Blazing a Wine Trail

Most of the members of the wine trail are pictured here at Taughannock Falls in Trumansburg.

Imagine: It’s 30 years ago. You’re visiting the Finger Lakes for the first time during a leisurely Sunday drive. As you travel along, immersed in the beautiful landscapes, pristine lakes and fields with cows dot the horizon. In the distance, a vineyard appears, with a lonely sign indicating a winery.

“A winery?” a wife says to her husband. “Did we take a wrong turn, travel cross-country in a time machine and end up in Napa?”

He laughs. “Of course not, but we may have found a hidden gem,” a metaphor perfect for such a beautiful paradise.

You walk into the winery, which does not appear to be a winery at all, but a barn. It is gigantic, almost endless in length as in height, with ornate gothic church lights. It takes your breath away. You meet the owners, and try the wines, and the experience is so wonderful that you want more like it. The owner, Mary Plane, tells you there are only a few wineries in the area, but if you head south, you will find Lucas Vineyards.

“Tell Ruth that Mary sent you,” she says.

Back in the early ’80s, visiting a few wineries was exactly what people experienced, and as these few winery owners met together at their kitchen tables, they knew that in order to be a destination they needed to include bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants and other attractions. They are the reason a wine trail was born. They are the reason the first brochure developed. And five wineries would fill it: Plane’s (Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery), Lucas Vineyards, Americana Vineyards, Frontenac Winery and Lakeshore Winery.

Travel back to today

This year, the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail – America’s first and oldest wine trail – celebrates its 30th anniversary. The trail features 15 wineries, one cidery, one meadery and four distilleries.

“The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is celebrating three decades of bringing people and wine together,” says Ruth Lucas, one of the original owners on the trail. “Lucas Vineyards never imagined the impact the Finger Lakes would have as a world class wine region.

“We moved to the area from Long Island in 1974 to be full-time grape growers for a commercial winery,” she continues. “After our third year, the commercial winery cancelled our contract. When the Farm Winery Act passed, and a grape grower could now have a tasting room, we said, ‘Let’s give it a try, and if it doesn’t work we will have one big party.’” As we all know, it worked – today, there are over 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes alone.

And the barn with the gothic lights? Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery was originally known as Plane’s Winery, and was owned by Mary and Bob Plane. The present owners, Tom and Susie Challen, have owned the winery for 22 years.

“No one succeeds solely on their own efforts, and this is especially meaningful in the wine industry throughout the world,” says Tom, who’s spent 41 years in the industry. “For thirty years, the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail has modeled the collective efforts and resources of its members by developing an added-value agritourism. The grape industry produces quality wines while educating the public.”

At Cayuga Ridge, you can take part in what it calls the “Vigneron Program.” What is a Vigneron? A vigneron is a person who cultivates grapes for winemaking. This session offers information on the different facets of winemaking.

Mary Ann Treble, former owner of founding winery Americana Vineyards, believed the Finger Lakes offered an array of benefits to everyone. Joe Gober, the present owner, feels the same way today. “The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail has been integral in Americana Vineyards’ history from the very beginning,” he says. “We at Americana have found that the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail’s cooperative marketing, advertising and inter-winery communication, in addition to well-attended trail-wide events, have been invaluable in our growth as a business. We look forward to working with them in the future.”

One thing is for sure: Cayuga Lake is beautiful, full of numerous gorges and the tallest falls east of the Mississippi – Taughannock Falls. And its wine trail celebrates many firsts – the first wine trail and brochure, first American Viticulture area established, First German still installed in the Finger Lakes at Montezuma Winery and the first Cayuga Lake winery restaurant, Knapp Winery and Vineyard Restaurant. We are a proud people who love the land, the vineyards and the wine.

For more information about the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, or if you have any questions, please visit, e-mail or call 800-684-5217.


Other Wine Trails to Explore

Seneca Lake Wine Trail
Wineries: 32
Breweries: 6
Nearby Attraction: Watkins Glen International Racetrack
Fun Fact: Seneca Lake is the largest of the Finger Lakes and the deepest within the state, measuring a depth of 618 feet.
Phone: 877-536-2717

Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail
Wineries: 8
Breweries: 1
Nearby Attraction: New York Wine and Culinary Center
Fun Fact: Each year, on the Saturday before Labor Day, residents on the shoreline of Canandaigua Lake light a fire or flare along its edge, creating a speckled ring around the lake known as the Ring of Fire.
Phone: 585-223-4210

Keuka Lake Wine Trail
Wineries: 7
Breweries: 1
Nearby Attraction: The Esperanza Rose
Fun Fact: The Keuka Lake watershed was settled by people almost as soon as the Ice Age ended, some 9,000 years ago.
Phone: 800-440-4898

Lake Ontario Wine Trail
Wineries: 5
Breweries: 5
Nearby Attraction: George Eastman House
Fun Fact: Lake Ontario is one of the five Great Lakes, and is New York State’s newest wine trail.

by Cathy Millspaugh

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