Napa and Sonoma are two regions that immediately come to mind when thinking about wine country. But they’re not the only regions in the U.S. that produce good wine. Tucked away in upstate New York there is an unpretentious collection of wineries that dot the Finger Lakes; most of which lie on the three major lakes of Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga. Every year I take my annual girls’ getaway to Finger Lakes Wine Country to sample the wines and discover the other gems this area has to offer.
An 8-hour drive from Columbus
We began our trip on a Wednesday from Columbus, Ohio; with a stop in Cleveland to pick up a girlfriend. After a lunch stop at a gorgeous rest area on Lake Chautauqua, we continued our journey, passing through Hammondsport, NY; a quaint little town at the southernmost tip of Keuka Lake. Our final destination would be Watkins Glen, but we had wineries to visit first!
Keuka Lake (west side) wineries
Most of the wineries in the Finger Lakes close at 5:00, so we had a couple hours left in the day to hit two wineries on Keuka Lake.
Dr. Frank’s Vinifera. Wines were a little pricey here, but tastings were free. I highly recommend the Riesling and Pinot Noir.
Bully Hill Vineyards. This is one of my favorite wineries. I like to call it the party winery of the Finger Lakes, mainly because of the lively atmosphere. The wine pourers also like to put on a show with fun stories and jokes. Stay away from this winery on the weekends because they pack the people in. They choose the wines you get to taste (free tastings), but you can try others for a small fee in a separate room. Save time to check out the gift shops here.
Time to head for Watkins Glen and our favorite place to stay, the Madison Guest House. We’ll be back to Keuka Lake on Saturday.
Madison House – Watkins Glen’s best kept secret
We discovered this place in 2004 and have been staying there every year since. I’m not a fan of bed & breakfasts because I don’t like staying with strangers; and motels are just too small. This is a house that’s been renovated into 2 sides – a 2-bedroom (1 bath) and a 3-bedroom (2 baths). Both sides have kitchen, eating area, living room, and porch. It is within walking distance to downtown Watkins Glen, and a stone’s throw from Watkins Glen State Park. You will get a workout climbing those stairs!
Watkins Glen State Park
Located in downtown Watkins Glen, the state park offers a beautiful hike through waterfalls and gorges. We typically get up at the crack of dawn for the 1-hour hike before heading to the wineries. Lots of photo opps here. Caution: You will get wet, so dress accordingly. The trail ends near an old cemetery. Definitely a must-do while you’re here. But don’t listen to me; see what others are saying.
Seneca & Cayuga Wine Trails
We spent each of the three days on each of the three wine trails — Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka. Heading up the east side of Seneca Lake, it was a scenic drive on the way to the wineries. Here are a few of our favorites:
Seneca Lake – east side
Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards. This is the “Cheers” bar-like winery of the Finger Lakes. Walk in, belly up to the wine tasting bar, and ask the friendly wine pourers for a taste of Red Cat, its specialty; dubbed “the official hot tub wine.” Popcorn is served to cleanse your palate in between wines.
Rasta Ranch. You come here for the experience, not the wine. We love this place though! A throwback to the ’60s and ’70s, IMHO Rasta Ranch is a head shop that sells wine; not a winery with a “head shop” atmosphere. They don’t take their wines seriously and neither should you.
Cayuga Lake – west side
Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery. Love the big red barn! Cayuga Ridge specializes in cranberry wine and I always like the Cranberry Frost sparkling wine. This is the midpoint in our day, and we like to eat our lunch on the picnic table under the tree in front.
Knapp Winery. As we entered the grounds, we were greeted by squawking geese and ducks. Knapp’s Vineyard Restaurant offers monthly wine dinner events. The 2009 Lemberger was definitely my favorite wine here.
In a previous post, I mentioned how I met Gene Pierce, owner of Glenora and Knapp wineries. He had invited us on a sailboat ride around Seneca Lake with him and his staff.
We met Gene and the boat on the pier in downtown Watkins Glen for a 2-hour boat ride around the lake. The weather was perfect, with overcast skies shielding us from the sun and a gentle breeze powering the sailboat.
We drank wine and chatted with Gene about his wineries. Gene is very down-to-earth and unassuming; he joined us for lunch at Glenora, and even posed for an O-H-I-O photo!
Heading up north on Seneca side
Belhurst. Our next stop was “the castle.” As the northernmost winery on the west side of Seneca Lake, it is well worth the drive just to see this impressive place. We arrived in time to witness the end of a wedding taking place on the grounds.
Glenora. What can I say — we sailed, drank wine, and hung out with the owner! As Seneca Lake’s first winery, Glenora boasts a 30-room Inn and the Veraisons Restaurant. The view is spectacular and its award-winning wines are reasonably priced.
You can’t visit the Finger Lakes area without a trip to the Windmill, a giant Amish farm and craft market with nearly 200 shops, including a couple of local wineries. (We like to get in a couple of tastings here before hitting the wineries). Although it’s only open on Saturdays, get there early because it gets crowded. Free parking and free admission.
Keuka Lake – east side
Rooster Hill. The wines here were $4 for 5 tastings and you keep the glass. This winery chooses not to be listed on the wine trail maps because they are a small boutique winery. We were told they only cater to real wine aficionados. In other words, they don’t want the crowds of people who don’t appreciate good wine — the “wine slugs” who use wine tastings as a cheap way to get drunk.
Barrington Cellars. This winery has an especially good Baco Noir. The wine actually tastes like steak. And I suppose it would be a good wine to drink with a steak. They have an outside deck where you can sit out and take in a beautiful view of Keuka Lake.
Heading to Hammondsport
Driving down the east side of Keuka Lake, we finished up our day in Hammondsport. This was a good place to chill out and relax after all that winery-hopping. This charming town is full of gift shops, restaurants, and a couple of bars. After a walk to the beach and back, we stopped at Maloney’s Pub for a quick drink before heading back to Watkins Glen.
We left for Ohio Sunday morning with Hurricane Irene right on our tail.
A perfect road trip
The Finger Lakes region is full of things to do. You can come back here each year and find a new adventure. I look forward to next year’s trip where we’ll try some different wineries, the glass museum, or maybe check out Cornell University.
Have you visited the Finger Lakes? What are your favorite wineries there?