Finger Lakes – Slim Fingers Beckon
The beckoning fingers are those of ten slender lakes in the middle of New York State. The Iroquois attributed these long, narrow lakes to the Great Spirit, but it’s more likely that glacial activity carved them out eons ago. My story will focus on Keuka, The Lady of the Lakes. Early settlers called it the “crooked lake.” Keuka is a Y-shaped lake with 70 miles of beautiful curving shoreline. And around the lake is one of the greatest vineyard and wine-producing areas in America. Keuka is a vacation destination for swimming, fishing, sailing, boating, museums, antique hunting, wineries and good restaurants.
The Finger Lakes are particularly known for their “boutique” vineyards that number close to 100 and probably are the most diverse in terms of wine production, making all types of wines from all types of grapes. They are recognized for some of the country’s best Rieslings and Chardonnays. So let’s wind through the amazing vineyards around the lakes and do some wine tasting.
The gateway to the wine country is Hammondsport… voted the “Coolest Small Town in America” for 2012. I arrived for a July weekend of festivities that began with a big parade in Hammondsport. I stayed at the Vinehurst Inn and each morning I would have a delightful breakfast and chat with the owner on the history of the region.
Hammondsport is situated around a quaint village square—antiques, pottery, art, gift shops, and restaurants, with a short walk to the waterfront.
This small town of less than 1,000 is the home of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, whose eight historic stone buildings make for an excellent tour. Pleasant Valley is the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes region and the “Champagne Capital of America.” These champagnes have been the most honored in European competitions for years.
Next we stopped at Bully Hill Vineyards, perched high above the lake with an excellent open-air restaurant and a superb view overlooking Keuka Lake. Walter Taylor designed most of Bully Hill’s eclectic wine labels. His philosophy of “wine with laughter” is pervasive in the tasting rooms and art museum where you can view the labels.
Today, Love Goat Red and Love Goat White are two of the more popular wines from Bully Hill
Walter championed French-American hybrid grapes, like Marechal Foch (red) and Seyval blanc (white) that can withstand the Finger Lakes winters.
One of my favorites was the “Bass” Riesling – a medium dry wine with flavors of apple and nectarine. The “Ravat 51” is a popular sweeter wine with pineapple and apricot qualities and best enjoyed with fruit or cheese. “Love My Goat” is a medium dry red with a soft finish and enjoyed with steak. The artwork on the labels is priceless and fun! After Walter’s death, his widow, Lillian, took over the management of Bully Hill.
Our next winery, Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, also affords a great view of the lake with vineyards sloping down to Keuka Lake. Dr. Konstantin Frank founded the winery in 1962 after emigrating from the Ukraine.
He believed that the lack of proper rootstock, not the cold climate, was the reason for the failure of European Vinifera vines to thrive in the Finger Lakes. He had a sympathetic ear from Charles Fournier, a French Champagne maker and president of nearby Gold Seal Vineyards. Dr. Frank persevered with his research and proved that Vinifera vines could be grown in the U.S. I had the honor of interviewing him before his death in the 1980s and hearing about his many experiences with winemaking.
On a side note, Charles Fournier was married to Mildred, a lady from Jamestown who attended Jamestown High School with my father. I was invited to have dinner with them in Hammondsport many years ago and learned firsthand about the history of wine in the Finger Lakes. Charles was also a talented chef and the dinner was superb.
Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars turned 50 this year and I was fortunate enough to attend their big celebration this summer. The winery has been rated “#1 Winery in the Northeast” by Wine Report for five years and is now run by his grandson Fred Konstantin. The Frank Wine Cellars earned an impressive 51 gold medals in 2011!
Dr. Konstantine’s 2010 Dry Riesling was featured on a Today Show. The 2006 Blanc de Noirs was recently chosen on one of the “Top 10 American Sparkling Wines” in The Gayot Guide to the Good Life.
A 2010 Salmon Run Riesling was featured in prominent wine magazines— “apple, peach, and citrus, with an invigorating mineral touch.” Wine & Spirits Magazine recently recognized the Frank family as one of the “Great Families in Wine” and gave Chateau Frank’s 2006 Blanc de Blancs a “90 Point Rating.” Dr. Frank’s is a winery not to be missed. But let’s move on, there’s more to come.
Overlooking scenic Keuka Lake, Heron Hill Winery is named one of the eight eco-friendly East Coast wineries. According to the owners, going green means giving respect. Respect for the land by farming sustainable and respect for the product by making it natural, fresh and healthy. Best sellers include the Eclipse Red 2008 with a rich taste of black raspberries and black currents and the Classic Semi-dry Riesling 2010. Dessert wines are also popular.
Heron Hill is named as one of the 10 most spectacular tasting rooms in the world. The airy, vaulted-ceiling Tasting Hall with its cobblestoned floors is a perfect background for sipping the Rieslings, Chardonnays and a nice selection of reds.
The Blue Heron Café takes great pride in using only the freshest and highest-quality locally and organically farmed products. Freshly made sandwiches, soups and salads are a treat at Heron Hill’s outdoor café overlooking the lake. An excellent unoaked 2009 chardonnay accompanied my meal. Savor the vista views of Keuka Lake and the award-winning wine from the Café terrace.
On to another delightful spot. Ravines Wine Cellars is a boutique winery created by a Frenchman and his American wife. This small distinctive winery features Old World winemaking traditions with New World innovation.
Their land is located on the Eastern slopes of Keuka Lake at the widest part of the lake, which allows grapevines to receive maximum benefit from its temperature- moderating effects. It has a good slope which keeps the mineral rich soils well-drained, and is situated between two ravines, which drain cold air from the land during winter.
The charming tasting room is decorated in a Provencal style, including a sculpted head of Bacchus, the Roman god of Wine.
Two months after opening, Ravines won Best Dry Reisling in the 2003 World Reisling Cup at the Eastern International Wine Competition for the 2002 Dry Reisling.
Ravines has a very nice light Sauvignon Blanc 2010 with tropical fruit aromas and zesty acidity. A Chardonnay 2010 is rich and supple with melon, fig and nut flavors.
Aging in lightly toasted French Oak offers better butter and toast flavors for a wine and adds a fresh acidity. The Pinot Noir 2009 is very pleasant with a spice and earthy aroma. An excellent Cabernet France 2010 is perfect with meat dishes.
Coming back from the wineries you can explore downtown Hammondsport’s antique shops and art galleries and stop for a great cup of coffee at the Aroma Coffee Art Gallery. The owner profiles all the artwork of senior citizens and there are some beautiful pieces for sale.
Next door is the Lime Berry Gallery and Winery, where you can get a glass of their excellent wine while you shop. This is a great place for unusual gifts with a southwest emphasis.
Before leaving, visit the Glenn Curtiss Aviation Museum, which is practically across the road from the Vinehurst Inn. The museum has a treasure trove of items from a bygone era.
In 1909, Curtiss won the international air race in Rheims, France, and in 1910, made the first U.S. city-to-city flight between Albany and New York City. Curtiss also trained the first woman pilot: Blanche Stuart Scott of Rochester.
And last but not least is a visit to the Corning Museum of Glass. It is the world’s largest glass museum, featuring live glass-blowing demonstrations where you can make your own souvenir to take home. Create a contemporary sculpture or blow a holiday ornament. Corning is an unforgettable experience for the whole family and is free for children and teen-agers.
I can’t but enthusiastically recommend a fall weekend at the Finger Lakes to see the glorious colors and join a wine celebration for the harvesting of the grapes. Cheers!
Where To Stay
Vinehurst Inn – 7988 State Route 54 Hammondsport, tel. 607-569-6111. Spacious rooms with an excellent continental breakfast of fresh fruit, homemade pastries, croissants and coffee.
Day Dreams Bed & Breakfast – 13 Lake Street, Hammondsport tel. 607-224-4032. Located a few minutes walk from Keuka Lake’s beachfront park and swimming. Afternoon appetizers and beverages are served daily.
Where To Eat
The Bistro Union Block– 31 Shethar St. Hammondsport– offers a wide range of in-house made menu items from salad dressings, sauces and meatballs to breads and desserts.
Snug Harbor Inn – 9068A Snug Harbor Drive Hammondsport—has a great view on Keuka Lake. Open seven days a week until midnight with a continental menu.
Bully Hill Winery Restaurant – this open air restaurant overlooking Keuka Lake has delicious salads, sandwiches and other dishes.
Esperanza Mansion Restaurant – 3456 Route 54-A. A beautiful setting on a bluff overlooking Keuka Lake with a wide selection of beef, pork, lamb and seafood entrees.
Heron Hill Winery Restaurant overlooking Keuka– serves completely natural food paired with their wines. Live music, weekend concerts and culinary events in season.