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Return to the Finger Lakes

Heading to visit with upstate New York's finest
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 2, 2012 5:00pm ET

Well, it's been almost a month since I traveled. That's so long between trips, I think Nancy was starting to get annoyed with me being around the house too much. So, off I go again. This time, back to the Finger Lakes, just a four-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City.

The Finger Lakes is at the tail end of their harvest right now, so it's a fun time for me to check in and see how things are. Here in my office in New York I've been tasting through the bulk of the recently released Rieslings and other wines from the 2011 vintage, a tricky season for the region; so far 2012 looks to be much more even.

If you haven't checked out what the Finger Lakes has to offer, you're missing out. You're missing out on fresh, aromatic cool-climate whites such as Riesling, along with Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and others. You're also missing out on some great value, as many of the wines are often priced at less than $20. And you're missing out on the fun of exploring a region that is still developing and in search of itself. That means fits and starts, a mixed bag of quality and a scattershot of varieties and varying blends, but that's also part of the fun, shifting through a wide array of things to find out what the region does best.

The Finger Lakes has picturesque countryside. It has some unique terroir, with slate, gravel and sandy soils ringing the region's three main lakes of Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka. And it also has a burgeoning wine industry that merits consumer attention. What it lacks, though, is a serious wine culture and, frankly, a little self esteem. While a few leading wineries in the Finger Lakes are pushing the boundaries of quality—Hermann J. Wiemer, Red Newt Cellars, Heart & Hands, Keuka Lake Vineyards and others—too many of the region's wineries settle for the lowest common denominator. They're often unwilling to take the risks that a winery needs to to make truly great wine--namely, lowering yields (and thus reducing quantity) while not settling for half-measures or shortcuts in the winery, such as fermenting Riesling to dry and then back-sweetening.

I read an interesting article recently by Evan Dawson, a Rochester-based televison journalist who also covers the Finger Lakes in his spare time. He inquired as to why the region's best wineries don't bottle some of their top production in magnum format. It was disappointing to see, once again, how Finger Lakes wineries view the problem completely backward: Can you imagine a Bordeaux château not bottling magnums because they think consumers only consider a magnum format for cheap party wine?

There are two things the Finger Lakes needs to do to be taken seriously as a "world class" wine region. First, make great wine, and a few are well on their way to that. Second, act and present itself like a world class region—there's still plenty of room to grow there.

The winemakers and winery owners need to develop their own wine culture. But for my perspective, I have to focus on the wines, and get you, the consumer, interested in trying them, when they merit it. You can reference my blog notes from my visits through the Finger Lakes in July 2011, October 2010, November 2009, June 2009 and October 2008. I'll be starting this trip with a stop along Cayuga Lake before hitting a few places on Seneca Lake on my second day.

There are also several good farm-to-table restaurants in the area. I've got a bead on two new spots to try during this trip and I'll report on those. I'll be sure to stop in on some of the best established places too, such as Dano's and Red Newt Bistro.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to ask, and I'll try to respond as best I can.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

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