THE FINGER LAKES: Napa of the Northeast?
Like it did in California’s Napa Valley, the boom began with wine in New York’s
Finger Lakes region. What Napa pioneers like Robert Mondavi did there in the
1960s, Finger Lakes legends like Konstantin Frank, Hermann Wiemer and Bill
Wagner did here in the 1970s. They showed that grape growing and wine making
are not only agriculture and an art, but the backbone of a thriving local economy.
Especially when the scenery is as good as the wine. And no one has ever called the
Finger Lakes – or Napa, for that matter – ugly.
The Finger Lakes wine industry really began in 1976, when the state passed the
Farm Winery Act. Wineries blossomed from a handful, to dozens, to more than 100
today, growing more varieties of grapes and making better wine. Once Finger Lakes
wines started winning national and international awards, critics, consumers and
other wine countries took note. Ultimately one grape – Riesling – became the
region’s signature varietal. Last year, the 2008 Late Harvest Riesling produced by
the Finger Lakes’ Sheldrake Point Winery was named not only the Best Riesling in
America, but Best Sweet Riesling in the World at the International Riesling
Challenge in Canberra, Australia.
Napa may have Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Finger Lakes have Riesling. The region
is known today as the best Riesling growing region in the country, on a par with the
best in the world including Germany’s Mosel, the Mecca of Riesling.
But there’s more than grapes growing in the Finger Lakes these days. Everywhere
you look there are locavore restaurants, quirky B&Bs, artisanal cheeses and foodies
on the prowl.
“The wine came first, and the food is definitely following,” says Debra Whiting, co-
owner (with her winemaker husband, David) and executive chef of Red Newt Cellars
and Bistro, a force in the region’s fresh-and-local food movement who prides herself
on sourcing up to 90 percent of her meats, produce and dairy locally. “It’s
consumers who are pushing this whole locavore movement,” she adds. “They want
to know where their food is coming from. They want to know it came from 20 miles
down the road from a farm they can drive by.”
Whether driven by consumers or forward-thinking chefs like Whiting and artisanal
producers determined to make high-quality products both popular and profitable,
the local, fresh and organic food movement thrives in the Finger Lakes. A Cheese
Trail joined the wine trails two years ago, with dairies specializing in artisanal goat
and cow cheeses, kefir and gelato; one brags its cows are so pampered, they sleep on
water beds. Signs and menus promote grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and local
wine or beer on tap. A Beer and Ale Trail, featuring at least 14 microbreweries, held
its inaugural event in July. Farm markets and fruit stands are everywhere.
A new $7.5 million New York Wine and Culinary Center offers classes such as Farm
Market Saturdays, Fifty Mile Meals and CSA Mondays, where professional chefs
show you what to do with all the kale you got in the box from your Community
Supported Agriculture farm this week. The restaurant serves food from local farms
and markets; the tasting room offers hundreds of wines, beers and spirits from craft
“When people come here for a wine experience, they find it’s bigger than that now –
you can immerse yourself in the whole agricultural experience,” says Alexa Gifford,
executive director of the NYWCC in Canandaigua. “The Finger Lakes, it’s not just for
wine touring anymore. It’s become the ultimate destination.”
Like Napa, California?
“Better than Napa. We’ve got all this, plus these gorgeous lakes, too.”
Here’s a sample of the variety you’ll find along the scenic two-lane byways that
wend their way up, down and around the Finger Lakes.
MEAD and BEE VODKA
Montezuma Winery and Hidden Marsh Distillery, 2981 U.S. Route 20
Seneca Falls, N.Y. (315) 568-8190 www.montezumawinery.com Hours: 9 a.m. to 6
For George Martin, it’s always been about the bees. He once owned 2,000 hives and
trucked them from South Carolina to Maine, fertilizing crops and producing more
than 100 tons of honey a year. When raw honey prices plummeted, he and his family
started turning honey into wine. Martin’s Honey Farm and Meadery opened in
Sterling, N.Y., home to the annual Renaissance Festival. Martin changed the name to
Montezuma Winery (after the nearby national wildlife refuge) when he moved to
the Cayuga Lake wine trail. “If I’d hung a meadery sign out here, people’d drive by
me like a used clothing store,” he says. Now he’s got company: Earle Estates
Meadery makes award-winning honey, grape and fruit wines on Seneca Lake.
Martin says mead is “the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage,” dating back to the
Pharaohs of Egypt, maybe beyond. “A caveman probably got drunk on mead when a
bee hive tree fell over, filled with rain, and fermented.”
Mead can be sweet, semi-sweet or sparkling, and sells for $12 to $14 a bottle here.
More and more restaurants are pairing it with food. The Wine Spectator’s Dr.
Vinifera recently recommended serving it with strong cheeses, hearty stews and
Ethiopian traditional spicy vegetable and meat dishes. Bill Martin, George’s son and
winemaker, recently added Bee Vodka ($30 a half-bottle), to Montezuma’s list of
meads, brandies, and grape and fruit wines. George pours a sample of Bee Vodka,
permits a taste, then offers to “kick it up a notch” by adding Cranberry Bog ($13)
wine. He points at the glass and says “Bam!” It’s a potentially lethal concoction, the
semi-sweet, fragrant wine masking the vodka’s potency. But there’s a sting in there.
Sheldrake Point Winery & Simply Red Bistro, 7448 County Road 153, Ovid, N.Y.
(607) 532-9401 www.sheldrakepoint.com Tasting Room Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
April-October, 11-5 November-March. Bistro Hours: lunch, 11-4 daily; dinner, 5-9
Monday, with music.
If Riesling is the gem of the Finger Lakes, ice wine is the region’s flawless diamond,
the most perfect expression of the essence of the grape. Every year, Finger Lakes
winemakers produce some of the finest Riesling in the world. But only in years
where everything goes right, where weather, fruit and harvest signal this is a
singular vintage, do the best producers attempt to make ice wine.
“It starts with a year that is producing very dramatic wines with terrific
personalities,” says Bob Medill of Sheldrake Point Winery, known for its world-class
wines. “Then it’s a matter of capturing that, distilling it down to the level of essence,
to create a dramatic wine with a lot of intensity, a lot of acidity, a lot of fruit, that will
be a brilliant expression of the vintage.”
The best fruit from select vines is hand-tended, protected, and allowed to hang on
the vines deep into winter. The grapes freeze. Ice crystals imprison water inside
each grape, concentrating the fruit. The grapes are handpicked and crushed frozen,
trapping the ice in the skins. A thick juice runs off, is cool-fermented with special
yeasts, and the wine is bottled in small quantities. It can sell for $50 a half-bottle.
Top critics have rated Sheldrake ice wines 90 points and higher.
Lively Run Goat Dairy, 8978 County Road 142, Interlaken, N.Y. (607) 532-4647
www.livelyrun.com or www.fingerlakeswinecountry.com/cheesetrail.aspx
Lively Run Goat Dairy is a working family-owned farm where you are likely to be
served creamy samples of tart goat cheese on crackers scooped from a box by the
owner herself, Susanne Messner, who comes out of the processing shed in pink
rubber boots, a long white apron and a hair net. Messner, whose German roots ring
in her voice, runs Lively Run with her husband, Peter, an engineer, and their two
sons, Peter the cheese maker and David the machine fixer and woodworker, among
The tasting room is rustic and small and hot on a hot day, smelling of goats and
other farm odors. But the cheese is delicious and displayed behind glass in a deli
cooler – seven varieties of chevre ($15.20 a pound), a feta ($12) and Cayuga blue
($20). That is, when it’s not being carted to farmer’s markets or shipped to
restaurants, food co-ops and Wegmans groceries in several states or sold at ritzy
cheese shops like Murrays on Bleeker in the Village and Saxelby’s at the Essex Street
Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“They like the blue cheeses down there, Seneca blue and Cayuga. Blue cheese is a
rarity for goat’s milk; it’s harder to make because there’s less fat than in cow’s milk,”
Messner says. “You’ve got to do some things. You’ve got to do the magic.”
Wagner Vineyards and Wagner Valley Brewing Co., 9322 State Route 414, Lodi, N.Y.
(866) 924-6378. www.wagnerbrewing.com Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Fridays
on the Brew Deck, 8-11 p.m. through Sept. 2, music and brews, $3 cover.
Wagner Vineyards is one of the oldest and most popular vineyards in the Finger
Lakes. Its award-winning wines, Ginny Lee restaurant, and broad decks overlooking
vineyards sloping to the silver mirror of Seneca Lake have made it a huge draw since
1979. Wagner’s reputation and popularity grew exponentially when it opened
Wagner Brewing and added a craft-brew tasting room in 1997, making it the ideal
place for beer and wine lovers to come together. Like most farm businesses, Wagner
is a family operation, with the late Bill Wagner’s grandson, Frank Lee, in charge of
winery and brewery operations and Frank’s sister, Ginny Lee, now running the
restaurant her grandfather named for her.
Most days the pub has eight brews on tap, ranging from the light Pilsner style Mill
Street to the dark, rich Sled Dog Doppelbock. You can try them all for a $2 fee.
Summer Sail Hefeweizen, unfiltered and cloudy with hints of banana and clove, is
refreshing on a hot day; another seasonal, Sugar House Maple Porter, is sweet with
malt and real maple syrup. Homemade root beer, also on tap, is sweet and spicy and
made from Bill Wagner’s family recipe. But the Tripplebock Reserve, which takes 10
months to achieve its mega-malt sweetness and heady caramel and molasses notes,
is the star of the bar. It won gold medals at the World Beer Cup (2004) and Great
American Beer Festival (2003). Spring for the extra 50 cents to try the Tripplebock,
or regret it all the way home. Wagner sells its brews in growlers, jugs and cold six
packs ($10); the Tripplebock comes in a 750 ml. bottle ($15).
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, 3962 State Route 14, Dundee, N.Y. (800) 371-7971 or
(607) 243-7971. http://wiemer.com Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11-
The Finger Lakes region and the Riesling grape are ideally matched. The hillside
shale soils and lakeside microclimates combine to produce fruit with both crisp
acidity and a fully ripened sweetness, while the tough, winter-hardy Riesling vines
survive brutal Northeast winters better than most. Variations in soil structure,
microclimate and fruit from vineyard to vineyard produce grapes that can be
molded into a range of taste profiles, from steely dry to sweet dessert wines.
Hermann J. Wiemer built an international reputation on his award-winning
Rieslings. Now that Wiemer’s longtime winemaker, Fred Merwarth, has taken over
the winery in partnership with Oskar Bynke, a new generation is carrying on the
tradition of making benchmark-quality wines: Last year, Wiemer Rieslings grabbed
seven of the top 10 Riesling categories in the annual Wine&Spirits tasting, each wine
scoring 90 or above, an almost unheard of showing for a single winery. Merwarth’s
knowledge of the personality of grapes from each block of vines, combined with his
patience and obsessive tasting of wine from different blocks as it develops over a
long, slow, cool fermentation, enables him to produce both strikingly individualistic
single-vineyard wines and exquisitely balanced blends.
“It makes it a lot of fun in the winery, trying to put together the reserve and dry
Riesling out of all these individual pickings,” Merwarth says. “It’s like a painter’s
palate, if you will, of all these different flavors and textures.”
Finger Lakes Distilling, 4676 State Route 414, Burdett, N.Y. (607) 546-5510.
www.fingerlakesdistilling.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The McKenzie boys – Elmira, N.Y. native and former banker Brian and Alabama-born
Thomas Earl, a winemaker, brewer and distiller – met at a craft distiller’s conference
in Kentucky in 2007 and decided to set up a still on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake.
It’s the only stand-alone distillery in the region. They make corn whiskey here,
among other things, but this is no glorified moonshine shack. Finger Lakes Distilling
is a craft distillery with a one-of-a-kind still from Germany housed in a handsome,
wood and white stucco building modeled on old Scottish distilleries Brian visited
with his wife, Jenny.
“Watch yer step,” Thomas says, leading a visitor past a tilted white plastic bucket
slowly filling with dark red juice pressed from raspberries macerated in alcohol.
They make fruit brandies and liqueurs here, too, along with vodkas, gin and grappas.
All fruit, like grain for the whiskies (corn, rye and malted barley) comes from local
farms. “Now,” Thomas says, stopping before a 200-gallon steel tank of fermenting,
bubbling corn mash, “get yer face right down in there and take a whiffa that.” It
smells malty, rich and sweet like corn, which Thomas pronounces “co-worn.”
Cooked in the still, all copper bulges and stainless steel columns with levers and
valves and glass portholes to peek in on the process, it comes out a clear liquor
called “white dog.” Bourbon and rye pick up their color and character from the
charred oak casks and local chardonnay or sherry barrels they age and finish in.
Upstairs in the airy, high-ceilinged tasting room, you can try some white dog, along
with two other spirits, for $2. McKenzie Bourbon is rich and sweet, the rye is smooth
and spicy; you can take a bottle home for $45 and $39, respectively. A real surprise
is the Seneca Drums Gin ($29), so smooth and aromatic with herbs and spices –
coriander, hyssop and angelica root among them, along with the expected juniper –
it’s pleasant to sip straight. “It makes a nice gin and tonic, too,” Brian says. The citrus
aromas make a lime almost redundant. “Yeah,” Thomas drawls, “we hear that a lot.”
New York Wine and Culinary Center, 800 South Main St., Canandaigua, N.Y. (585)
394-7070 firstname.lastname@example.org Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, center and tasting room
(11:30 to 9 on Sunday, tasting room only). Restaurant: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
through Oct. 10; limited hours Oct. 11-May 26. Reservations suggested.
The New York Wine and Culinary Center, at the northern tip of Canandaigua Lake, is
a one-stop shop for New York food and drink. The tasting room stocks 200 wines,
craft beers and distilled spirits from all over the state. The restaurant’s menu
features produce, meat and cheese grown or made in New York. The not-for-profit
center opened in 2006, built with public and private money by four founding
partners: Rochester Institute of Technology, the New York Wine & Grape
Foundation, Constellation Brands and Wegmans.
“Our entire mission is based on education,” says Executive Director Alexa Gifford.
The goal is to educate consumers on New York’s rich agricultural and culinary
bounty, without boring them to death. It’s all in the delivery. At classes and lectures
here, attendees eat, drink, cook, socialize and take home recipes, not homework. You
take notes with your senses in the tasting room and restaurant, where the menu
changes seasonally and the wait staff can tell you not only how the food is prepared,
but where it comes from, who made the wine, and what the cows ate.
Chrys Baldwin, the center’s education director, says the center is building on work
done for decades by organizations like the Wine and Grape Foundation, Pride of
New York and the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance (which dates to 1919) and, more
recently, Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, a network of local restaurateurs, producers,
tourist groups and consumers headed by Red Newt’s Debra Whiting.
“These farms have been here a long time, the wineries have been making wine a
long time, the dairies have been making cheese,” says Baldwin, who grew up in the
country in nearby Williamson, where people always ate local. What’s new is the
integration, organization, and the reach of the local agri-tourism and culinary
economy, and the growing attention it’s getting from consumers and others.
Kind of like Napa, not too long ago.