One of my favorite Finger Lakes moments took place in late November at Lakeshore Winery on Cayuga Lake. We were entertaining friends from Massachusetts, touring the wineries on a bitterly cold day. When we entered the unheated barn that serves as Lakeshore’s tasting room, we were the only visitors. The winery owner escorted us to several rocking chairs set before a massive stone hearth, fire ablaze.
We spent the better part of the afternoon warming our toes, sipping chilly wines and sampling snacks that enhanced the flavors of the wines. No limos drove in with dozens of revelers. The phone was quiet, and no one was scurrying between the cellar and the tasting bar. The vintner sat and chatted with us as if he had nothing better to do.
This, I thought, is how I want to spend time with friends.
The Ideal Versus the Real
When most people think of visiting the wineries, they think of summer or fall when the leaves are at their peak. What better time than when the wineries are hustling to bring in the harvest and you can enjoy the last few rays of sunshine before the cold sets in?
What many people encounter is far from the idyllic charm they seek. From September into November, most wineries and area restaurants are packed to the gills. Reservations for lodging are a must and prices are at their highest. When you walk in the door of almost every winery, you’re likely to encounter long lines at the tasting bar and the cash register. Autumn in the Finger Lakes means people, people, and more people.
And fruit flies. Lots of them.
But come for a visit in January and you’re more likely to meet winery staff that is only too happy to serve you. “The off season, from January into April, is the ideal time to visit,” says Ann Martini of Anthony Road Wine Company. “Our wine trail is busy with activities, and our staff can spend more quality time with customers.”
Dave Peterson of Swedish Hill Winery enjoys the winter beauty of the area. “The change of seasons is welcomed, and the vineyards are a sight to behold with fresh snow and a bit of sunshine. We get a chance to catch our breath, but the cold does get to you at the end of winter!”
Although the activity level changes after the harvest and fermentation rush, winery employees hardly sit around all winter sampling the recent vintage. Running a winery is as much about business as agriculture.
• In the vineyard, the vines lie dormant but cannot be ignored. Grapevines are pruned in the winter, and trellises are repaired. Pass by a vineyard in February and you’re likely to see the vineyard rows littered with trimmings.
• In the cellar, the vintner checks on the wines as fermentation is finished and the character of the wines begins to emerge. Depending on the type of wine being created, wines are allowed to ferment a little (for sweet wines) or a lot (for dry wines). In some cases, the vintner adds bacteria to the wines to convert tart malic acid to softer-tasting lactic acid (hence a secondary “malolactic” fermentation). Smell buttered popcorn in the cellar? It’s likely the aroma of wine undergoing malolactic fermentation.
Vintners also spend the winter months adjusting wine chemistry, blending and filtering. Some wines are bottled; others are put in barrels to age them and absorb the characteristics of oak.
• In the winery, routine activities take place, such as cleaning and upgrading, making repairs, painting, and taking inventory.
• In the back office, typical business tasks occur. “We work on a budget, plan events we’d like to hold, and review our sales from last year. We also do tax planning and place orders for our tasting room,” notes Martini.
For many winery employees, winter is the only time for a vacation.
When to Go
The busiest time for the wineries is September through November. Not only is the “people traffic” greater, but harvesting, crushing and fermenting put serious demands on winery staff. “It used to be that Columbus Day was our busiest weekend,” notes Martini, “but now it’s every weekend in the fall.”
January through March is the slowest, but even some of those weekends can get busy, especially during events. “Smaller crowds generally mean tastings at a more relaxed pace,” says Peterson. “Our tasting room staff has more opportunity to talk with visitors about the wines and the region. Owners also tend to mingle more with visitors during the off season.”
Indeed. Pull up that rocking chair and settle in. The cold will be all on the outside!
by Joy Underhill
Joy Underhill is a freelance writer who lives in Farmington. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.