Any list of America’s best wine regions includes New York’s Finger Lakes. The eleven glacier-formed lakes in the western to central portion of the state dive deep into the earth, as far as 632 feet below the surface, and rarely freeze. The warm waters insulate the vineyards lining the lakes during the winter and cool the soil during the summer, ideal conditions for grape growing.
It’s the land where Christopher Bates grew up and returned after a decade working at restaurants around the world. It’s the home of his critically-acclaimed restaurant, FLX Table, and the site of the FLX Culture House, his foray into fermentation.
A master sommelier by training, Bates’ foray into beer has been years, if not decades, in the making.
“I grew up brewing,” Bates said as we looked at the barrels lined up against the cellar wall. “I grew up with my parents brewing and their friends brewing and fermenting cider. I started to get back into it 5, 6, 7 years ago, brewing sours and longer aging beers.”
The FLX Culture House – FLX being the preferred abbreviation for the Finger Lakes by its inhabitants –currently lives in the basement of a Geneva, N.Y. storefront adjacent to FLX Table, his one-table restaurant named the best new restaurant of 2016 by USA Today affiliate 10Best.com.
Lining the basement’s southern wall are a series of barrels, the sum of the FLX Culture House’s holdings. There’s not a mashtun or bright tank in sight, and Bates plans to keep it that way. Lake Drum Brewing, located less than a quarter-mile walk away, brews the wort which goes into the barrels for aging.
“The brewing process, while I love doing it, is so much more technical,” Bates said. “It's more like baking than cooking. We really closely with those guys. I have the recipes that I've been working with for about 10 years of homebrewing and they produce the wort for us.”
He said that by fermenting and aging, it not only keeps his overhead down, but preserves the commodity of time. And, how could you blame him? He’s a little busy.
Christopher Bates was born and raised in the Finger Lakes. By age 21, he had his bachelor’s from the school of hotel administration at Cornell University, obtained his first sommelier gig and passed the Court of Master Sommeliers introductory exam. He traveled through Europe to learn winemaking and his wife and business partner, Isabel Bogadtke.
His return to the Finger Lakes began with the FLX Wienery’s opening, an artisan hot dog and burger stand on Seneca Lake featuring a wildly diverse beer list, in 2014. FLX Table debuted in 2016 and, earlier this spring, Bates announced the FLX Culture House. A May 23 tweet from Bates indicated a fried chicken restaurant in Geneva was next on tap. Along the way, he earned a few accolades: best young sommelier in the United States and, later, the world, and Food & Wine 2016 Sommelier of the Year.
Bates curates the wine and beer list for FLX Table, which range from $35 for the craft beer pairings and lowest priced wine flight to $150 for a series of wines selected from private collections. His approach to the selections are similar.
“It's about looking for weight, finding the balance of the weight of the dish and weight of the beer,” Bates said. “There are a few things we have extra in beer and a few things we don't have in wine. We don't have tannins to talk about with fat, but we have bubbles now almost across the board. The bubbliness of beer can help with the fat much like tannins will help strip them from the mouth and bind with proteins.”
Consider the fourth course: duck breast, cooked sous vide then finished on a contact grill, and served over farro and sunchokes. It was paired with an aptly named Milk Stout, named Milk Milk Stout, from nearby brewery Lucky Hare.
FLX Culture House beers will be incorporated into the menu in a couple of years. The first batch includes a Flanders Red and a Lambic.
“They'll be finished with primary fermentation soon,” Bates said. “It will take another year to start showing signs of sour and brett. Typically in the Lambic, it starts showing signs of what I like in two or three years. It's a long slow process. I try not to rush it.”
He plans to have 20 to 25 fermenters in the cellar in order to release one barrel each month that he will keg or package for the restaurant, the FLX Wienery and some accounts in town and New York City.
The Flanders Red was almost finished fermenting, though the Lambic needed more time. He may mix his lambics with fresh fruit on occasion, but will likely make a Geuze with older or younger batches.
Once the barrel is emptied, a new batch goes in and the clock is reset. He likened it to a Solera, the Spanish process of aging fortified wines like port and sherry.
Bates describes the process as old school. “It’s about waiting time and tasting.”
They are not the only parallels between wine and beer.
“Much like wine making beer takes time, especially the styles we're trying to make,” Bates noted. “It would be one thing if we were trying to make fresh, bright IPAs or lagers, but for Sours it's an investment in time and funds and if you take the time, much like wine, it's generally well rewarded.
“In the styles of beer I'm looking to make, I think the crossover between wine and beer has to do with tasting for balance and for elegance. Our goal is not to make the highest alcohol or the hoppiest or the most sour, but to make a beer that is tasty. So I think we take a lot of that from the wine world.”
And like Bates’ winery, the FLX Culture House isn’t about being the biggest.
“We're never going to be brewers. This is more about bringing a unique style to the Finger Lakes and attract the clientele looking for this kind of thing and breaking away from their Boston and Vermont trips.”