New York is the nation’s third-largest producer of wines, behind only California and Washington. And while Long Islanders are, naturally, familiar with our own North Fork wineries, we know less about the state’s largest and oldest wine-producing area, the Finger Lakes — where some 11,000 acres of vineyard-covered hillsides overlook the three lakes of Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka in a setting that, at first blush, is reminiscent of Germany’s Mosel and Rhine valleys.
Looks, of course, can be deceiving. But the Finger Lakes also have substance in the form of wines eminently worthy of your time and effort. Primary credit for that goes to Konstantin Frank, a transplanted Ukrainian viticulturist who was convinced that it was not the cold climate, but the root stock, that prevented European vinifera grapes (such as riesling, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon) from thriving here. He was right and quite literally reinvented winemaking in the Finger Lakes beginning in the 1960s.
Half a century later, some 120 welcoming and attractive wineries (complemented by more than 30 craft breweries) open their doors daily for you to sample and enjoy the fruits of their labors, either by the taste, the glass, the bottle or the case, all while drinking in some lovely scenery.
Where to go
As it’s just not possible to visit more than a half dozen wineries in one day, it behooves you to plan out your route in advance. Much will depend on where you will be overnighting, but be sure to visit both large and small wineries and at least two different lakes. (Each has its own well-publicized “wine trail,” but only about half the wineries are members.) Cayuga is the closest to Long Island, but Seneca has more wineries and better vistas. Keuka has the fewest, but its are the most historic. It’s also the least trafficked.
Almost all wineries regularly open to the public offer tastings throughout the day, either at counters overlooking the vineyards or the lakes or in restored barns or atmospheric barrel rooms. Most charge $3 to $5 for your choice of five to seven featured wines, with premium flights generally costing $10. Be advised that tasting rooms at the more popular wineries can become unpleasantly crowded, especially on weekends. Go early, go late or try elsewhere.
Surprisingly, only a few wineries offer walking tours of their vineyards and production facilities. The two most regular opportunities come at relatively modern Fox Run in Penn Yan and at the late-19th-century Pleasant Valley Wine Co., the Finger Lakes’ oldest, which also has a museum of winemaking, in Hammondsport. Both offer daily 45-minute tours on the hour for $5 per person. Swedish Hill in Romulus begins offering a 1 p.m. tour on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in August ($3), while Standing Stone in Hector offers a weekday vineyard and barrel tasting package for $20.
A number of livery companies will drive you and your group from winery to winery in their car (or yours). For those willing to join forces with other oenophiles, the Wine Tour Trolley (winetourtrolley.com) offers two six-hour weekend tours ($55 per person, not including lunch and tasting fees). One leaves from Ithaca and visits five Cayuga Lake wineries, the other from Geneva with five stops on Seneca Lake.
The Water to Wine Tour (watertowinetours.com) offers daily five-hour, three-winery tours ($89 per person) on Cayuga Lake, departing from both Aurora on the east shore and Interlaken on the west.
Most large wineries now have on-site restaurants that serve appealing, reasonably priced lunches in windowed indoor rooms or outside on patios overlooking their vineyards. Among them are the Ginny Lee Café at Wagner Vineyards in Lodi, the Knapp Winery Restaurant in Romulus, the Red Newt Bistro in Hector, the Thirsty Owl Bistro and Copper Oven at Cayuga Ridge, both in Ovid, and the Blue Heron Café at the Heron Hill Winery in Hammondsport. Open for dinner as well are the elegant Veraisons Restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee and the casual Crystal Lake Café at Americana Vineyards in Interlaken. And while not attached to a winery, Dano’s Heuriger (an Austrian-style wine tavern) in Lodi might as well be.
Food and wine experiences
For those interested in a more intimate and informative experience, several large wineries now offer regularly scheduled, sommelier-led tastings of premier wines paired with small food dishes. Among them are the Food and Wine Experience at Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan ($45); along with the 1886 Food and Wine Experience at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery ($35), the Ravinous Kitchen Food and Wine Experience at Ravines Wine Cellars ($65) and Heron Hill’s Farm to Table four-course pairing dinner ($70), all in Hammondsport. Space is limited and reservations are required. For those interested in just relaxing, a handful of wineries host live music on Friday and Saturday evenings throughout the summer.
The only full-service on-premises lodging option is the upscale 30-room Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars overlooking Seneca Lake. But if rooms are all you need, there are four of them at the Varick Inn, an 1830s farmhouse next door to the Varick Winery in Romulus, and two very elegant ones at the lakeside Miles Inn at Miles Wine Cellars in Himrod.
Where else to stay
Most visitors to the Finger Lakes stay in one of the towns located at the ends of each lake: cosmopolitan Ithaca at the southern end of Cayuga, historic Seneca Falls at the north; gritty Watkins Glen at the southern end of Seneca, Victorian Geneva at the north; or quaint Hammondsport and Penn Yan at the southern and northern ends, respectively, of Keuka.
Other natural attractions
Be sure to interrupt your tastings to hike the gorges at Watkins Glen State Park or Taughannock Falls State Park. Afterward take a leisurely excursion on one of the lakes, either onboard the M/V Haendel from Ithaca ($18-39, fareharbor.com/ithacaboattours) or the schooner True Love from Watkins Glen ($35-65, www.schoonerexcursions.com).
For more info
Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, 800-813-2958, fingerlakeswinecountry.com