Shhh. I’m going to let you in on a secret: Wines from New York’s Finger Lakes region are often more affordably priced than their European or Californian counterparts. If ‘affordable’ sounds like a euphemism for ‘sub-par,’ think again. Finger Lakes’ wines deserve to be on the world’s best wine lists. Typically more European in style with higher acidity and minerality than California wines, these wines are refreshing and food-friendly.
Thirsty yet? Depending on where you live, it may be difficult to find Finger Lakes’ wines in many restaurants or retail outlets. Though it boasts over one hundred wineries, the region isn’t yet as famous as it deserves to be. But there are worse problems to have, since that provides the perfect excuse to visit the Finger Lakes and stock up on regional wines yourself. (Just remember, if traveling by air check with your airline carrier’s policy on transporting wine and/or your home state’s laws about shipping wine from New York.)
Located in western New York, the Finger Lakes region is named for eleven narrow lakes that stretch out like fingers across the area. During a recent trip I visited over a dozen wineries to taste current releases and found impressive consistency and quality across entire portfolios.
Several features of the Finger Lakes region make it ideal for grape growing. New York’s latitude compares to that of Burgundy, France—a famed wine region. Cold winters and a short growing season are similar to conditions in Germany’s Rhine area—another famed wine region. Shale soil and steep slopes encourage drainage for healthy vines. Ranging from three to forty miles long and thirty to 632 feet deep, the lakes don’t freeze in winter thus helping relieve cold pressure to mitigate severe winter weather.
Such factors don’t mean the route from field to bottle is easy. “The challenge is variable weather year to year,” says Morten Hallgren, owner and winemaker of Ravines Wine Cellars. “I’m still waiting for a normal year, but that doesn’t exist around here. But I bought land because I saw potential for making great wines here. It’s exciting to be part of this wine region.”
Growing grapes in the Finger Lakes isn’t something new. Established in 1860, The Pleasant Valley Wine Company is the Finger Lakes’ oldest winery and the first bonded winery in the United States. Founded in 1962, Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars is the Finger Lakes’ and New York’s most award-winning winery.
While Riesling is the Finger Lakes’ flagship grape varietal, the area is one of the most viticulturally diverse in the world. Varietals include native grapes (like Concord, Niagara, Delaware and Catawba), hybrids (like Cayuga, Chancellor, Baco Noir and Traminette) and viniferas (such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir).
What’s the best wine? There’s a simple answer. The one you like best. Visiting a winery and tasting what it produces is a fun way to help you find an answer. The Finger Lakes region offers impressive diversity: sweet and dry wines; red, white and rosé wines; still and sparkling wines; plus some fortified and distilled wines. You’ll likely find more options than you have time for tasting.
Don’t like wine? Don’t worry. In the Finger Lakes you’ll find dozens of microbreweries brewing beer, several distilleries producing spirits and even some meaderies fermenting local honey. There’s really no shortage of ways to keep your tongue entertained.
Of course, a culinary tour of the Finger Lakes isn’t limited to liquids alone. The region is bursting with tasty treasures plus talented chefs and food producers who transform local ingredients into scrumptious dishes and products including mustards, preserves, dressings, breads, candies and so much more. (A list of restaurant recommendations follows.)
While it’s rewarding to discover unique flavors the destination has to offer, even familiar ingredients can offer a new bite. For example I found that salad greens in New York have an earthier flavor than those in my home state of Georgia, something that I attribute to the difference between the black loamy soil in the former and the clay found in the latter. Strawberries were sweeter. Tomatoes tangier.
For insight into what’s in season during your visit stop by Joseph’s Wayside Market, one of the largest open-air farmers’ markets in the Finger Lakes, or Wegman’s, a Rochester, New York-based grocery chain to which most locals are devoted (and odds are you’ll quickly be won over by the place, too). Likely you’ll find a rainbow of produce, such as red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow squash, green herbs, blue berries and purple eggplant.
Whether food and beverage is the focus of your trip or just a necessary element of it, when traveling to New York’s Finger Lakes region you’re in for tasty discoveries.
Bully Hill Vineyards
8843 Greyton H. Taylor Memorial Drive
Hammondsport, NY 14840
Open for lunch and dinner, the casual restaurant at the first small estate winery on Keuka Lake showcases fresh, seasonal ingredients in innovative dishes. The signature dish is a crab cake smothered with scallions atop a Portobello mushroom. Smoked options like pulled pork and barbecued brisket are also popular. Weather permitting, dine outdoors to best enjoy the view.
111 Cedar Street
Corning, NY 14830
Located adjacent to the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, this cozy fast-casual Southwestern eatery boasts a tasty menu with options like tacos, burritos and salads.
Fox Run Vineyards Café
670 Route 14
Penn Yan NY 14527
The menu at this homey café features gourmet sandwiches, salads, soups and desserts. It’s a great option for lunch or an afternoon snack.
106 Seneca Street
Geneva, NY 14456
Consistently fabulous. At this relaxed fine-dining restaurant, trust your server to recommend wine pairings so that you can focus on whether to choose a daily special or something off the menu. You can’t go wrong, really.
Hill Top Inn Restaurant
171 Jerusalem Hill
The views from this Irish-themed family restaurant are inspiring. Opened in 1933 with the third generation now at the helm, the place boasts attentive service and a welcoming vibe. Classic American fare dominates the menu while specials such as prime rib and crab legs vary by night and season.
Joseph’s Wayside Market
201 Main St
Naples NY 14512
This family-owned open-air farmers’ market was founded in 1955. Pick up some local produce or baked goods to enjoy on a picnic; also look for culinary treasures like local jams, jellies and honey to enjoy even after you’ve returned home.
13780A West Lake Road
First opened in 1936, this casual restaurant is accessible by boat or car. The lunch menu centers on burgers, paninis, wraps and other sandwiches while the dinner menu offers salads, pasta dishes, seafood and local meats. Weather permitting, dine outside to best enjoy the view.
Market Street Brewing Company
63 West Market Street
Corning, NY 14830
Located on historic Market Street in downtown Corning, this brewpub offers six fresh beers brewed right on the premise alongside upscale casual fare. Don’t miss the sautéed scallops and crimini mushrooms finished with fresh rubbed sage and rich heavy cream over roasted red pepper, vegetable, ricotta ravioli. So good!
Red Newt Cellars
3675 Tichenor Road
Hector NY 14841
This creative upscale menu is defined by local, seasonal ingredients. So don’t be surprised if biting into something like the house made ravioli filled with blueberries, garlic chevre and roasted fennel in a roasted garlic cream sauce and topped with parmesan inspires you to shake the chef’s and then the farmer’s hands. Or if the guy at the table behind you can’t quit muttering to himself about how tasty the short ribs are.
Simply Red Bistro at Sheldrake Point Winery
7448 County Road #153
Ovid, NY 14521
A meal here is sure to become a favorite dining memory. Open for lunch and dinner, this bistro combines seasonal ingredients with exotic spices with wonderful results.
485 Maple Street
Big Flats, NY
Whether you stopped in to enjoy a scrumptious quiche, sandwich or wrap, be sure to save room for dessert—yes, even if you stopped in for breakfast—because the fresh pastries here are special. If you can’t choose among the cakes, scones, brownies, muffins, cookies or whatever else was whipped up that day, buy several items and take whatever you can’t immediately stuff into your mouth home to enjoy later.
169 South Main
Canandaigua, NY 14424
If you can resist these fresh-made chocolate truffles and other delicacies, then you are a stronger person than I. And yet it would be a darn shame to miss these tasty treats. Here find chocolates, candy and a selection of gourmet foods made in the Finger Lakes region, including mustards, preserves, maple syrups, pancake mixes, granola and much more.
multiple locations, including…
345 Eastern Blvd.
Canandaigua, NY 14424
The grocery store that other grocery stores aspire to be offers fresh produce, charcuterie, cheese and more plus packaged foods plus a huge deli with yummy value-priced ready-to-eat fare plus everything you need to prepare food at home. The goal at Wegman’s is to provide superior customer service and fresh products, says Perishable Manager Greg Ott, adding, “Whenever you turn a corner, we hope you find something unexpected. Going to Wegman’s is an experience.” It certainly is.
223 – 301 North Franklin Street
Watkins Glen, NY 14891
To pair with the fresh delicious craft brews made at Rooster Fish Brewing, the menu at Wildflower Café offers a range of pub classics like burgers, pizza, salads plus a mix of Cajun, Jamaican, Italian and Asian fare.
Most wineries welcome tourists during normal business hours and many host special events and celebrations, particularly during the fall harvest season. They may charge a fee for wine tasting, such as $2 or more to taste three to five wines. In addition to tastings, they may offer tours of the vineyard, winery and cellar. It’s recommended that you call ahead to verify hours, costs and other details. (For more information about what to expect when visiting a winery, read about vineyards in Sonoma, California—the experience is similar throughout the world, although of course each winery boasts unique elements.)
Bully Hill Vineyards
Chateau LaFayette Reneau
Dr. Konstantin Frank
Fox Run Vineyards
Penn Yan, NY
Glenora Wine Cellars
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard
Hunt Country Vineyards
Watkins Glen, NY
New York Wine & Culinary Center
Pleasant Valley Wine Company
Ravines Wine Cellars
Red Tail Ridge Winery
Penn Yan, NY
Sheldrake Point Winery
For details about non-culinary entertainment options, refer to the companion article: Racing, Soaring, Sipping and More in New York’s Finger Lakes District
Radisson Hotel Corning
125 Denison Parkway East
Corning, NY 14830
Two locations, Champagne House and Gulfstream House, both centrally located in downtown Hammondsport, just minutes from the public beach at Keuka Lake.
4069 Route 14 South
Geneva, NY 14456
An opulent and historic property on the shores of Seneca Lake that includes on-site restaurants and a vineyard. Accommodations are available in Belhurst Castle, Vinifera Inn and White Springs Manor.
The Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars
5435 Route 14
Dundee, NY 14837
On the shore of Seneca Lake amidst vineyards. Offers 30 guest rooms plus a two-bedroom cottage that sleeps up to six.
Holiday Inn Riverview
Two locations in the Finger Lakes area for this moderate chain. One in Elmira the other in Horseheads.
The Finger Lakes region has organized its over 100 wineries into several driving routes:
Canandaigua Wine Trail
Livingston County’s Little Finger Lakes “Wine Path”
Seneca Lake Wine Trail
To learn more about New York wines, visit Uncork New York! at www.newyorkwines.org.
Hope S. Philbrick is a freelance writer because she doesn’t think work and fun should be mutually exclusive. For more of Hope’s writing on food, wine and travel visit her blog at www.insathope.blogspot.com.