Swedish Hill Winery – Interview With Josh Kessler – Associate Winemaker

9th July 2024

Swedish Hill Interview With Josh Kessler Associate Winemaker

Wine isn’t just made, it’s crafted by the unwavering expertise of a Winemaker, sometimes old traditions are passed down by generations and on other occasions, new people venture into the industry, introducing us to new creations, this series of Winemaker Interviews will help you uncover the vast world and skills of how the artists passionate about wine make the world a bubbly place.

In this feature we speak with Josh Kessler, an amazing Winemaker from America, let’s discover a little about his time in the American Wine Industry.

It’s Great To Speak With You, Joshua, Can You Tell Us A Bit About Yourself & How You Became Involved In The Wine Industry? 

“Great to chat with you too Oliver! I am a Winemaker in the beautiful Finger Lakes Region of New York State, where I caught the wine bug as they say. I started working at Fox Run Vineyards during my undergraduate years behind the tasting bar pouring wines. This just started as a weekend job but quickly turned into a passion. As my knowledge and palate grew after undergrad, I was unsure of what to do, so I decided to stay in the area and intern with winemaker Peter Bell at Fox Run. I apprenticed under him for a year before I graduated into a full-time cellar hand. After working two harvests with Peter, I applied to Cornell University to get my Masters in Viticulture and Enology. It was very satisfying to learn the science behind all the tasks I was performing in the cellar under Peter’s direction. During this time, I really learned to appreciate all aspects of winemaking and the industry, which led me to New Zealand for a harvest after grad school. Now I am back in the Finger Lakes making cool climate wines along with excellent sparkling wines!”

As A Winemaker, What Has Been Your Hardest Obstacle To Overcome In Producing Wine?

“Every Vintage brings new obstacles and challenges, that’s what makes my job as a Winemaker intriguing. In general, I think that one of the hardest obstacles in winemaking is harvest logistics and when to bring in the fruit. Every year the growing season is different, some are more challenging than others, but it is always difficult to find the balance between ripeness and disease pressure in the vineyard of most vintages. The Finger Lakes are in a cool climate wine region and most vintages we are dealing with lots of moisture during harvest. This can cause all sorts of problems like downy mildew, sour rot, and botrytis. It is my job to work closely with the vineyard team to navigate which varieties need to be picked ASAP or can hang longer. This also must integrate with our custom crush business and when other vineyards are ready to bring their fruit in. Sometimes this means looking ahead a couple of weeks and sometimes picking grapes, not at optimal ripeness. Every year I learn something new that I can carry with me into the next vintage that will help me make these decisions.”

How Do You Determine When Your Wine Is Ready To Drink?

“I personally like to drink young wines; they are fresh and lively and pair well with food. In the Finger Lakes, I would say that a lot of our wines are lighter bodied and more nuanced in style and lend themselves to be drunken young, even our reds. For the most part in our red program, wines only spend 12-18 months in Barrel if that, so they tend to be lower in tannins and more fruit forward. Not to say that cool climate reds cannot age I find that age doesn’t necessarily make certain wines that much better. The wines that are probably the most age worthy from the Finger Lakes region would be the off dry to sweeter Rieslings. These wines have higher acidity levels which helps stabilize the wine and helps retain the natural fruitiness of the grapes. They still turn into more austere and concentrated wines as they age but still hold onto that freshness.

We are one of the few facilities in the Finger Lakes that has a Charmat program. So, for our sparkling wines specifically we usually do not want them to age for too long because the style of Charmat sparkling wine is lighter and more fruit forward. I also have ideas to try a ‘long’ Charmat which is holding the wine on its lees in tank for longer than normal. This adds that classic brioche and toasty leesy note to sparkling wines like traditional method, but can still be done in bulk.”

What Part Of The Winemaking Process Do You Enjoy The Most?

“The part of winemaking I enjoy the most is probably fermentation, this to me is really where the winemaker can influence what the final product looks like for that vintage. One of my favorite parts is just picking the yeast I would like to use for the year. We have standard or go-to strains that we trust a lot to deliver a consistent flavor profile year in and out, which is important when making large lots year to year consistent. Though we may use the same yeast for certain wines year to year, they always end up a little different due to varying harvest and growing conditions. For example, when Riesling gets super ripe, I get a lot of tropical stone fruit aromatics from our Riesling like peach, pineapple, and mango. In years where we cannot get it as ripe, I find the flavors to be more floral and citrus driven with aromas and flavors of white flowers, honeysuckle, grapefruit and orange.

Along with making sure we have our regular strains; I also like to experiment with new strains and techniques on the grapes to manipulate the profile in the way that I want. For example, my first vintage at Swedish Hill we tried for the first time doing a cold soak on Riesling. We accomplished this by inoculating the grapes with a non-saccharomyces yeast that acts as a bio-protectant and oxygen scavenger. The past two vintages of this style have been completely different, I feel that this style of making Riesling really captures the essence of that specific vintage. In 2022 we were able to get the Riesling riper, compared to 2023 where it did not get as ripe. I used the same strain on the same block of Riesling and the two wines couldn’t have been more different as far as Rieslings go. This really highlights how the same wines can be so different from vintage to vintage.”

Can You Share With Us One Of The Most Memorable Experiences You’ve Enjoyed With A Glass of Bubbly?

“I would have to say my most memorable experience with a glass of Bubbly was at my wedding when I married my beautiful wife, Ashley. We were able to get wine that I had made as the Sparkling wine toast for all the guests at the reception! It was the Goose Watch ’21 Viognier Pet-Nat. This was one of the first times I was able to have all my Family and friends try wine that I personally made! Everyone loved it and it really made the day that much more special for me and my wife.”

Thank you Josh, for sharing your story and experiences with us and we at Glass of Bubbly wish you the very best for the future!

Images belong to Josh Kessler. Glass of Bubbly was granted permission to use them.

Oliver Walkey

Champagne and Sparkling Wine Writer, Focused on Bringing the Exciting and Fascinating World of Bubbly to You.