Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a boutique marketing and event-planning agency. As a freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world.
A weekend in wine country is always the perfect getaway, and when you think “wine country,” you probably think Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles. What about New York? Did you know they make wine in New York? This may not come as a surprise to some people, but New York offers some great getaway options, as I recently discovered.
As a Californian, I jumped at the chance to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference that took place in Corning, New York in August. Having never been to this region of New York before, I was determined to spend a few days on my own exploring the wines of the Finger Lakes. With approximately 135 wineries around three main lakes (Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka), where does one begin? I opted to start with Seneca Lake, the second longest lake as well as the deepest (maximum depth of 600 feet) and widest of all eleven lakes in the region. Seneca Lake, with the towns of Geneva to the north and Watkins Glen to the south, is home to more than 30 wineries, making it one of the largest cohesive wine trails in North America.
Getting to Seneca Lake
To get to Seneca Lake, I flew into the Rochester Airport and rented a car. The drive takes just over an hour to get to Geneva at the top of Lake Seneca. From Geneva, I drove down the west side of Seneca and enjoyed views of the lake to my left and vineyards to my right. After a day of traveling, I went straight to New Vines B&B, my accommodation for the night. While there are hotels in Geneva, some charming B&B’s along the lake offer a more comfortable and local feel.
New Vines B&B is owned by high school sweethearts Dani and Todd Eichas. When Todd was ready to retire from a career at GM, they decided that it would be fun to do something together. They had vacationed in the Finger Lakes with their children over the years and liked the area. They bought 3.5 acres of what was previously an organic farm, and in 2007 built a house that has four bedrooms available for guests. New Vines B&B is Eichas’ home first and foremost and they welcome you like a member of their family the moment you walk in. As their guest, you can taste the wine they make from their one acre (15 rows) of grapes. After a good night’s sleep and a hearty home-cooked breakfast that included eggs and fresh baked goods, I was ready to head out for a full day of winetasting.
Exploring Seneca Lake
More than 30 wineries can be found around Seneca Lake, so there is no shortage of options when you are planning your getaway. On my recent trip, I visited five wineries on the west side in one day, and spent a second day exploring three wineries and a distillery on the east side.
The West Side of Seneca Lake
Fox Run Vineyards
Two miles north of New Vines B&B is Fox Run Vineyards, owned by Scott Osborn. Osborn grew up in Rochester, New York but headed west to work in the wine industry and spent years in Santa Barbara at Byron Winery. Upon trying a 1982 Wagner Chardonnay, his first cool climate wine from the Finger Lakes, he had an epiphany—Osborn was inspired to make cool climate Chardonnay. Seeing that there was more opportunity in the Finger Lakes, he moved back to upstate New York in 1985 when there were only 20 wineries in the area. He purchased Fox Run in 1994 and has 45 acres planted of Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Lemberger (Blaufrankish). Fox Run offers 45-minute tours of the winery every hour for $5 and a tasting costs $5 (you can do both for $8). Fox Run also has a café inside their tasting room where you can get a bite to eat.
Red Tail Ridge
Next door to Fox Run Vineyards, you’ll find Red Tail Ridge, named after the red tail hawks that fly above the winery. Winemaker and owner Nancy Irelan also moved from California to the Finger Lakes. With a PhD in Grape Genetics from the University of California at Davis, Irelan managed the research and development program for Gallo for 12 years. Her position required her to be familiar with what was happening internationally with vineyards and she would visit the Finger Lakes every few years. In 2004, as the region was beginning to gain viticultural confidence, she saw potential and bought land. Red Tail Ridge is the only LEEDS certified winery in the state of New York. In addition to Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Blaufrankish, Irelan is experimenting with other cool climate varietals such as Dornfelder and Teroldego.
Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard
Twelve miles down the road from Red Tail Ridge is Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard, considered the one of the top wineries in the world by Wine and Spirits Magazine. Wiemer came to the Finger Lakes in the 1960s from the Mosel region of Germany and was one of the first to identify that Riesling had a home in New York. Wiemer retired in 2007, but the vineyard still bears his name and current owners Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke carry on the tradition of making world-class Riesling.
Five miles south of Hermann J Wiemer is Glenora. Started in 1977, Glenora first focused on cultivating hybrid and native grapes that dominated the region at that time. Today, 30% of their production is still hybrid grapes and 10% is native grapes, but a visit to the winery, which offers amazing views of Seneca Lake, should focus on the Riesling that makes up 25% of the total production. Glenora also has a restaurant onsite where you can stop for lunch.
Fulkerson is half a mile down the road from Glenora. The Fulkerson family have been farmers in the area since 1805. The winery was started in 1989 and is run by Steve Fulkerson, an eighth generation Fulkerson. If you are an aspiring winemaker, Fulkerson also sells juice to home winemakers, along with instruction guides on how to make your own wine. In addition to wine grapes, they grow apples, cherries, blueberries, plums, strawberries and asparagus. Come for a wine tasting, pick some fruit or both.
A Night in Corning
Having traveled down the west side of Seneca Lake, I came to the bottom point at Watkins Glen. Another 30 minutes past Watkins Glen is the town of Corning, population 10,000. I made Corning my home base for the rest of my visit and found the charming, Victorian-style Rosewood B&B. Located in downtown Corning, Rosewood is within easy walking distance to the center of town, and owner Suzanne Sanders will chat with you over breakfast, sharing tips of what to see and do in the region..
After a long day of wine tasting, the perfect place to wind down and relax is at the restaurant Hand and Foot. Owners Dan and Laurie Morton converted an old Irish pub into a contemporary restaurant with exposed brick, low lighting and a communal table in the center of the room. The menu offers an eclectic multi-cultural menu ranging from Cuban sandwiches to fried rice. And if you have not done enough drinking in wine country, check out their drinks menu that features 120 wines, 120 beers and more than 100 whiskeys.
The East Side of Lake Seneca
On my second day of exploring Seneca Lake, I drove north from Corning along the east side of the lake with the intent to work my way back down south by the end of the day.
Located on the east side of Seneca Lake opposite Fox Run on the west, Wagner Vineyards is run by fifth generation family member Bill Wagner whose great grandfather started growing grapes in the early 1900s. The Wagner family was a leader in getting the New York Farm Winery Act of 1976 passed. This Act allowed farmers and growers to open wineries, and the Wagners produced their first vintage in 1978. Winemaker Ann Raffetto came to Wagner from UC Davis in 1981 and has been with the winery for more than 30 years. While Wagner produces native and hybrid grapes, they have focused the last 10-15 years on vinifera grapes, with 60 acres of Riesling planted. Wagner opened a brewery in 1997 so you can taste wine or beer on a visit to the tasting room.
Less than five miles south of Wagner is Hazlitt Winery, most known for their sweet Red Cat wine made from the Cataba grape. Enter the tasting room and you will be met with the smell of buttered popcorn and a party crowd enjoying their Red Cat. Beyond the Red Cat experience, be sure to ask for the Riesling and other vinifera wines made by winemaker Michael Reidy. Reidy is a graduate of Cornell’s Enology School and has been head winemaker since 2010.
Just one mile south of Hazlitt, Red Newt started in 1999. Owner Dave Whiting began converting the winery into a Riesling house in 2008. Kelby Russel is the head winemaker. In addition to making Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris for Red Newt, the 27-year-old Russel makes a delicious dry rose of Cabernet Franc under his own name, which can also be sampled in the tasting room. Red Newt’s large open tasting room also houses a bistro that serves casual, local, delicious food, such as grilled cheese sandwiches and salads.
Finger Lakes Distilling
If you’re looking for something other than wine, travel a short distance farther south of Red Newt to Finger Lakes Distilling, the first distillery to open in the Finger Lakes and the second distillery in the state of New York. Today, there are approximately a dozen distilleries in the Finger Lakes and 78 in the entire state. Owner Brian McKenzie grew up in Elmira, New York, studying in Ithaca before pursuing a career in banking. McKenzie’s passion for spirits led him to leave banking and start a distillery seven years ago. Finger Lakes Distilling is a farm distillery, sourcing products from local New York farms and handling every aspect of the process. They have a hammer mill on site and purchase dry whole grain directly from farms. In addition to the whole grain, they process corn from a farm that is just two miles away. They also work with local grapes for some of their products. The tasting room offers samples of the bourbon, rye, whiskey and two styles of gin--McKenzie, a dry gin with citrus notes and Seneca Drums with notes of cucumber, coriander, cardamom, dill and citrus peel.
Other things to do:
After all the wine tasting, a hike offers a chance to work it all off. Head to Watkins Glen where you can wander the paths, over and under waterfalls. Or spend an afternoon, or a full day, at the Corning Museum of Glass. The museum covers 11 acres, features five themed galleries and averages more than 40,000 visitors each year. The newest wing which features modern glass art is one-of-a-kind with more than 900 skylights that help the room change with the time of day and with the season. The Corning Museum of Glass is also home to the largest museum gift shop in the world.
The Finger Lakes are located between three airports - Rochester Airport to the northwest, Syracuse Airport to the northeast and the Corning Elmira Airport to the south. A rental car will be required to get around to the wineries but it is possible to hire a driver for a day if you prefer not to drive.
Where to Stay:
New Vines B&B - 1138 Travis Rd, Penn Yan, NY 14527, (315) 536-4087
Rosewood B&B - 134 E 1st St, Corning, NY 14830, (607) 962-3253
Where to eat:
West Side of Seneca:
Fox Run Vineyards and Cafe, 670 NY-14, Penn Yan, NY 14527, (800) 636-9786
FLX Weinery, 5090 NY-14, Dundee, NY 14837, (607) 243-7100
Verasions Restaurant at Glenora Winery, 5435 NY-14, Dundee, NY 14837, (800) 243-5513
East Side of Seneca:
Red Newt Bistro, 3675 Tichenor Rd, Hector, NY 14841, (607) 546-4100
Hand and Foot, 69 W Market St, Corning, NY 14830, (607) 973-2547