The long, deep, narrow lakes of the Finger Lakes wine region are the main attraction for any visitor, wine lover or not. These unusual geological features, a remnant of the last Ice Age, not only make grape growing feasible in an otherwise cool climate, but they provide an amazing natural backdrop for enjoying a good glass of wine. However, as defining as these lakes might be as a whole, they in many ways divide the region into specific areas that make quick travel difficult. Consumers cannot really explore the entire Finger Lakes on any given day, but must focus instead on one lake or another and visit a group of wineries as they go. Hence, the wine trails.
When the wine business began to expand in the 1970s after decades of dormancy, groups of wineries began to associate themselves with their immediate neighbors. Over time, a wine enthusiast could plan to visit a cluster of wineries on Keuka, Seneca or Cayuga and make a day of it. The first official wine trail was the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail founded in 1983, followed three years later by the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.
The wine trails developed as unique promotional organizations, driven by membership of the individual wineries. The three main wine trails – Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga – encompass the vast majority of the wineries located along these three lakes, although these organizations do not necessarily include all of the wineries within their area (see accompanying “Off Trail” article). There is also a small but growing trail around Canandaigua Lake, as well as the Lake Ontario Wine Trail – which includes the small number of wineries in Monroe and Wayne Counties.
The official wine trail organizations provide websites, maps and events to instill a sense of continuity and community along the lakes. A popular annual event along each trail, for example, is the holiday-themed tour, during which the wineries are decked out with Christmas decorations, and participating wine tasters receive gifts and food at each stop. The wine trails promote similar themed events throughout the year, as well as identify unique events at individual wineries (musical performances are a popular example).
What do the wine trails themselves say about wine? Not much, exactly, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. None of the wine trails presume to know what sort of palate a consumer may have or what he or she is looking for. Therefore, a wine trail is just as likely to have a member winery wholly dedicated to sweet wine made from native grapes, as it is to have a boutique winery that makes fine, dry wines exclusively from European (vinifera) grapes. No trail is dedicated specifically, or only, to one type of winery.
The inherent value of the wine trails is to serve as a broad, methodical introduction to the region. Wine lovers can run the gambit, have a little fun, and then determine for themselves what impressions they want to form about different wines and wine styles. Some people enjoy the wine trail events and may stick to them year after year, while others may begin to pick favorites among the wineries they encounter and build their own “trails.” The links found on the wine trail websites are a great way to reference websites for the individual wineries, which provide more in-depth information about each establishment.
Most importantly, the wine trails provide a reason to put those green signs along the road so that no one gets lost!
Although there are over 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes and style and quality can vary considerably, there are some general qualities of each wine trail that can be considered as a wine enthusiast decides which route to tackle first. The following impressions might serve to help guide that first important wine trip and beyond. Happy tasting!
Seneca Lake Wine Trail
Seneca Lake is the heart of Finger Lakes wine country, and in many ways the center of the lakes divides the region into points east and west. The lake itself is a long 40 miles north and south, and due to the sheer number of wineries along the shore of Seneca, this trail is really a two-day (or more) consideration. It would take anyone a long time to taste their way up and down Seneca, which is really several smaller wine areas joined into one.
At the southern tip of Seneca and Geneva (a historic community that is home to Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the Cornell-run New York Agriculture Experiment Station) is Watkins Glen – home of the famous racetrack and spectacular gorge. First-time visitors often note how rough the waves can look on Seneca – especially on the northern half of the lake – and wonder about the strange testing platform that is seen near the geographic center of the lake. Due to its extreme depth (nearly 700 feet) the U.S. Navy uses this platform to test its sonar technology.
The east side of Seneca Lake is sometimes referred to as the Banana Belt by the wineries there, in reference to some empirical evidence that the growing conditions are more favorable there than any other place in the Finger Lakes (a debatable point, but alas it makes for good marketing). No matter the hype, the east side is indeed home to some great wineries and vineyards which continue to push the envelope of quality. Wagner is one of the oldest and best-known wineries along the east side, and offers different vinifera like Riesling and Cabernet Franc. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Three Brothers, which specializes in sweet wine in a themed environment that is truly fun, especially for groups.
The west side of Seneca Lake is in many ways like the east, with wineries ranging from vinifera-based boutique wineries, to those with a little bit of everything and those with a sweet emphasis. Fulkerson is a well-known winery that has a lot of good vinifera to offer, while Torrey Ridge features sweet wines in a group-friendly atmosphere and epitomizes the upbeat tasting experience.
Cayuga Lake Wine Trail
Cayuga is the other long lake, but it simply does not have the same number of wineries as Seneca. However, with 17 wineries to choose from along the official trail, there are quite a few options available and it’s conceivable that one could visit most in a long day of tasting (spitting, dumping and a designated driver are always a must).
Much of the identity of Cayuga Lake revolves around its city at the southern end, Ithaca, home of Cornell University and a dynamic culinary and cultural scene. Many visitors to Cayuga Lake avail themselves of the opportunity to see the area’s natural beauty, including the gorges and waterfalls found in state parks like Taughannock, Buttermilk Falls and Treman (Ithaca is indeed “gorges”). Ithaca boasts a tremendous number of dining options for lunch or dinner to complement a day of tasting wine.
The concentration of wineries on Cayuga Lake is on its western shore, which shares a vast ridge that rolls over to the east shore of Seneca. One of the better-known wineries on the less-populated eastern shore of Cayuga is Long Point Winery, which has a number of vinifera offerings. One of the fun outliers along the Cayuga Lake trail is Montezuma Winery, which lies near the swamp refuge of the same name that is a national protectorate for endangered bird species. Montezuma is dedicated to sweeter wine and is fairly accessible to I-90 traffic.
Keuka Lake Wine Trail
Keuka Lake is the ancestral home of Finger Lakes wine, having been the site of a great deal of early 19th century grape growing. The tiny village of Hammondsport, located at the bottom-center tip of the Y-shaped lake, is full of wine-related history that all but vanished after Prohibition. It took the work of vinifera pioneer Dr. Konstantin Frank, in his Keuka vineyards during the 1950s and 60s, to demonstrate the long-term potential of the region.
Visitors can still visit Dr. Konstantin Frank winery to take in all of the history and taste some great dry, fine wines. Vineyard View, a new winery that just joined the trail in 2013, is an example of a “mixed” winery – one that offers both vinifera and sweeter wines made from native and hybrid grapes. These types of wineries potentially offer a bit of something for everyone.
There are not a vast number of wineries around Keuka Lake, but the scenery is amazing and the wine consistency is very good from beginning to end. The bluff area on Keuka Lake does not have any wineries, but it is a scene to behold and adds a unique backdrop for visitors driving around the lake. The advantage of Keuka is that it really can be fully experienced in a day.
Canandaigua and Lake Ontario Wine Trails
The Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail may be an afterthought for some consumers, as it can seem “out of the way” from the concentrated epicenter of wineries, but the trail has been growing in recent years and there are some very solid choices available. Anyone who is new to the Finger Lakes Region should consider stopping by the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, which offers tasting, programming, events and dining – all related to New York State wine (not just the Finger Lakes).
Heron Hill recently opened a tasting room on Canandaigua Lake, offering some of the same vinifera-based wines available in its Keuka Lake tasting room. Hazlitt (of Seneca Lake) also recently opened up a satellite tasting room in Naples dedicated to Red Cat – the winery’s best-selling proprietary Catawba (native) blend – a sweet, fun wine that features a cartoon cat. Visitors to the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail should consider Naples, a pretty little spot on the southern tip of the lake, especially during the town’s annual Grape Festival each September, an event known for its assortment of grape pies among other things.
The Lake Ontario Wine Trail is along the northern edge of the Finger Lakes Region, and lies in a beautiful area that’s home to a great deal of agriculture, especially apple growing. Wayne County, which straddles the long Ontario shore just east of Rochester, is one of the largest apple-producing areas in the entire country. However, one of the real gems of the Lake Ontario Wine Trail is Casa Larga (which is also a member of the Canandaigua Wine Trail). Located in the Rochester suburbs, Casa Larga has a local following for its variety of wines, including some nice late harvest and ice wines that have garnered critical acclaim.
Limousine and transportation companies do more than just drive you to your favorite winery or brewery. They also have the inside information on a certain kind of wine or beer, the eatery that best fits your tastes, and the accommodation that works for your budget and personality. Visit qualitywinetours.com or your favorite transportation service today to book your next adventure.
One of the best ways to start exploring the Finger Lakes wine region is to look up the wine trail websites. These sites provide maps, information on food and accommodations, event information and links to member winery websites. The wine trails sell passports that provide a discount on tasting fees, which are a good deal for visitors who want to taste wine at more than a few wineries during their trip.
by Jason Feulner