaining 5% is a mix of artistry and luck. You will have to love it for reasons other than romance, because that wears off fast when you’re fixing a broken harvester at 5 in the morning with cold hands and a flashlight.   

TVP: What’s your guilty pleasure drink of choice after a long day?

Chris: That’s tough, as my tastes are pretty broad and run the gambit from sparkling to Port. Sometimes I have a hankering for something complex and contemplative, other times a light bubbly sounds perfect. Some folks are really into wine and food pairings. I have to confess, I’m more into “wine and mood” pairing. Then again, sometimes I just want a good German wheat beer, like Hacker-Pschorr or Weihenstephaner.  If ever I’m paralyzed by indecision, my wife, Liz, will decide for me. I like to think she has good taste.

TVP: When I initially asked you what wine best represents your approach to wine, you said that you “sincerely hoped all the wines we make Lakewood reflect this approach.” But if I could only sample or purchase a single wine from the vineyard, which should I try?

CHRIS: If you are holding my feet to the fire, I’d have to admit that my current favorite is the 2017 Dry Riesling. Recently awarded best Riesling by the AWS [American Wine Society].

TVP Recommendations

2017 Dry Riesling

  • Why this wine? Not only is this Chris’s recommendation, it is the signature varietal for the Finger Lakes- tasting a vineyard’s dry Riesling is a fantastic way to better understand their style.
  • Varietal: 100% Riesling
  • Appellation: Finger Lakes/Seneca Lake
  • Tasting Notes: Nectarine, citrus rind, and slate are the primary aromas on the nose of this classic Riesling. These notes continue on the palate with a lovely, clean acidic pop of lime curd, ending with a clean but fruity finish.

2017 Lemberger

  • Why this wine? Lemberger (also known as Blaufränkisch) is another classic Finger Lakes varietal, and this was my personal favorite from my tasting at Lakewood Vineyards.
  • Varietal: 100% Lemberger/ Blaufränkisch
  • Appellation: Finger Lakes/Seneca Lake
  • Tasting Notes: Its light color betrays the depth of flavor, opening with a bold nose of black berries, black cherries and baking spices, with a hint of peppery meatiness. On the mouth is has a chewy tannin that is complemented by a clean acidity and spicy lingering cherry notes.