A hidden gem of a wine region with stunning scenery, down-to earth hospitality, diverse outdoor activities – and plenty to eat and drink, says Howard G Goldberg. Published in the June 2011 issue.
Finger Lakes fact file:
Planted area: 3,845 hectares
White: Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles (Ravat), Niagara
Red: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Concord
Main soil types: Shale, sandstone, limestone. Fossils are common.
The Iroquois Indians’ legend that God’s hand dug the north-south Finger Lakes is apocryphal but understandable. Visitors to this placid, cool-climate region of red barns, grazing cattle, majestic clouds and painterly sunsets discover God’s country.
Even in American winedom, the gently rolling central New York State landscape surrounding the shimmering fresh-water lakes of Seneca, Keuka and Cayuga is still largely a public secret.
The federal government has designated the Finger Lakes, the state’s largest wine region, as an American Viticultural Area. Seneca and Cayuga are also smaller AVAs. Although Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer stamp the region as primarily white-wine country, such reds as Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Blaufrankisch (aka Lemberger) are gaining interest.
Producers around the lakes have established wine trails, with separate literature and events. The hub is 62km-long Seneca, with 56 of the three lakes’ 109 producers. Cayuga is marginally longer. (With bottoms below sea level, both count among North America’s deepest lakes.) On 32km-long, Y-shaped Keuka, some steep banks resemble parts of the Mosel River in Germany.
Although glaciers carved 11 lakes, these three significantly define the wine district. Receding ice left behind stratified sandstone and shale rock formations, dramatic gorges and abundant waterfalls that woo photographers and backpackers.
Canandaigua, a fourth lake, has a minor wine route. But the highlight, on the shoreline in its namesake town, is the state wine industry’s educational headquarters, the New York Wine and Culinary Center. Its tasting room, restaurant and bar offer introductions to the state’s still and sparkling wines and artisanal beers, while an exhibition room provides interactive lessons about New York wine.
Something for everyone
Eager visitors emerge early from hotels, inns, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and rented lakeside cabins for a plethora of activities: to tour wineries, swim and golf, as well as go fishing, camping, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, water-skiing, biking, scenic driving, hiking, bird-watching, state-park visiting and antiques-shopping. Carracing in Watkins Glen is also a big drawcard.
The long rural driving distances between and around the lakes – no bridges exist – and short runs between wineries can be best managed by careful planning. Cafés at rustic boutiques and larger-scale operations sell snacks for picnics on lawns and water-view decks.
The lakes, fed partly by well-drained hillsides, absorb the summer heat, which buffers vineyards against early pre-harvest frosts; they also radiate winter cold, which retards spring growth, protecting buds from destructive early frosts. After summertime, the richest visiting period is autumn, when tree-bordered vineyards turn into gold, russet and purple patchwork quilts, and wood smoke spices the crisp, luminous air. In deep winter, among the few souls out are hardy ice fishermen seeking bass, trout, pike and landlocked salmon.
Unsurprisingly during the harvest, estate owners have minimal time for visitors. Other personnel fill in, giving tours and pouring wine in the fee-based tasting rooms. (There’s also grape juice for the kids and designated drivers.)
There’s no pretentiousness among these down-to-earth folks in small-town America. Their grape, wheat, oats and barley country has been conservative and low-key since the late 19th century, when the lakes first became synonymous with New York State ‘Champagne’, and fancy restaurants in Manhattan (and in an incredulous Paris) ordered the famed Great Western brand by the bargeload.
From Concord to Cayuga
The region’s modern rebirth dates to the state legislature’s passage of the Farm Winery Act of 1976. This law made it inexpensive and easy for economically depressed farmers dependent on such native grapes as Concord, Niagara, Catawba and Diamond to establish wineries and sell the vividly flavourful output for far more than the fruit alone could bring.
More importantly, they introduced classic European grapes to the region. Today, as gauged by its more than 300 wineries, New York is the country’s fourth-biggest wine state, after California, Washington and Oregon.
Small-scale producers’ bottom lines mandate that both native and French-American hybrid grapes still figure into the mix. Such minor grapes as Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles (formerly called Ravat) yield charming, sometimes impressive wines that could belong in France’s low-priced vin de pays category. So do Cayuga White, Melody and Traminette, developed at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, at Seneca’s northern end. All are worth seeking out in shops and restaurants.
In this agricultural Eden, farmers’ markets and scattered farm stands are seasonal cornucopias. They display peaches, plums, cantaloupes, corn, pumpkins, squash, potatoes, cabbages, beans, carrots and garlic. Kids love helping in commercial ‘u-pick’ apple and cherry orchards and in tomato, blueberry, strawberry and raspberry patches. Here, no one goes hungry – or thirsty – for long.
How to get there
By plane: Flights from London to Greater Rochester International Airport take eight hours.
By car: The drive from Rochester to the lakes can take 90 minutes to two hours, depending on whether Keuka, Seneca or Cayuga is the destination.
Driving directly from New York City can take up to six hours.
Written by Decanter
Finger Lakes: Six of the best wine estates to visit
☆ Dr Konstantin Frank – Hammondsport
Named for its founder, a viticulturist who emigrated from Ukraine, this Keuka Lake estate, founded in 1962, proved classic European grapes planted on proper rootstock could flourish in this coolclimate region. www.drfrankwines.com
☆ Hermann J Wiemer – Dundee
When Wiemer, from Bernkastel, on Germany’s Mosel, began planting Riesling in 1976, its future as the region’s signature white was sealed. Chardonnay and sparklers are also strong suits. www.wiemer.com
☆ Heron Hill – Hammondsport
A barrel-vaulted tasting room atop a high hill over Keuka suggests that heavy-duty capital nurtured this estate, which enjoys a steadily rising reputation. Try the Ingle Vineyard Rieslings. www.heronhill.com
☆ Lamoreaux Landing – Lodi
The Greek Revival buildings here, named after a 19th-century steamboat dock, yield a spectacular 40km lake vista. Owner Mark J Wagner’s is the fourth generation of his family in the Seneca’s grape business. www.lamoreauxwine.com
☆ Red Newt – Hector
David Whiting’s Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc win steady praise. So does the house’s friendly bistro, one of Seneca’s favourite eating places, run by locavore chef Debra Whiting. www.rednewt.com
☆ Sheldrake Point – Ovid
This pretty estate on Cayuga’s western shore features an ornamental garden and the popular dockside Simply Red Bistro. The sweet-toothed visitors love the winery’s Riesling ice wine. www.sheldrakepoint.com
Finger Lakes: Where to stay, shop, eat and relax
Hotels and restaurants
The Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars
Bucolic eastward views from balconies and patios encompass vineyards, Seneca and rolling hills beyond. The Veraisons restaurant offers a stone fireplace and outdoor-dining deck. www.glenora.com
Aurora Inn and EB Morgan House
Near Ithaca, home of Cornell University, these newly renovated sibling inns offer breathtaking sunset panoramas across broad Cayuga. Their accommodation, food and service receive glowing compliments. aurora-inn.com; ebmorgan_house/home.html
Fox Inn B&B
Visitors can shoot a game of pool in the parlour in this Greek Revival building with high white pillars in front and period furniture in guest rooms. foxinnbandb.com
Rave reviews are common for Scott Signori, the owner-chef, who emphasises local organic ingredients for his seasonal menus, which suggest varietal wines for most plates. Book early. stonecatcafe.com
Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel
Reserve a Seneca view at this new luxury facility at the lake’s southern tip. Linger in your room’s spa-like shower, sip wine in the Coldwater Bar and enjoy dinner in the Blue Pointe Grille. watkinsglenharborhotel.com
The married owners, chef Dano Hutnik and pastry chef Karen Kilman, are inspired by Viennese wine tavern fare. Enjoy liptauer, bockwurst, bratwurst, pork schnitzel and strudel. danosonseneca.com
Acolytes of organic and vegetarian fare make pilgrimages to Ithaca to this icon of healthy, natural eating born in 1973 and owned by a collective. Its series of 13 cookbooks are revered. moosewoodrestaurant.com
Windmill Farm and Craft Market
A sprawling, busy market, covered and in the open air, is full of merchants peddling everything from Bibles, pretzels, quilts, deerskin products and Polish pierogis. thewindmill.com
Rockwell Museum of Western Art
The best of the West in the East! A repository of American Western and Native American, the art and programs will appeal to adults and children besotted by cowboy lore. rockwellmuseum.org
Corning Museum of Glass
This internationally renowned museum houses a unique glass collection that spans 350 years. There are exhibitions, and visitors can watch glassmaking. cmog.org
Taughannock Falls State Park
Ithaca is surrounded by hills, steep gorges and waterfalls. A 16km drive north, and a short hike through this park brings visitors to a 66m ribbon of water – 10m higher than Niagara Falls – pouring into a gorge. taughannock.com