Finger Lakes

Tim Fish

The Finger Lakes are long, beautiful, deep-blue gashes in the slate and limestone of upstate New York. Wine has been made here for 150 years, and all around the hills, high above the lakes, vineyards clutch the earth.

It’s no wonder someone thought to plant Riesling here—there’s a likeness to those precarious vineyards above the Rhine in Germany. This is a place with a rugged, majestic quality, and it attracts millions of visitors a year, but the region is not well-known beyond the East Coast, likewise the wines. There are more than 80 wineries spread around 11 lakes, and most of their bottlings never leave the state.

All the more reason to go there, although the natural beauty is temptation enough. The challenge is navigating the territory. Most of the wineries encircle the three largest and most central lakes: Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka. Combined, the acreage of the American Viticultural Areas of the Finger Lakes is roughly that of Napa Valley, but the lakes and hills conspire against easy touring. Seneca Lake, for example, is nearly 35 miles in circumference, and there’s not a bridge in sight. What looks close on the map can turn out to be an hour away by car.

Planning can prevent frustration. The first and most significant decision is picking a hub for your activities. Towns are spread around the lakes, but unless you want to stay in a roadside motel or a bed-and-breakfast, your lodging options are limited, both geographically and aesthetically.

If convenience is the deciding factor, the Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars is the place for you: Situated outside Dundee, it’s adjacent to a top-flight winery and vineyard on the west shore of Seneca Lake and close to many others. For a touch more luxury at the expense of distance, there’s the Vinifera Inn at Belhurst Castle, located in Geneva, on the northern tip of Seneca Lake. But the best, if not the most centrally located, lodging is the Mirbeau Inn & Spa in Skaneateles, near Syracuse. It’s more than an hour’s drive from the wineries in Hector and an additional 30 or 40 minutes from Dundee and Hammondsport.

The top wineries are strewn throughout the region, but don’t take a scattershot approach to touring or you’ll log more time on the road than in the tasting room. Spend one day touring the area between Cayuga and Seneca lakes, home to producers such as Red Newt, Atwater, Hosmer and Silver Thread. Next, spend a morning on the west shore of Seneca, visiting wineries such as Fox Run and Glenora. In the afternoon, make the rounds at Keuka Lake wineries, including Finger Lakes icon Dr. Konstantin Frank.

The Finger Lakes wine industry built its foundation on native and hybrid grapes such as Concord and Catawba, hearty varieties that can withstand the cold and snow. Those grapes make great jelly and, for many Americans, define what grapes should taste like. In the past, growers mainly sold their crop to large companies like Taylor, which squeezed the grapes into big jugs of sweet wine.

Today, sweet wine is still a player in the area, as most wineries turn out a cornucopia of labels and styles. There are also plenty of sparkling wines, both crisp and fruity, and serious producers aspire to make respectable reds, principally from Cabernet Franc.

But the region’s strength currently lies in cool-weather whites such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Dr. Konstantin Frank is particularly known for Riesling, which the winery makes in two styles: one semidry and silky, the other dry, crisp and minerally. Fox Run also makes very good Riesling, as well as one of the area’s best Chardonnays. And Red Newt and Standing Stone seem to excel at a variety of reds and whites; the latter winery’s Vidal dessert white is a true standout.

The Chardonnays too have their appeal, with the majority being made in a crisp, Chablis style. “The fruit here tends to be straightforward apple and pear,” Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell says of the region’s lightly oaked Chardonnays.

Finger Lakes wines have come a long way, according to Scott Osborn, president of Fox Run Vineyards. “Compared with 15 years ago, you’d be surprised how many pieces of the puzzle have been filled in,” he says, although he also concedes that there’s progress to be made. Marti Macinski, owner of Standing Stone, agrees. “We have a lot to learn about winemaking,” he says. “We don’t have a clue where we will be with reds in 10 years. If we want to make truly great wines, we have to do a better job in the vineyards.”

The task is easier said than done. The weather poses challenges. In January 2004, a warm spell was followed by a severe cold front, killing vines throughout the region. Fox Run lost 34 percent of its vineyards that year.

But the vintners of the Finger Lakes are a resilient bunch. Once faced with a lack of dining options for their visitors, many of the wineries now feature small restaurants and delis. Standing Stone has its casual Smokehouse wine-and-cheese bar on a covered deck overlooking the water; Sheldrake Point has a popular café on Cayuga Lake.

For lunch, the best bet is Fox Run. Don’t let the folksy deli atmosphere fool you. There are some serious gourmet sandwiches and salads on the menu, and the view from the deck will make your day. In the evening, try the hearty bistro fare at Red Newt Cellars, which has the best selection of local wines. Edgar’s, the dining room at Belhurst Castle, also offers an extensive list of Finger Lakes wines. And while there are only a few local wines on the list at Mirbeau, the dining room is not to be missed—if you’re not staying there, it’s worth the drive.

Many in the region believe the Finger Lakes food scene—like the area’s wine—is primed to move to the next level. “Summer is a home run here: The local produce is awesome—organic greens, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries—but the seasons are short, just little windows, and the winters are difficult,” says Mirbeau’s chef, Edward Moro. “This is a wine region, and I hope in the future it turns into a food and wine region.”

New York Wine & Culinary Center

New York's image may be of a fast-paced city, but agriculture is the state's leading economic sector and wine is the fastest-growing part of it. Now the state's farmers and vintners can show off their indigenous products—from apples and cheese to wines made from Riesling and Merlot—at the New York Wine & Culinary Center, which opened in Canandaigua on June 17, 2006.

Though it's located in the heart of the Finger Lakes, the center is designed to showcase the entire state's bounty. Visitors can sample wines at themed tastings, ranging in price from $5 to $7 for five 1-ounce pours, or match wines with small dishes at a restaurant that highlights New York ingredients. Those with more time and interest can take single-session classes, at $35 to $60 per session, that focus on wine, foodstuffs such as apples and cheese or cooking with New York chefs.

The $7.5 million, 20,000-square-foot center is an attractive facility that blends wood and glass in an airy Adirondack design. It includes a demonstration theater (funded by Wine Spectator), a hands-on kitchen, an exhibit hall featuring displays about New York's agriculture and history, and an extensive garden showcasing local plants. It is open daily, and admission is free.

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