A great wine tourist area and even a few exceptional wines

Earlier this month, I took my wife and kids and we spent a few days vacationing in the Finger Lakes.  For those of you who don’t know, the Finger Lakes comprise a region in western New York State.  These lakes are remnants of the glaciers retreat at the end of the last ice age.  They are long and thin and run north south. 

Hence on a map, the largest of these lakes look like 10 fingers that left deep scratches along the map.  The area is just beautiful with soft hills between the lakes.  The water is a deep blue shade.  The map is dotted with small towns connected by two lane black top roads surrounding all the lakes.  This was a short family vacation, before the kids went back to school.  Nevertheless, one day was put aside for Dad to visit wineries. 

It turns out the lakes have a nice effect on grapes grown near the shore.  They moderate temperatures in the summer, provide moisture and keep the vines from freezing in the winter.  The godfather of wines in this area is Dr. Konstantin Frank.  This was the first successful winery that utilized European varietals of grapes.  Started in the 1962, this winery is still producing some of the best wines the Finger Lakes have to offer.  Although I did not have any of their wines on this trip (that winery is located on Keuka Lake), I have had the Riesling and the Dry Riesling before.  Both wines are very good, possibly the best domestically produced Riesling. 

Finger Lakes wineries are primarily tourist wine destinations.  By that I mean the wineries sell a high percentage of their wines in their tasting rooms or in restaurants attached to the wineries.  Driving around the edges of the lakes, a tourist encounters a winery seemingly almost every 30 seconds or so.  Many of these wineries have newly constructed tasting rooms with beautiful views of the lakes. 

Most charge a small fee of $1 or $2 to taste thru a line-up of 5 or 6 wines.  Each taster gets a very small pour of each wine, perhaps ¾ of an ounce.  While that is an adequate amount especially considering how many people seem to stop at every winery and swallow every drop, I found it a bit difficult to really get a good grasp on any particular wine.  I should note that while I spit out the majority of wines I tasted, I seemed to be the only one doing so and received more than few odd glances.  All that said the area makes for some fun touring.  Unfortunately, the abundant choices make it hard to weed through the plonk.  Most of which, I had never heard of.  Luckily on our tour, I took some time and planned ahead using the Internet and word of mouth to determine where the best wines might be found. 

My wife and I had been to the area before.  When we were single, which is really how we refer to the brief time in our life we were married, but without children, we spent a few nights at a B&B along Canandaigua Lake.  That was during October and with the autumn leaves at peak, it might have been one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.  That was about 15 years ago and the wines we tried then were less than stellar.  We did, however, take a tour of the Manichewitz Winery.  While not producing great wines, it was worth touring a kosher winery to see the extra obstacles they must overcome in making wine. 

Our home base this time was Ithaca, the home of Cornell University and Moosewood Restaurant (one of the legends of vegetarian cooking), which worked out well.  The wineries of Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake are within a short driving distance.  The later being home to some of the wineries with the best reputations in the area.  In fact, the southeaster corner of Seneca Lake is referred to as the “banana belt” because of the moderating effect the lake has on the temps and the wealth of good wine produced in the area.  Being a Wednesday, I was surprised how much traffic the wineries actually had.  I would imagine the weekends get quite crowded.

From Ithaca, we headed north on Route 89 along the western side of Cayuga Lake.  After a quick stop at the Cayuga Lake Creamery to get the kids some Ice Cream (yes, I resort to bribery to get my winery times in), we stopped at Sheldrake Point Winery.  This winery has a nice looking restaurant connected to it.  The grounds were just beautiful.  With a view of the lake and a large patch of sunflowers growing, it looked the part of the tourist winery.  When I went inside, $1 bought me a taste of 6 wines.  The first wine, a Cabernet, however, was so oxidized that I found it undrinkable. 

I asked the server how long it had been open and was told that it had been open for a couple of days.  I was disappointed.  Squeezing every last drop out of a bottle is no way to treat a wine.  It would seem to me that if a bottle is not finished at the end of the day, they should drink it up and start each day with a fresh bottle.  The entire lineup went from not drinkable to less than stellar.  They also had their better wines on sale for an additional $1 per taste. 

I ordered a taste of their Cabernet Franc Reserve.  Unfortunately, the pour was just as small.  The wine while drinkable was nothing special.  Also offered for an additional fee were tastes of their special dessert wines.  A Vin de Paille (grapes dried on a mat to raisin) was $4 a taste.  Pretty pricey for that size pour but hey, this was the first winery and I wanted to see the best wines they could produce. The bottle was brought out and I noticed that it might have had one last pour in it.  It had also been open for two days.  Well, that was the end of my indulgence.  I declined the wine.  Moreover, I left without purchasing anything.  If the winery does not care enough to open a fresh bottle each day to show their wines, I am not interested either.  Luckily, the day improved from there. 

We headed west to Seneca Lake and then headed south along the lake down Route 414.  Our next stop was Lamoreaux Landing.  The beautiful spit shined wood accented tasting room had me a bit concerned after the last stop.  Inside, there were a few other couples tasting.  In fact, almost every winery had at least a few couples out for the day to taste wine and buy a few bottles.  For a small fee I was again provided with ¾ of an ounce of a variety of reds and whites and some dessert wines too.

The hostess was a knowledgeable middle-aged woman who got friendlier as she determined we were more interested in tasting the wines than getting buzzed.  The wines ranged from drinkable to good with the whites and the dessert wines being the stars of the show.  For a bit over $21 I purchased a bottle of their 2005 Dry Riesling.  Probably a bit over priced compared to its German or Alsatian counterparts, but I wanted to buy something.  That’s part of the marketing in these places.  You feel an obligation to buy something and you really want to bring home your “finds”.  Still, this was a very proper Riesling featuring green apple flavors that showed crisp acidity.  I am sure I will drink it before autumn. 

The family was getting hungry; moreover, we were nearing our recommended stop for lunch.  Dano's Heuriger on Seneca is a clash of worlds.  It is lined up on the shore of Seneca Lake like another winery.  The sign outside is rather non-descript.  As you walk up, the ultra modern wood doors give a clue that this will not be an ordinary lunch.  Indeed, the restaurant is beautiful.  Sleek and modern, it offers gorgeous views of the lake.  The food is Austrian. 

The menu takes some time to peruse.  Luckily some of the food is displayed and the waiter is very patient.  We ordered a variety of spreads for their breads as well as some main courses.  The food was excellent.  Anyone going to this area should make a point of stopping here.  During lunch the owner, Dano, came over to talk to all the patrons.  He is a charming man who discussed the area, the restaurant and the good manners of my kids (bonus points from my wife).  In addition, there is a very good wine list.  Many people had told me that the best wine made in the entire Finger Lakes region was the Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling.  I ordered a bottle of the 2006.  Apparently this is young and not the best vintage.  Nevertheless, for the $33 off the list, it was reasonable and I found it very nice.  In fact, over our vacation I also sampled the Wiemer Rose and Chardonnay and would happily drink any of them at any time.

We were now nourished and ready to continue south on Route 414 along the eastern shore of Seneca Lake.  Next up?  Standing Stone Vineyards.  This winery features a much more casual setting complete with ducks and food available for feeding the ducks.  The tasting room is run by younger men and looks more like a Frat house party room than the previous two wineries.  The tasting room staff is friendly and relaxed.  The wines were very nice and consistent from top to bottom.  They make some decent reds and whites, but the Vidal Blanc Ice Wine was my favorite.  With aromas of canned peaches in heavy syrup backed with crisp acidity, this is a wine that will show well at the end of a meal.  I bought a bottle.  

Back in the car and heading south, we had also had heard good things about Red Newt.  They have an attached restaurant that got rave reviews from friends.  Regrettably, we were still full from lunch so we headed to the large tasting room.  This looked like a VFW Lodge Party Room and on a busy day could accommodate a large crowd.  As it was, there were probably 20 to 30 people tasting that Wednesday.  There were two separate preprinted tasting menus.  I opted, for an extra charge, for the “high end” tastings.  For $4 I could pick out 6 wines from the menu of wines listed.  According to my hostess, Red Newt does not grow their own grapes but bottles a variety of wines from purchased grapes.  Their Tierce Dry Riesling was good.  The best wine was called Viridecence, a red blend that really offered a lot.  Unfortunately, this was overpriced at $45 and I passed. 

We were running out of steam as we pulled into Chateau Lafayette Rouge.  The winery had a huge gift shop of cute wine related bric-a-brac.  For $1, you can get a taste of around 15 wines.  For some reason, they started with the reds, then the whites, followed by some suspicious looking sweet wines.  The reds were drinkable and the whites actually pretty decent.  I know some people love some sweetness in their wines, especially many of the areas wine tourists, but at this point I passed on the sweet wines.  My palate was getting tired; the kids antsy, and I wanted to make one more stop.

Our last stop of the day was with Silver Springs Winery (who also has a Don Giovanni label for their better wines).  I had met the winemaker/owner John Zuccarino the previous evening at an excellent wine tasting dinner at the famed vegetarian institution Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca.  John grows grapes on the east side of Seneca Lake as well as in Long Island.  The Finger Lakes grapes are crushed and the must is shipped east.  John chose this route because there are better custom crush facilities on Long Island than in the Finger Lakes.  I found this quite surprising and my guess is that some young entrepreneur will remedy this situation in the next few years. 

Silver Springs makes a delicious Chardonnay.  It sees no oak and is refreshing, a bit buttery yet still crisp.  They also make surprisingly good reds from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  In fact, I bought a few of the reds and will let them age in the cellar for a year or two.  But, the biggest discovery and in fact, the best wine I had on the entire trip was a Gewurztraminer Ice wine.  It is varietally correct with excellent racy fruit and crisp acidity and just enough sweetness without being cloying.  This is an outstanding wine.  I was pleased that I had made a personal discovery.  Certainly this is a winery I will be keeping my eyes on.  The owner is committed to producing wines for the wine enthusiast and not just the auto tourist. 

The Finger Lakes is still a wine area in its infancy.  Yet, there are a few Finger Lakes wineries doing special things here.  Wineries such as Dr. Konstantin Frank, Hermann J. Wiemer and Silver Springs deserve a spot in any cellar.  As even more and more wineries make the commitment to quality, I would expect to see better and better wines coming from here.  In the meantime, it still makes for a wonderful fun day of touring. 

I hope you all go out and try a bottle or two and let me know what you think.


Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.