Not Your Average Wine Tastings

A wine tasting is the quest for perfection in an imperfect world. A lifetime’s experience and a season’s work are set before you in one glass, with everything riding on the first sip. No wonder vintners and wineries go to such great lengths to make it a memorable experience. Regular readers will remember the incredible meals I was served at the Glenora, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and Red Newt wineries – all to brilliantly showcase their wines. But how do wineries without restaurants show off their wares? I’ll show you how incredibly creative wine tastings are in the Finger Lakes.

Tasting outside the Finger Lakes region
First, let me explain that I’ve toured wineries and sat in on tastings in most of the major wine-producing regions of the world. While all are basically the same, every vintner has a way of making his or her own wine stand out. In the Catalonia region of Spain, I once toured a vineyard with an armed escort. While the grower explained the cultivation and pruning of the vines, our guard kept a lookout for the wild boars that had been marauding their crop. Imagine the pesky whitetail deer population around here being so aggressively life-threatening that it isn’t safe to be in the vineyard without a gun!

The wine tasting in Catalonia was held outdoors at a huge trestle table set under a blooming wisteria vine in one of the most naturally beautiful settings I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. It is a shame that the best I could say about the wine was that I liked its color. Since then, a friend on Cayuga Lake who makes a point of saying he doesn’t own a winery, he just has a few acres down in vines so he can make wine for personal consumption, told me how to handle such a delicate situation. He said his neighbors, who are all big-name vintners, taught him that one can always say something nice about a wine. In his case it was that his wine “poured nicely.” Well, in Catalonia, it poured nicely and had a nice color, too.

Nearby, in the Rioja region, it was again the setting that took precedence over the wine, but in this case the wine was fantastic. Still, when you bring in a world-class architect like Frank Gehry to design your bodega (that’s what they call wineries in Spain), it has to top everything else – and it did!

On the island of Madeira in Portugal, the vines are grown upright and allowed to spread overhead, so the vineyard looks like a blanket of grape leaves laid on the terraced hillside. The reasoning there is that when the leaves drop, the land below can be cultivated for potatoes and then cold crops, thoroughly using the island’s limited farmland. I could discern no benefit to the wine’s taste, but the farmer’s lot was definitely improved with the double and triple crops he could grow on one plot.

In Chile, the wineries don’t have formal tastings yet. They’ll just open a bottle for you if you show up, so occasionally the hotels and restaurants will organize them over meals, featuring the local wines with their food. You can bet that when Chile’s new wine market matures there will be bus tours and more, just like here in the Finger Lakes. Until then, you are pretty much on your own.

Lastly, they are growing grapes like crazy in China. Look for it to become the leading producer of wine in the world, underpricing other markets with low-cost vintages. Until then, my favorite tasting there was of a 25-year-old Portuguese port. Because of the age, instead of attempting to remove a crumbling cork, special tongs were heated to glowing and clamped around the bottle’s neck. Once the glass was scored by the hot metal, the top was broken off cleanly, avoiding any contamination by the aged cork. This impressive production took place in the wine museum of the former Portuguese colony of Macau, just off the Chinese mainland. Macau is amazing, and the quarter-century-old port was a tawny and delicious treat. Where better to enjoy a perfect vintage than a museum celebrating the history of wine? Funny you should ask that.

Finger Lakes wineries have some fun
In this country, specifically here in the Finger Lakes, the ways to taste wine are varied and limited only by the imagination of the winery. Judging from the offerings I’ve seen, our wineries are very creative! I suppose the smartest thing we have is the different limo or bus tours available. The coach driver serves as the designated driver, a serious consideration in this day and age, and the passengers can taste with abandon, driven from winery to winery in luxurious comfort. What a way to hit the wine trails!

It seems as if each lake has an organized wine trail with a Web page to promote the many planned events. Theme wine tastings happen year-round. During cold weather, tropics weekends are a perfect cure for the winter blues. Murder mystery tours are popular, too, along with progressive dinner tours. Each involves different types of food and fun, and the more people in your party, the merrier it will be.

As the season progresses, on Seneca Lake there are herb and wine festivals, cheese and wine festivals, even pasta and wine pairings. Name a food and there is a wine tasting or tour planned around it. (If not yet, then soon!) Summer events include a beach party and even a birthday party at Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards.

Around Keuka Lake things are jumpin’ in the summer time. Among other things, eight wineries will be offering their best BBQ foods and recipes paired with a selection of great wines and local BBQ sauces. All told, there are 10 scheduled events ranging in price from $20 to $35. Besides the great food and wine (and fun!), each participant will receive a beautiful Keuka Lake Wine Trail wine glass with ticket purchase.

Along with variations on many of the above offerings, the Cayuga Lake wineries have events as diverse as a summer carnival, a celebration of all things Swedish, chocolate weekends, and many musical events from bluegrass and folk to classical. There’s no end to the many ways we can enjoy wine and wine tasting events in the Finger Lakes region.

The big event
The highlight of this and every summer is the Finger Lakes Wine Festival in Watkins Glen. The Corning Museum of Glass sponsors the largest showcase of New York State wines, with over 75 wineries represented from throughout the region. If you only have one weekend to spend in the Finger Lakes this summer, July 20 through 22 is the time to be here. You’ll have the widest selection of wines to taste in one place in all of New York, plus cooking demonstrations, arts and crafts vendors, and plenty of live entertainment. This is an event not to be missed.

Of all the wine tastings I’ve attended, and of all the events scheduled in the Finger Lakes for the summer of 2007, I saved the best for last. While you are in Watkins Glen for the Wine Festival, why not treat yourself to my favorite wine tasting aboard Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards’ Malabar X racing schooner? You’ll find your sea legs while treading the mahogany decks of this 1930 and 1932 Bermuda Cup winner.

There’s nothing grander than a leisurely summer sail on Seneca Lake, and the Hazlitt wines, passed with cheese, complement the day and the setting perfectly. Last summer, I pretended to be the captain on this historic schooner, while the real captain and crew attended to their passengers. The cares of the day peeled away as I kept the sails filled with wind and the crew kept my glass filled with good wine. We had a three-hour sail up the east shore and down the west, with natural features like Hector Falls and industries like the salt mines pointed out along the way. History, hospitality and a relaxing afternoon on the deep waters of Seneca Lake. What could be better than that? I’m looking forward to another cruise this year, and another good glass of Red Cat.

Where to begin

by Richard Frisbie
Richard Frisbie is a bookseller and publisher in the Hudson Valley who writes culinary travel articles.

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