Despite enjoying the occasional glass, I’ve never really known a lot about wine.
Wine to me was either red, white, or rosé, and I either liked the taste, or I didn’t. When terms like “dry” and “acidic” were thrown around at dinner parties or wine bars, they went straight over my head without stopping.
But that all changed when I visited a selection of Finger Lakes wineries.
The Finger Lakes – the region surrounding the 11 lakes in upstate New York – is famous for its wines, and in the United States, is second only to California’s famous Napa Valley in terms of the size of production.
Despite the impressive figure, it’s not as well-known as Napa, especially outside the USA. I’d never even heard of the Finger Lakes, let alone the numerous Finger Lakes wineries, until I moved to New York City, and visited the region on a girls’ weekend with my friends Erin and Marie.
And while there’s certainly more to the Finger Lakes drinks scene than wine (we sampled spirits at Tusker Distillery, and craft brews at Grist Iron Brewing Co.), it would have been remiss of us to visit the country’s second-largest wine region and not indulge in its speciality. So indulge we did!
What fascinated me most about the wine industry in the Finger Lakes was the variety – not just in grapes, and in wines, but in the wineries and their histories.
I can never resist a good story, and as I learned over the course of a few days in the Finger Lakes, the wine here has plenty of them. The production of wine takes in so much more than science – it encompasses history, geography, and culture, too. There are layers to be discovered in the stories, as well as in the first sip of wine.
At Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, high on the slopes above Keuka Lake, history was the starting point. Dr. Frank’s is, as Marketing Manager Erin told us over a tasting, “the winery that started it all” in the Finger Lakes.
Before 1960, the only grapes grown here were native grapes; everyone assumed the climate was just too cold for the popular vinifera grapes that did well in Europe and California.
Dr. Frank, who emigrated from the Ukraine in 1951, wanted to prove that wine grapes could be grown here, and that the failing vines were a result of pests eating the roots, and not the winter weather. He was right, of course, and the rest is history – at Dr. Frank’s, and throughout the Finger Lakes.
In an area famous for its Riesling, each of the Finger Lakes wineries we visited had something special to offer.
At Heron Hill Winery, we got settled in a vaulted tasting room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking sloping vineyards, with Keuka Lake in the distance; Travel and Leisure have listed it as one of the best tasting rooms in the world, and we could see why.
With Tambi, the Tasting Room Manager, filling me in on the details, I went ahead and tried nearly every variety of Riesling they had. The (very generous) samples ranged from extra dry (which I know now to have a sharp taste) to extra sweet, and I found to my surprise that I enjoyed them all.
At Barnstormer Winery near Seneca Lake, Kyle – the four-year-old boutique winery’s only full-time employee – explained how the acidity of the soil in the Finger Lakes region changes the dryness or the sweetness of the wines, and particularly Rieslings, in a unique way.
What does that mean in practice, we asked? “It gives you that mouth-watering sensation,” he said, as we sipped the 2016 Semi Dry Riesling. “When you smell the wet stone and creek water, that’s acidity to me.”
I noticed, too, that wherever we went in the Finger Lakes, family and community played almost as central a role as the vines and soil.
The small towns surrounding the lakes foster tight-knit communities, and when help is needed – at harvesting time, for example – favours are called in, and everyone lends a hand.
Barnstormer Winery are “full believers that this takes a village.” Their own experience, and those of their winery colleagues, bear this out. Kyle used to work at Heron Hill Winery, and Barnstormer – which produces only very small batch wines – uses the bottling facilities a few miles down the road at the larger Lakewood Vineyards.
At Lakewood, three generations of the same family work together on farmland that has been in the family since 1951. Although the size of production is larger, it’s still a family business at heart. (We even caught a glimpse of that family dynamic in action as siblings Ben and Abbey engaged in playful banter near the casks during our tour.)
Back at Dr. Frank’s, each generation of the family has played a role in growing and developing the winery. Even those that don’t have a direct hand in the business have made an impact, like the family members whose names grace special edition bottles.
That teamwork and connection is necessary in the Finger Lakes. “It’s not just the yeast that makes the wine, it’s not just the winemaker that makes the wine,” said Kyle, as we sat outside sampling the Barnstormer bottles and snacking on charcuterie and cheese.
“It’s got to be really good fruit, really good growers, and a whole team of people. That’s why it tastes so different everywhere you go.”
My education in wine was expanding by the day (and by the winery).
Finally, thanks to the team at each of the wineries, I had a sense of what I liked and disliked in a glass of wine, not to mention a better understanding of all these previously indecipherable technical terms.
But I also learned that while the Finger Lakes may be famous for its wines, the wines wouldn’t be what they are without the place. They wouldn’t be what they are without the soil, without the vines, and most of all, without the Finger Lakes locals who give this vocation their all.
NEED TO KNOW
Where are these wineries? The four wineries we visited are all located in the Finger Lakes in New York state. Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars and Heron Hill Winery are in Hammondsport, and both Barnstormer Winery and Lakewood Vineyards are near the town of Watkins Glen.
How can I travel between them? After our visit, my opinion would be to drive (or hire a car), and have one member of the party be the designated driver. (Although a search online will bring up guided bus tours of the Finger Lakes Wineries, too.)
Where can I buy a bottle? Dr. Frank’s, Heron Hill, and Barnstormer have online shops that ship throughout the USA (dependent on local alcohol laws), while Lakewood can take order via mail or over the phone. Even better, of course, is to pay them each a visit and pick up a bottle in person!
Have you ever been on a wine tasting tour, or would you like to try one? Have you ever visited any of the Finger Lakes Wineries?
Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!
A huge thanks to the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, Chemung County Chamber of Commerce, and Corning and the Southern Finger Lakes for hosting our blogging adventure in the Finger Lakes! As always, all opinions (and newfound love of wine) are entirely my own.