Greg and I spent three days in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York in late August. Most of our time was in and around a town called Watkins Glen, home to a scenic state park — 19 waterfalls– charming antiques stores, bed and breakfasts, and a cannoli joint we never got around to visiting. Trust me, we’ve already bemoaned that lost opportunity.
The town is at the base of Seneca Lake, which is ringed by more than three dozen wineries, a number of dairies and a handful of breweries. A few sizable towns sprout up toward the north tip of the lake. For the most part, vineyards, rolling green hills and tantalizing glimpses of the waterfront greet drivers. It is a delightful place to visit, but the wine isn’t always delightful.
While some rieslings and sparkling wines danced on the tongue, many a white wine was overly sweet, or worse had a Welch’s grape juice aftertaste, and most red wines we tried fell flat. The Finger Lakes are simply in a climate that doesn’t rival the best growing regions for red wines in America, Sonoma’s Dry Creek zinfandels and Napa’s cabernet sauvignons, particularly those from the Rutherford Bench, come to mind. The Finger Lakes can produce stellar white wines, and we found some stellar white wines. We brought home a case of wine from one vineyard alone.
But there, apparently, is still a market for the dreaded fruit wine and a few dreadful attempts at grappa. Oh and if my German-Italian grandmother only saw what wineries were trying to pass off as Gewurztraminer… oh wait I don’t have a German or an Italian grandmother that’s Greg’s pedigree.
Tasting wine is such an individual experience. Well not for me, Greg is usually six inches away asking something about butter or cat wee or holding his glass aloft and saying hmmm, lips pursed, eyes on some unfixed point. No matter how many articles are written, how much advice is given, the experience is always unique. When I discuss a given wine, I understand some will think my opinions are harsh, others will find them charitable. With that acknowledged, here are some random tasting notes. But first, let me say, we do split driving duties. We don’t taste on the same day, and while we don’t spit, we take great efforts to drink the smallest amount of each pour possible. (There’s no point in ruining one’s palate.)
What we loved: The tasting fees and prices. Most places charged $2 for five tastings. When you visit multiple wineries the tasting fees can add up. Those stellar whites we found? They didn’t cost an arm an a leg. Most of the bottles we brought home were under $20 and a few were under $10.
What we really loved: Nice cool breezes, beautiful scenery, a noticeable lack of tour buses, being able to gaze lovingly at each other as we strolled through the vineyards. Sorry, got carried away.
Wineries we’d recommend: Well, first pick up a bottle of Kiss My Ass Red at Pompous Ass Winery for your boss. (Thankfully, mine has a sense of humor.) We can’t say enough good things about Hermann J. Weimer. We enjoyed their sparklings, rose and off-dry reislings. Fulkerson Winery had a number of rieslings that represented the area well. We bought two bottles of the reserve, made with grapes planted from old vine clippings from France. Red Tail Ridge Winery, also was enjoyable. Their collection of dog paintings did not at all influence our enjoyment of the wine. (Their wines were also on a few local restaurant menus.) Villa Bellangelo had one of the prettiest waterfront views. Cascata had some nice whites and an adorable German shepherd puppy who’s adept at untying shoes. (We stayed upstairs the first night.)
What we found amusing: We stopped at one winery, that specialized in fruit wines, and by the time I realized this the woman, sweet as pie, was at the counter welcoming me for a taste. What could I do leave? (On Greg’s tasting day, he did just that at another such winery.) As she was pouring the peach wine, or maybe it was the boysenberry, she said this is so “rweefreshing” when it’s 90 out. I wanted to say: What about when it’s 114?
What really made us laugh: At least two wineries had portable toilets outside. No, they weren’t under construction.
Why stop at wine: Finger Lakes Distilling, pictured just above, offers an array of spirits for tasting. They pour full shots, but you can ask for small pours or just toss them over your shoulder when the bartender is helping someone else. Their offerings included vodkas, flavored brandies, even bourbon, and more. (Chocolate bitters and sour cherry brandy are now in our liquor cabinet.) There are also five breweries around the lake. Some offer tastings like the Miles Wine Cellars & Craft Beer. Others, such as Three Brothers, will make you buy a pint. Shoot some darts or grab a seat at the picnic tables overlooking the lake.
Hungry? There’s also a cheese trail. The dairies are far flung, so if you see one, hit the brakes. Sunset View Creamery’s aged cheddar was definitely worth the drive outside town. If you miss one and are staying in town, nothing beats a greasy bucket of chicken after a long day of wine tasting. I snapped the picture below from the car. I think it rivals those pretty, leafy, arty shots my husband snapped.
If you go: Book early. Rooms go fast. For more information on the wineries, breweries and distilleries in the area and on lodging and dining check out FingerLakesWineries.org.