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.
Looks like an amazing trip!
Thanks, Jamie! Lots of stuff to do for families too.
Great round up! I have never tried wine from New York.
I remember being intrigued when one won a category in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 100 a few years ago. But I’ve tried to find that article and can’t. It was a sparkling though.
The “cat wee” part made me laugh ;). Sounds like a great trip!
The first time we heard that, we were in Australia and I thought I misheard them. Then I thought, does wee mean something different Down Under. It does not.
You Mr. Chicken sign is a winner! Yes, the vineyards are lovely, too, but that signage is great!!! Not a fan of the fruity wine, as they have it in PA, too. Almost sickening to taste. Sounds like a wonderful trip.
Thanks, Ruth. Greg may be the photographer in the house, but I do know a good sign when I see one. Although he had to help me set the exposure.
I like fruit wines used in my dessert recipes, so I try to keep that in mind when sampling them…
I agree with Korena, I heard cat pee and almost spit out my tea lol. I couldn’t stop laughing for a bit. And I’m sure some find your wine suggestions helpful. But your trip sounds wonderful and I bet you guys got a lot of R&R in ;). Of course, naturally, I want chicken now lol.
As Greg would probably say, it’s never a bad time for fried chicken.
I have that same picture (first one) from this summer. We too enjoyed a few wines from Fulkerson’s – in fact, I think we drank a bottle from there this past weekend. We are so with you on the fruit wines. We stay as far away from those as we can. And I agree on the reds. We did find a few that we really enjoyed, but not too many. We ended up mostly buying whites and like you said, so many under $15! Loved reading this post Katherine! Brought me back.
This was fun reading! Mostly agree on the wine–we’re generally red drinkers and were reaching to find reds most of the way, but some very good Rieslings and much more appropriately priced than the Niagara wineries we saw on the first leg of our trip–Niagara was more consistent, but the good ones in NY were plenty good.
We got two bottles from Fulkerson’s–a Cab/Merlot blend that’s still in the cellar and a riesling-traminette blend that we drank last week. We both liked it but Kristy more than me. Also stopped at Fox Run and got a couple bottles there on our way around Seneca Lake. We liked the views around Seneca Lake the best, and the waterfall hike was fun. I think we liked the Cayuga Lake wines better but it was close.
Fox Run was one of the decent ones too. I think we’d just been to Herman and it was at the end of the first day. We had hope to get over to Cayuga, but ran out of time.
What a fantastic roundup of your trip and I love the photos – as always.
Have a super weekend.
I’m about 10 hours on a plane away, but I really want to go there now.
Ha, maybe there’s a redeye.
A very enjoyable read! For me it’s a bit like reading science fiction, since I have maybe tasted five different American wines in my life! I wonder if there are estates who don’t let you visit (there are lots of these in France). I like the idea of charging some small amounts for the tasting: some people I know go and visit vineyards in France and feel that since the owner was very nice and they have tasted many different bottles, they have to buy some even if they don’t like anything…
There weren’t as many wineries in New York. In California, there are ones that are open to the public, ones open by appointment only and ones that are close. Those are generally high end, but some also supply grapes to other labels.
Finger Lakin’ good! Hurrrrr 😀 Great read, thanks for sharing. I remember there’s a small… (very small) vineyard just outside my home town in England. I went there one day and had a taste. Holy cow it’s disgusting. I guess England (at least this area) is really not a good place to grow grapes. It was sharp, acidic, vinegary… you could feel it burning a whole in your gut on the way down. Really not good, and yet somehow they got a license to distribute this vile filth to supermarkets nearby… urgh!
It boggles my mind how every state seems to have a wine region now. There are plenty that shouldn’t!
Great photos! I think you have a good eye as well as a good palate… lovely and delicious!
I love the way you write, Katharine. Your travel posts often make me laugh out loud. Cats Pee? I don’t even want to know how Greg could even guess what that could taste like! Totally concur on the fruit wines. Sadly, my reaction would have been identical to Greg’s, leaving my husband behind to sort out the tastings.
Thanks, Eva. We never taste on the same day. Luckily when Greg bolted the fruit wine place, he did it so fast, I hadn’t even made it inside. I was outside trying to take a picture and heard my name. Thought I was in trouble at first.
Very funny! You guys sound like you have a blast!
Beautiful opening photo and your description of Greg’s tasting technique gave me my first smile of the day. But you missed the “cannoli joint”? How ever did you find the strength to go on? Great post!
Ah, yes, one cannot recapture life’s precious moments…
Loved your post. The finger lakes area is definitely on our list – one day! At least when we retire, if not before! Beautiful pics!
Thanks, and Greg’s photos are always amazing.
Lakes, water falls, beautiful views and wine. What a beautiful trip. You really know how to book a unique one. I love your photograph of the barrel in the field…kind of looks like those round bales of hay in our Texas pastures. Imagine a wine shower! haha
Our friends’ wedding was there, so it all came from that.
I’m bemoaning your missed canoli experience also … you’ll just have to go back. I’d love to do the NY Winery tour, and throw in the cheese and it sounds like a wonderful trip. Thanks for sharing the photos and the time to write up the report.
I learned one can overdose on cheese. Once place had so many samples, oy vey!
Describing wine is so funny sometimes–I’ll take humor over snooty any day–one article my husband read about a particular wine described it as “barnyardy” …that one remains an inside joke around here. Love the photos, just looking at them make me feel relaxed, so lovely. Thanks for sharing.
Barnyardy is a good one. We like to say a whiff of edam cheese or cat’s wee.
You two really had a great trip. The photos are amazing. My daughter just got home yesterday from her first trip to New York. She loved it. Have a great weekend.
You too Southern Lady.
Great reading as always Katherine! I’ve tasted those fruit based wines and could only think about what I’d cook with them. And I remember the not so great grapes from the Ohio wineries we use to visit. But we’d always keep going back as if they’d change! I think it was more the whimsical experience, the tasting fun and enjoying the outdoor breezes and scenery.
I did get a sour cherry brandy. That should be fun to mix drinks with.
I don’t drink, but the scenery looks delightful! Could be a very lovely trip for my husband and I to take (me for the views, my sweetie for the booze). 😉
Since it’s right on a huge lake, there’s plenty for nondrinkers to do. You could spend all day in Watkins Glen State Park.
Oh the pictures look amazing Katherine. great post and so glad ya’ll got to get away and enjoy all of that!
Thanks, Jessica. I only took the chicken one, maybe I could’ve made that clearer. If in doubt and they’re pretty just assume my husband took them.
That is a fantastic first photo! And, love the “finger lakin’ good” sign, too.
Thanks, Greg’s eyes did get a little misty when he saw a barrel that big.
Looks like my kind of trip.
There really was a little bit of everything in that area.
What a FUN post ~ you had me smiling throughout. Thanks!
Man, you guys took such great trips this summer. Totally jealous! 😉
Thanks, Amy. I think we won’t do a road trip that long for some time!
Sounds like you two had a blast. Great tactic of splitting up the tastings so one of you gets the full experience–say no to dumping! Sonoma and Napa really do have some of the best wine. I need to take a trip back up there soon. Also random side note, this was very well written, Katherine, I really enjoyed reading. Former English majors appreciate good writers. 😉
Thanks, Caroline. We do need to get back to Sonoma, but Oregon is calling too. We dump a lot, but we don’t spit. I know the pros do, but, well we’re not pros. I like the days we just go one place and I can finish the whole tasting, like when we went to Domaine Chandon.
Oh and thanks for saying that I had the wrong word and changed it!
The Finger Lakes area is a nice place to spend a few days and it sounds like you made the most of it.
Great post Katherine – enjoyed your descriptions, tasting notes and sense of fun. What’s cat wee?
That would be cat urine. Oh goodness, we’re going to get google hits for that now.
What a beautiful trip and a lovely read! Thanks for sharing this.
When my nephew became 19 (legal drinking age in Ontario, Canada) I made grandiose plans (in which I’d be doing most of the drinking and he’d be doing all of the driving) of going to the Niagara Peninsula for a wine tasting trip combined with visiting the Shaw Festival. I was even willing to let his mom come with us. Cause she’s a good driver (and not much of a drinker). It’s been a while now, but I still have hopes of being able to do it while I”m still mobile. (sigh!) Your trip has me green with envy. 🙂
Niagara is such a beautiful area too. The last time I was there, I was younger than your nephew.
Gorgeous pictures!! But that last one totally cracks me up! 😉
It was right up there with the giant rooster in Kentucky.
I think the last photo is the best photo.
It all sounds wonderful, but no cannoli joint? Oh that must have hurt!
Ha, I’m glad my stellar photography skills are being appreciated.
As usual, entertaining and informative. I’ve learnt a great deal about the States from your blogs, and a great deal about drinking – which is a good thing.
Fantastic breakdown and review of your trip. As a former wine industry guy I’m always amused when visiting smaller wine regions like the Finger Lakes, Long Island or Virginia. The wineries are always so proud of their wines and typically peddle them as top tier examples of a varietal. Nearly 100% of the time this isn’t the case, but you can always find some hidden gems that make the trip worth while.
Love the Mr. Chicken sign…look’s the type of place I would have to stop at. 🙂
I think I already said this, but it’s amazing how many states have wineries. When I moved here I went to a winery on the drive in and asked what type of grapes grew well in the region and the woman said “all types.” I asked for examples and she repeated herself. That’s not true anywhere.
All types! LOL. I haven’t heard of that varietal before. 🙂
My husband and I love wine tasting – I miss living in Sydney where we just an hour and a half from the Hunter Valley. I love reading your adventures because American wine i am completely unfamiliar with and get lots of here in Singapore.
Sadly, what we export…. sigh. We’re hoping to go to that region for our 10th in 2013, which I’ve probably only told you 10 times!
Thanks for sharing! I never thought New York produced wines! Stunning landscapes shots!!
If you and Greg ever get out this way there is a lovey wine valley down Portland way and lots of wine tasting! We have enjoyed ourselves several times! Loved the post and the pictures are beautiful….RaeDi
Wonderful trip and post that you shared with us too. Thank you for you both, with my love, nia
Hi, nice post, beautiful pics and and a great narrative, I feel like I’ve been there! Thanks for sharing.
We’ve made a few trips, hit many wineries (some I can’t remember), a brewery, meadery, but not the distillery and here are some tricks I learned…
If you take a large group of people to the wineries, you can split the case discount, they apply it to your individual purchase. (Maybe you could even group up with people in the parking lot…)
Most wineries apply your tasting fee toward your actual purchase.
Fruit wines are great for cooking.
Some wineries will do a group tasting at the hotel or B&B your group is staying at, for NO CHARGE!!
Sometimes it’s not about the wineries product, it more about to atmosphere…
Glad the Rufus family had a great time!
Thanks, the places we bought did give us the tasting discount. We prefer to taste during the week, when the crowds are lighter so the group thing may be trickier, but we’ll keep it in mind. Definitely check out the distillery when you’re there next. If you like fruit wines for cooking, you might like the fruit liquors and brandies.