Upstate New York's Beautiful Wine Country
Ever since I visited Corning, NY while traveling for work in 2004, I wanted to return to Western Upstate New York and spend some time in the Finger Lakes area. Back then, the wine industry was beginning to undergo a metamorphosis, with solid growth in volume produced and in the number of wineries. Something else was going on as well. While the white wines produced in the area had been widely accepted as some of the best in the country, the red varietals began to be recognized as something more than just a compliment to the whites. As our interest in wine grew these past ten years, our interest in the Finger Lakes Wine Region heightened as well.
We finally visited the area in the summer of 2013 and it did not disappoint. With great support from the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, we crammed as much exploration of the area as we could into a short four day visit. I suppose to do the area justice, it would take much longer as there are a myriad of activities and destinations, enough to satisfy every interest...from history to water sports and everything in between.
Not surprisingly, our focus was the wine. While planning the trip, our local wine mentor, Leo, told us that the New York State reds had significantly improved and that we should try to experience as many as we could while in the area. I must admit, I was extremely skeptical. My experience with red wines produced with grapes grown east of the Rocky Mountains has been, to put in kindly, disappointing. But Leo has never steered us wrong over the years, so I tried to go with an open mind. It didn’t take very long for me to begin to question that dogma about New York red wines.
King Ferry Winery
Our first stop when we arrived in the Finger Lakes area was King Ferry Winery, which produces wines under the label, Treleaven, named after the family farm upon which the winery now sits. Chris Couch spent a couple hours with us, taking us through the history of the winery and giving us a thorough indoctrination of the area wine varietals. Chris, the Operations Manager, told us that owner Pete Saltonstall inherited the family grain farm but in 1984, after a visit to California wine country, Pete discover a passion for wine-making and by 1989, the first Treleaven wines were available. From a modest 1,000 cases that year, to the current production of 10,000 cases, the winery has grown with the Finger Lakes region. The development of more diverse varietals has also contributed to the growth. Chris told us that the pinot noir grape is being successfully grown in the area which can be difficult in cooler climates. He also pointed out that the Treleaven pinot is a more subtle red than its California cousin which can sometimes be like “a punch in the face”. Chris colorfully described their pinot as being “Like the silken caress of a beautiful woman wearing a cashmere glove.”
King Ferry Winery is one of only 9 wineries along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the Finger Lakes longest body of water. Seneca Lake and the western shore of Cayuga are more densely populated with wineries and since the entire region is much more laid back than Napa Valley, the eastern shore Cayuga Lake wineries, like all the others, offer a more personal experience for the visitor. That was certainly the case for us as along with Chris, we also were able to meet owner Peter Saltonstall and get some personal history as well. When he and wife Tacie decided to convert the family farm into a wine business, they modestly started with “a card table and a cash register”. Like all the wineries in the Finger Lakes area, King Ferry has ridden the wave of growth and stands as a paragon for newer wineries. In fact, Gary Barletta, owner and winemaker at Long Point Winery, calls Saltonstall “the godfather of the eastern shore”. These entrepreneurs are good friends and all the winery operators in the area support and encourage each other. They know that as one succeeds, all the others benefit. It’s an interesting and close-knit consortium...a family of winemakers if you will. It’s not surprising to discover that the wine industry in the Finger Lakes has grown so quickly. I suspect that will continue as it appears to be in very good hands.
Click HERE to visit the King Ferry Winery website.
Dr. Konstantin Frank
The lineage of wine-making in the Finger Lakes region is a long and interesting one. Although I won’t make this a history lesson, I would like to acknowledge one man who has been credited with setting the wine industry in the Finger Lakes region on a trajectory that has led to its current successful state. In 1951, Dr. Konstantin Frank immigrated to the United States from his native Ukraine, bringing with him a love of great wine and an incredible knowledge of its production. When he arrived in the Finger Lakes area of New York, he was surprised and disappointed to find that only native grapes (vitis labrusca) were being used to make wine (along with a couple American/European hybrids). Local producers thought that the noble European varietals (vitis vinifera) were not hardy enough to handle the colder climate of upstate New York. With techniques he developed in the Ukraine to deal with the cooler temperatures there, Dr. Frank set out to prove them wrong. By the early 1960s, he began producing wine from vitis vinifera vines and before long, other vintners began to follow suit. I think it’s fair to say that whenever you taste a great wine from the Finger Lakes district, you’re experiencing the legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank. The Frank family currently produces wine in the area under several labels and has won many awards and received numerous accolades from prestigious wine critics.
The Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance was certainly challenged as they helped us develop an itinerary for this visit. After all, we were only there a few short days and there is so much to see. With their help, we did get to experience a nice cross-section of the area, albeit slanted towards wineries which should not come as big shock to regular readers of this website. Perhaps the most interesting destination on the agenda was Belhurst Castle, which includes a winery, complete event facilities and several unique accommodation options, including rooms in the original castle.
We were given a wonderful tour of the entire Belhurst Castle grounds by Assistant Lodging Manager, Quinn Hurley. Owner Duane Reeder and his family have done a magnificent job of retaining the 19th century castle feel while providing complete modern comforts in all the accommodations. Quinn told us that Mrs. Carrie Collins had the castle built in 1885 after visiting the site years earlier. The mansion, designed in Romanesque Revival style by architect Albert W. Fuller, took four years to complete. After Mrs. Collins death in 1926, the castle was inherited by her grandson, Hal Harron Jr. who lived in the home for a short time, then sold it to Cornelius "Red" J. Dwyer in 1932. Dwyer opened the Belhurst as a speakeasy and gambling casino in 1933 during prohibition. It remained a popular gambling site until 1952 when Dwyer began to operate the facility as a restaurant. In 1975, Robert and Nancy Golden purchased the property and continued to run Belhurst Castle as a restaurant. It was the Goldens who converted the second and third floors of the castle, along with an out-building, to hotel rooms while maintaining the popular restaurant. In November 1992, the Reeders purchased the property and in 2003, constructed an additional 30,000 square foot facility adjoining the castle and providing additional space for weddings and other events.
There are two restaurants on the property now, an upscale room called Edgar’s and Stonecutters, a more laid back, pub style eatery with optional outdoor seating. Both are uniquely detailed, offering wonderful ambiance and great, locally procured foods. Our tour included a peek inside a couple of the castle’s most interesting rooms including the Dwyer Suite, the former bedroom of Red Dwyer. We also saw the largest accommodation in the castle, the Bronze Room and finally, the Tower Suite which offers a gorgeous view of Seneca Lake, the castle’s only balcony and a winding staircase up to the tower. In the open area of this uppermost level of the castle is the most unique and for me, most welcoming feature of Belhurst Castle...a working wine spigot. From 11:00am through 11:00pm, castle guests can come and help themselves to a glass of “Red”, the red table wine named after Red Dwyer, from a gold spigot coming out of the wall. My kind of amenity!
Belhurst Castle continues to grow along with the entire Finger Lakes area, recently adding a full spa to the list of services offered on site. The winery tasting room and gift shop provide guests with the opportunity to sample the Belhurst wines as well as purchase a variety of cheeses, also locally produced. As we walked through the impressive structures that make up the property, I couldn’t help envision a wintertime stay at the castle. The huge stone fireplaces tucked away in cozy nooks throughout are so inviting, I imagined huddling around roaring fires with a glass of wine on a cold January evening. I suspect we’ll do more than imagine that some day.
To see all that Belhurst Castle has to offer, visit their website HERE.
Miles Wine Cellar/Bed & Breakfast
While on the western shore of Seneca Lake, we also visited Miles Wine Cellar and spoke to tasting room manager, Clarice. This is another beautiful place to stay while in the Finger Lakes area and like Belhurst Castle, Miles Wine Cellar is, of course, a winery as well. The home, which was built in 1802, houses the tasting room as well as two en suite bedrooms upstairs. Until the 1970s, when current owners Doug and Susan Hayes purchased the property, it was a private residence with a rich history. During the heyday of barge traffic on the lakes, the house served as a ticket dispensary for merchants using the shipping services. It was also a part of the Underground Railroad and served as tenant house. The grounds are famous for historical plants, such as the 150 year old willow tree that greets you as you arrive and the huge wisteria plant near the lake shore.
After they purchased the house and the land around it, the Hayes family immediately began growing grapes on the property and sold them to area winemakers. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that wine was produced under their own Miles Wine Cellars label. They currently offer eleven wines...five reds, five whites and a blush. Clarice told us that the winery has continued to evolve and that Susan recently opened a café on site, offering sandwiches, salads, juices and of course, wine. When we were there, we could see that a new building was being constructed at the bottom of the property near Seneca Lake. Clarice said this was a new tasting room, right on the water, which is scheduled to be open late in the summer of 2013. She also told us that future plans include an onsite brewery as Doug and Susan’s son has developed some unique beer recipes. Like the rest of the Finger Lakes area, Miles Wine Cellars is enjoying strong growth.
Since the B&B is a year round business, the winery is open all year as well. More and more Finger Lakes wineries are year-round ventures these days as the area is fast becoming a winter destination for folks in nearby cities. As with many of the wineries we visited, Miles Wine Cellars offers a beautiful view of Seneca Lake and its beauty can be enjoyed in any season.
For more information about the winery and the inn, please click HERE.
This was the last winery we visited in the Lakes and like at all the others, we found a passion for winemaking and an interesting back story in winemaker and vineyard manager, Jenna LaVita. Jenna remembers growing up in an Italian family in Massachusetts where wine was on the table at every meal. To Jenna, wine was simply a part of her way of life. Not surprising, then, to learn that although she studied law and planned to be an attorney, she was drawn to winemaking in the end.
Jenna fell in love with the Finger Lakes area while playing soccer for Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva. When she had the opportunity to learn the art of wine-making from several local growers, Jenna put aside her law career and decided to stay in the Seneca Lake area. In her current position for five years, Jenna has positively impacted the quality of the white wines at Ventosa Vineyards, particularly the Rieslings. She has also perfected the production of a somewhat rare varietal, Tocai Friulano, an Italian grape similar to Sauvignon Blanc, though they are not directly related. While it has a hint of citrus flavor, Jenna describes the Friulano as “somewhere between a Riesling and a Gewürztraminer.” After tasting it, we now have a couple bottles in our cellar.
Ventosa is a word coined by owner Lenny Cecere and comes from the Italian word for wind...ventoso. The depth of Seneca Lake and prevailing winds tend to moderate the temperatures in the area, protecting the vines from the early killing frosts that prevent other areas of New York from growing many of the more fragile grape varietals. The winds and the rolling countryside also provide for very low disease pressure, helping to explain the remarkable growth in the wine industry around the lakes.
Ventosa Vineyards currently produces 13 wines using locally grown grapes. The vines have been producing for 12 years and the winery opened in 2005. The Ventosa Vineyards tasting room is one of the most impressive we’ve seen, offering great lake views and accommodations for lunch in Café Toscana. The day we were there, many folks were taking advantage of that, having lunch and a glass of wine overlooking Seneca Lake. You can see the menu and other information about the winery by clicking HERE.
There are over 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes region and we obviously didn’t hit them all. But I think we took a large enough sample to confidently say that if you visit the area, you’ll find, as we did, warm and welcoming folks with one goal in mind...to share their passion for wine with you. There are as many stories as there are wineries and we hope to hear more of them on our next visit to this magnificent area.
The National Women’s Hall of Fame
We knew quite a bit about the Finger Lakes district long before we made it a destination, from the wine business to the geological significance of the area. But one thing we learned as we began to do some research for our trip, was the significance of the small town of Seneca Falls, NY in the women’s suffrage movement in this country. It is widely accepted as historical fact, that the very first women’s rights convention held in America took place at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls. A plaque commemorates the event and not coincidentally, the town is the site for the Women’s Rights National Park and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Both of these facilities are very worthy of a visit if you’re in the area. The National Women’s Hall of Fame website can be viewed by clicking HERE. The Women’s Rights National Park website is HERE.
The Inns of Aurora
We were kindly hosted on our visit to the Finger Lakes region by The Inns of Aurora, staying in the E. B. Morgan House in that quaint village. The folks at the inn made the entire experience as nice as you can imagine and Carol’s feature, which you can read HERE, beautifully describes our time in the village and at the inn.
School’s Out Charters
Nearly one entire day of our time in the Finger Lakes area was spent touring Cayuga Lake wineries by boat, an experience that will always highlight my memories of this visit. Captain Rick Eleck of School’s Out Charters was the perfect combination of seaman, lake historian and wine concierge and this 6 hour tour of four wineries was something of a “can’t miss” for us. We highly recommend a day on the lake with Captain Rick if you visit this beautiful area. Please read more about our day on the boat by clicking HERE.
Regarding Finger Lake wineries, we only scratched the surface. There are over a hundred wineries around the lakes and while we wish we could have visited all of them, that just wasn’t possible. We know there are some truly unique wineries in beautiful settings in the area and we are compiling a list for our next visit. In the meantime, if you go, here are some valuable resources for planning your winery tours.
School’s Out Charters – Cayuga Lake winery tours by boat
Water to Wine Tours – Cayuga Lake winery tours by boat
Quality Wine Tours – winery tours by limo/bus
Finger Lakes Winery Tours – winery tours by limo/bus/trolley
Cayuga Wine Trail – listing of Cayuga Lake wineries/activities
Seneca Lake Wine Trail – comprehensive information on Seneca Lake wineries
Keuka Lake Wine Trail – Info on Keuka Lake wineries
Canadaigua Wine Trail – wineries on and around Canadaigua Lake
Finger Lakes Wine Country - covers the entire area
Finger Lakes Wine Alliance – history of the area and lots of winery information
Finger Lakes Trail Conference – hiking
Finger Lakes Cheese Trail – need a break from wineries, do this tour of local cheese producers
Finger Lakes Biking Trails – just what you’d think
Finger Lake Skydivers – skydiving, of course
Finger Lakes Paragliding – the only way to fly over the lakes
Fish Finger Lakes – all the best fishing spots
Finger Lakes Hunt Club – 2,000 privately owned acres
The Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance – great info on this site, they helped us plan our trip. In addition to wineries, there are parks, museums, entertainment venues, shopping tips and everything else you need to know about the Finger Lakes area on this site.