According to Native American legend, when Great Spirit laid his hands upon the earth to bless it, he created 11 bodies of water from the imprint of his palms. These are New York’s Finger Lakes, and today this region is famous for its wines.
As the largest wine-producing region in New York state, it seems the Finger Lakes – with its cool climate, fresh water lakes carved out by ancient glaciers and the soil deposits surrounding them – was also blessed with exceptional terroir, and one particularly favorable to the noble Riesling grape.
“The overwhelming majority of Finger Lakes wineries produce Riesling,” said wine writer and educator Thomas Pellechia, author of “Timeless Bounty: Food and Wine in New York’s Finger Lakes” and “Wine: The 8,000-Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade,” among other titles. “Riesling is without doubt the region’s signature wine; the grape has been growing successfully here since 1962.”
There are about 130 wineries in the Finger Lakes. Linking many of them together are four wine trails that meander around the lakes, whose names are of Native American origin: Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka, Otisco, Owasco, Skaneateles, Canandaigua, Hemlock, Conesus, Canadice and Honeoye. A good place to begin exploring the varietals is at the place the Seneca Indians named “The Chosen Spot”: Canandaigua.
The 41-mile Canandaigua Wine Trail stretches from Fairport to Naples, with stops at wineries, tasting rooms, art galleries, shops and restaurants that surround Canandaigua Lake. Stop by Hazlitt Vineyards to taste its Red Cat Wines, unpretentious sweet red wines that can be served straight or over ice, or the Heron Hill Winery with its a beautiful tasting room and gift shop.
At the Finger Lakes Wine Center, where 40 different local wineries are represented, taste selections from a dozen or so different wines from a rotating inventory while being awed by the most glorious stained glass window. The Center is located at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park where visitors can stroll among nine restored gardens, including rock, rose, pansy, Japanese and Italian gardens, then visit the 1887 Victorian mansion, a 20-room brick farmhouse originally built as a summer home.
Thirty-five wineries circle Seneca Lake and form the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. The specialty of the region is European vinifera varieties such as Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Cabernet Franc. The largest and most active wine trail in New York State, it traces its history back to 1866 and the opening of the Seneca Lake Grape Wine Company’s winery.
In addition to the wineries, there are a distillery, several breweries and hard cider producers and a meadery on this trail – not to mention some unique attractions, including the Corning Museum of Glass, home of the world’s largest collection of glass art, where visitors can catch live glassmaking demonstrations and make their own glass.
Smaller is the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, home to 16 wineries, a cidery, meadery and four distilleries – including Bellwether Hard Cider and Wine Cellars, the Finger Lakes’ first cidery – set against a backdrop of gorgeous views and waterfalls. This trail is also home to the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, which showcases “Broadway in the Fingers Lakes” at three different venues in Auburn. The festival runs from May through October and includes big glam productions (think: “Sweeney Todd”) as well as edgier fare and musicals in development.
Also on the trail are the Hangar Theatre, a professional regional theatre producing award-winning plays and musicals, and the Kitchen Theatre Company, where adventurous theatre-goers can catch original plays and musicals.
Although petite with just eight wineries, the Keuka Lake Wine Trail nonetheless is a force to be reckoned with. Well-seasoned and award-winning, balanced and nuanced characterize these grape-growing powerhouses, from Ravines Wine Cellar, whose winemaker learned viticulture and winemaking at his family’s centuries-old vineyard in the South of France, to Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, the state’s most award-winning winery since 1962.
Said Pellechia: “National and international wine critics and magazines have recently discovered the Finger Lakes region, which has been patiently waiting for them to do so.”
The wines of the Fingers Lakes are a discovery worth making. Choose your trail and enjoy the sipping and scenery.
ADVENTURE GUIDE TO DON’T-MISS MOMENTS
♦ Take a crepe making class with Pierre Heroux, owner of Simply Crepes, and learn how to make crepes the way Pierre’s grandmother taught him. It is an old family recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation – probably since the Heroux family first arrived in the Finger Lakes area in the 1600s.
♦ Order a freshly baked grape pie at Monica’s Pies, take it right directly to the bench in front of Monica’s shop and eat it on the spot. These delicacies made with local Concord grapes are a Naples, NY specialty with some 70,000 are sold each year. The “Monica” difference? The crust is baked and then the filling is added. The result is a pie brimming with grape filling and the flakiest of crusts.
♦ Make a beeline to the jewelry counter at Heron Hill Tasting Room in Bristol (Canandaigua Wine Trail) for one of the best-kept secret shopping bargains around: well-made and really cute earrings for only $5 a pair. The jewelry is made by Wende Logan-Young, a retired physician and pioneer in women’s health cum beading artist.
♦ Watch the chefs in action at a cooking demo in the Educational Theater at the New York Wine & Culinary Center. Better still: Take a class in the Hands-On Kitchen and whip up your own culinary masterpiece.
♦ In this land of 11 lakes, boating is a must. Board the Canandaigua Lady, a 19th century replica paddlewheel boat that recalls the steamboat era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, for a cruise on Canandaigua Lake. Why here? It’s among the largest of the Finger Lakes and is also where acting legend Humphrey Bogart used to spend his summer vacations.
This is the Finger Lakes – emphasis on lakes – so book a place with a water view. The Inn on the Lake, www.TheInnontheLake.com, is a great option. It has wonderful views of Canandaigua Lake, is within walking distance to the New York Wine & Culinary Center and is a good jumping off point to the wineries, as well as Finger Lakes shopping and antiquing.
For more information about travel to Finger Lakes, visit www.VisitFingerLakes.com.