A Wine and Beer Road Trip to Rochester

Time to grab a friend or five and head out into the collective backyard called the Finger Lakes region to celebrate summer with a Saturday romp. If those friends enjoy discussing the merits of fine wines or handcrafted brews, only 13 miles separate their taste buds from a sample of world-class fermentation and a sample of masterful brewing.

So, call the shotgun spot and cajole someone to be the designated driver by promising his sacrifice will be rewarded with a free meal at the end of the day.

Casa Larga in Fairport
The swirl, sniff and sip portion of the day begins at Fairport’s Casa Larga Vineyards east of Rochester on Turk Hill Road, a short drive off of either Routes 96 or 31. Crafting fine New York wines started in 1974, and Saturday tours begin at 1 p.m.

A villa distinctly Italian, befitting founder Andrew Colaruotolo’s immigrant roots in Gaeta, Italy, greets you. It belies the fact Colaruotolo’s passion for winemaking began as a humble hobby. His skills at producing wines, akin to those of his family’s back in Italy, have garnered Casa Larga – named for his grandparents’ vineyard – more than 600 awards in major competitions over the past 35 years.

Our trip in February was appropriate to the latest award Casa Larga had received. As we watched workers tending snow-covered vines, the company’s Marketing Director Stacy Kurtz told us that their 2005 Fiori Vidal Ice Wine had received the “Best Dessert Wine” trophy at the 2008 International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. As in “the world’s best.”

Ice wine is made from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The labor-intensive process requires handpicking at just the right time to ensure that the grapes are wholly frozen. The result is a uniquely sweet wine that is comparatively more expensive since fewer grapes are grown for ice-wine making.

Ice wine is only one of about 20 red and white wines, plus champagne, that the winery makes. The range of sweet to dry flavors will please almost everyone’s palate in the tasting room. It is almost as much fun having the words Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon roll off your tongue as it is to have the wines roll around your tongue.

A “standard tasting” of five pre-selected non-ice wines costs just $4, and comes with the ability to also quench your thirst for knowledge. A taste of Fiori Vidal Ice Wine or Fiori Cab Franc Ice Wine will set you back $5 and $10, respectively.

Take in the Mediterranean décor and views from the back deck, where you’ll find vines that gently slope both to the east and west horizons to please the eye and bring a smile.

The vineyard hosts many events throughout the year to tempt you to return. For a chuckle, ask about the annual Purple Foot Festival Grape Stomping scheduled for September 20 this year.

Rohrbach Brewing Company in the heart of Rochester
Enough of the grape, it’s time to head a hops, skip and a sip away to the Rohrbach Brewing Company for the grain portion of the libation education. Pull in behind 97 Railroad Street in the center of Rochester’s Public Market between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays to tour the 12,000-square-foot brewery and tasting room.

Owner John Urlaub has been a microbrewer and restaurateur since 1991, and now produces about 2,500 barrels of handcrafted ales and lagers that are sold or served in about 100 area bars, taverns and retail stores. Rohrbach’s, named for the city in Germany in which Urlaub spent two years as a Kodak employee, won the Democrat & Chronicle’s “Rochester’s Choice Awards” for best local beer, 2004 through 2007.

“The backbone of beer” is grain, said apprentice brewer Kyle Dean, adding that most craft beer in the U.S. is made by simply combining barley, hops, yeast and water. Dean and his fellow brewer Mike Stahlbrodt both said their love of brewing started as a home brewing hobby.

Barley is the main ingredient and is malted, or soaked in water, to just reach the point where it starts to germinate. It is then kilned, or dried at varying times and temperatures, to produce the type of malt desired. Dean pulled handfuls of three different colored malts they use, describing how the combinations result in higher alcohol content, flavors and coloring once hops is added to the many formulas. The yeast, he said, gives beer its “fizziness and dizziness” factors.

It took Dean roughly 20 minutes to translate beer terminology such as mash, wort, bottom-fermenting yeast, specific gravity, crashing, bright beer tank, long molecules, growlers, and more into laymen’s terms so that we could understand what takes place in the two to four weeks needed to make beer.

What obviously separates a brewery tour from a TV documentary of a brewery tour is that all your senses come into play. You get to see and touch the huge stainless tanks, inhale the earthy smell of the products that go into beer, and listen to someone like Dean, whose eyes light up with enthusiasm as he brushes the grain and yeast dust off his clothes.

The best part is when you belly up to the tasting table and your sense of taste comes into play.

Like its venerable cousin, wine, beer comes in a full spectrum of flavors limited only by the skill and imagination of the intrepid brew master. Samples of Blueberry Ale, Highlander Lager and Sam Patch Porter were offered up, enjoyably attesting to Rohrbach’s diversity.

Good Luck restaurant in the Neighborhood of the Arts
With a wee taste each of the grape and grain, it is now time to buy the driver that promised meal. We head to Dan Martello’s restaurant, Good Luck, at 50 Anderson Avenue in Rochester, just off North Goodman in the former Fabrics & Findings building.

Plan your arrival for 5 p.m. when the restaurant doors open, or come late – after 11 p.m. – when the menu switches to amazing bar food, served until 2 a.m. There are plenty of stools at the bar, but a table in the dining area, where windows galore let in the light and sights of the city, is the best place for breaking bread.

Martello calls Good Luck’s serving style “rustic.” People share dishes from his menu as would a family at home.

“The whole concept is designed to make dining more social and fun,” Martello said. “When people come in, instead of getting individual appetizers and entrees, everybody is sharing an appetizer, everybody is sharing the entrees. Instead of tasting one or two things, you taste four or five.”

One example of making the sharing real is the variety of 10-inch, cast-iron pan-sized burgers cut into quarters. Just make sure that your party includes the proper number of well-done and rare folks.

If you want to continue with wine, about 40 different wines are offered by the glass. Many micro-brews are available, as well as classic cocktails like Tom Collins and Cosmopolitan. Originals like Knock on Wood and the William Tell are a specialty of the house.

There isn’t a signature dish to speak of, Martello said, because he’d rather “mix it up” to keep the menu fresh for both his customers and cooks. Locally grown ingredients are used as much as possible. When the harvest bounty is best and most diverse, Martello can change his menu every six to eight weeks.

“Good Luck is more about people having an experience every time they come in,” he said. “You can go someplace because you like their clam sauce, and it’s good every time, but I like to go into other areas.”

If your budget allows, Martello has a Chef’s Table you can reserve for up to 16 diners. Special attention includes wine or beer pairings with the courses.

All in all with great atmosphere, amazing rustic food, and a wine and cocktail menu to die for, Good Luck gets my vote for one of Rochester’s top restaurants.

In between these wine, beer and food destinations, you may find other diversions to add to the day, or save for another day. As John Steinbeck said, “People don’t take trips – trips take people.”


by Chef Eric Smith and D.J. Smith
Freelance writer D.J. Smith recently returned to the Finger Lakes after spending two years in Arkansas where he was a reporter for the North Little Rock Times. He was also cofounder, chief reporter and editor of the online-only news source, Dogtownwire. Chef Eric K. Smith is currently with the New York Wine & Culinary Center.