New York's Finger Lakes: Natural Beauty, Warm Hospitality, and Lots of Vino

by  Christine Wei | Aug 27, 2014
Finger Lakes, NY
Finger Lakes, NY / AlbertPego/IStock

In upstate New York, there's a 2.6 million-acre region characterized by rolling green valleys and sprawling open space, and it's just four hours from Manhattan. Yet, Finger Lakes wine country doesn't receive nearly the attention it deserves as a breezy summer escape or a fall foliage getaway -- or an excellent anytime jaunt for wine lovers.

While varietals like fruity Rieslings and peppery Cabernet Francs are the hallmarks of the region -- the climate is nearly identical to that of Germany's Mosel region -- more refined reds are also starting to take hold. This quirky destination draws a savvy crowd of visitors with an appreciation for natural beauty and laid-back hospitality. Those who prefer a more personal experience, and a slower pace, will find few highly commercialized experiences in its 11,000 acres of vineyards. Instead, small estates, run by multi-generational families, each boast their own flair and character. A wealth of independent museums, state parks, and other attractions round out any trip.

Wine country is divided into three distinct trails, along Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes. Like the individual wineries, each of these lakes have a vibe and history of their own. Here's a guide to finding your ideal trail, plus some of our favorite spots along each lake.

For the Creative Soul: Keuka Lake
If you appreciate innovation, it all began in Keuka Lake’s Hammondsport. It’s here that the first federally licensed winery was established in 1860 and where the region's first vinifera vines (regarded as the best for wine-making) were planted. There may not be as high of a concentration of wineries along this lake, but its history is unbeatable.

Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars is one of the most well-regarded estates in the region, known for its research in bringing traditional European wine-making methods to New York -- and for being the first to plant vinifera grapes in 1958. To soak up the valley views, head out to the deck with your favorite bottle after a complimentary tasting. The dry Rieslings are a favorite, though the pinot noir gets its share of attention -- and the dry rose is becoming something of a trend.

Just a few minutes south, Heron Hill Winery boasts an airy, top-ranked tasting room with lake views. While tastings here have a more formal vibe, the winery makes a great effort to serve as a community space, hosting live music and monthly farmers markets in summer. It also produces some of the better dry reds in the region. It costs $5 to try six wines, and the pours are generous.

One of the biggest producers in the region, the lively Bully Hill Vineyards focuses on beginner-friendly, affordable French-American hybrids. It’s among the most commercialized of the Finger Lakes wineries, but that’s translated into a warm sense of hospitality -- from complimentary tours, to a great restaurant, to a museum that illustrates the family’s role in shaping Hammondsport's early wine history. You'll pay $5 for 5 tastings.

Hermann J. Wiemer

For the Spontaneous Traveler: Seneca Lake
For those who have a difficult time making up their minds and love last-minute adventures, this lake nurtures the highest concentration of wineries along its banks, with more than 40 to choose from. If you find that you’re not feeling the vibe of one winery, it’s easy to drive over to the next one.

The words “sophisticated” and “barn” aren’t an oxymoron at Hermann J. Wiemer, whose plain entrance belies the modern lighting and chic neutral hues within. Step behind the scenes with tastings conducted atop wine barrels and among steel fermentation tanks ($5 for five). The winery’s Gerwertztraminer goes down easily, and its dry Riesling is even stocked at Manhattan’s iconic Eleven Madison Park restaurant.

Not content to stick with just wine? Glenora Wine Cellars has a fun chocolate and wine tasting at $8 for four pairings. Even if you opt for the regular flight of six ($3), you’ll enjoy extra snacks like cheese and fudge. Besides the dry Riesling, the winery is known for its fruit wines, and the weekends can draw quite a crowd. Bonus: In case you want to linger, the onsite inn boasts 30 rooms with whirlpools, fireplaces, and balconies.

And now for something completely different: Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards is where wine goes country. Patrons sit down to a $5 for six tasting at the horseshoe-shaped bar in an indoor space decked with farm gear and taxidermied animals. It’s loud and high-energy here, and its staff performs a "chant" in honor of its popular Red Cat wines. Check the website for monthly events like winemaker meet-and-greets and chocolate and wine weekends.

Christine Wei/Bully Hill Vineyards

For the Outdoorspeople: Cayuga Lake
The easternmost of the Finger Lakes' wine trails is also the most remote. While the base of the lake is home to the hip city of Ithaca, there are not one but six state parks scattered throughout the region, filled with outdoor and water excursions galore.

If you're looking for a great red amidst all the Rieslings, Thirsty Owl Wine Company is a good bet. It's a relatively new operation -- opened in 2002 -- but it's won visitors over with its oaky pours ($3 for five). The vineyard is so close to the lake that visitors frequently sail over by boat and amble up to the tasting room for a few very pleasant hours. An outdoor deck and an open-air bistro provide more chances to take advantage of the views.

Within its cheery yellow clapboard building, Sheldrake Point Winery serves up lots of class. Not only are the staff knowledgeable and personable, the tasting ($5 for five) covers the winery's entire menu, including reserve and its highly rated ice wines. But it's not just the sweet stuff here; popular reds include the Cabernet Franc and the Gamay. As with Thirsty Owl, you're free to dock right next to the winery.

For an intimate and easygoing experience, head over to Long Point Winery, just across the lake from Thirsty Owl. Chances are, you'll get acquainted with owners Gary and Rosemary or with popular sales manager Russ, all of whom have lots of wine-making wisdom to impart. Visitors come here for the dry reds and Vidal Blanc, and you can always go down the road to Long Point Orchard for fresh fruit and snacks.

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