Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Finger Lakes Wine Country

Colorful Harvest Weekend in New York

View from Heron Hill Winery on Keuka Lake
Earlier this month my wife and I took a trip to visit my family in Webster, NY and then we took a side trip to the Finger Lakes Wine Country for the weekend.  October is a great time of year in upstate NY, the temperature and humidity are comfortable, the fall colors are fantastic, and even a little rain is a pleasant change coming from southern California. 

Red Tail Ridge Winery - The first LEED® gold-certified green winery in New York.
There are over 100 award-winning wineries in the Finger Lakes, so we had to settle for visiting just a few during our 2 day trip. We started out along the western side of Seneca Lake on a Friday afternoon, and traveled around Keuka Lake on Saturday.

In addition to the wineries, the Finger Lakes, or "FLX" as you see on trendy bumper stickers, is home to The Windmill Farm & Craft Market in Penn Yan, the Amish market near Romulus, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, and the Watkins Glen International racetrack, where I used to watch grand prix races in the 60s and 70s and spent a few days at one particular concert in July of 1973.

Although it was a busy time of year for tourism, we managed to find a B&B near Penn Yan, NY, at the northern end of Keuka Lake. Penn Yan was interesting to me because it is where my grandfather grew up on a tobacco farm. Coming from California, the Los Gatos B&B sounded good to us; it looked good on their website, and it was very nice when we arrived.

We stayed in one of their rustic cabins and thoroughly enjoyed our weekend there.  The owners, Burney and Susan Baron, were great hosts and their home cooking, jams and jellies, blended grape juice, and grape pies were gourmet treats.  (And the good news is that you can buy their homemade food here.)

View of Seneca Lake from our Cabin at Los Gatos B&B

If you like Riesling and Gewürztraminer then this area is the place to taste wine! In 2006 most of the production of Riesling was in Germany (20.8%) and in the French region of Alsace (21.9%).  It is also grown in the colder regions of Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, northern Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, China, Ukraine, and of course, the Finger Lakes. And many of the wineries in FLX will tell you their Riesling rivals those from Germany (and Alsace).

This wine has been rated R
R i e s l i n g
The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance is promoting a new rating system for Riesling wines. Many of the wine bottles in the Finger Lakes include the level of RS (Residual Sugar) printed on the label - 0.5% through 5% or a number of 1 through 5 for a similar scale

Finger Lakes winemakers, such as Fox Run Vineyards, Knapp Winery, Lakewood Vineyards, Lucas Vineyards and Sheldrake Point Vineyards have adopted the International Riesling Foundation's Riesling taste scale. This alternative rating method displays a graph that indicates the level of sweetness of the wine. The scale increases in the amount of sweetness starting with Dry, then Medium Dry, followed by Medium and Sweet. Wineries mark the level of sweetness with an arrow somewhere on the continuum.  Oh boy, no more math!

Nolan's on Canandaigua Lake
We started the day having lunch with my old buddy Steve at Nolan's on Canandaigua Lake - a very nice lunch spot.  I enjoyed a "Kate's Karnegie Reuben" with a glass of unusual Dr. Konstantin Frank Fleur de Pinot Noir. 

After we had lunch at Nolan's we drove east on Routes 5 & 20 (US 20 and NY 5).  Just before reaching  Geneva we turned south onto NY 14 and drove along Seneca Lake towards Watkins Glen. We visited a total of 11 wineries in the western part of the Finger Lakes. My wife, Devon, was the designated driver and I did the tasting. It's my job.

White Springs Winery - $2 tastings, up front!

 The Seneca Wine Trail

Our first stop was at White Springs Winery at the north end of Seneca Lake.  The tasting room was very nice and the wine list was extensive. The tasting room staff was a different experience though - the person who poured for us was pretty adamant that I pay the $2 tasting fee up front! I must have looked like a security risk.  I think the other person pouring might have let my payment slide a few more minutes, because she was busy complaining how long she'd been working that day and how she wanted to go home. Not sure if this reception had anything to do with my appreciation of their wines, but I basically didn't enjoy any of them - the Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 Pinot Noir, and 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, to name a few.
White Springs Winery - "Sweet" Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon?

Lacey Magruder Winery
After White Springs Winery we stopped at the Lacey Magruder Vineyard & Winery. Great tasting room in a couple hundred year old barn with the winemaker and his wife enthusiastically pouring their wines. Jim Hundertmark, originally  involved in winemaking in Maryland, explained his wines.
The favorites were the 2009 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay and the meritage Vintner's Red.
Winemaker Jim Hundertmark at Lacey Magruder Vineyard & Winery

Billsboro Winery
Billsboro Winery, surrounded by old walnut trees in a wooded ravine, had a very mellow tasting room with a nice BBQ area outside.
Noel Uzemack
Noel Uzemack, certified wine specialist, poured wine (except the reds that they ran out of) for us and a few groups from New Orleans. The Billsboro wines included: 
  • 2011 Pinot Gris, RS .7%
  • 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, RS .2%
  • 2011 Kashong White, RS .7%
  • 2011 Dry Riesling, RS .9%
  • 2011 Riesling, RS 3.3%
  • 2011 Pinot Noir, RS 0%
  • 2011 Cabernet Franc, RS 0%
In between Noel's focus on the groups from the Big Easy I tried the Sauvignon Blanc, Kashong White, and the Dry Riesling. I skipped the Pinot Gris (not a fan) and regular Riesling, and of course they were out of the reds. Thought that I'd like the Sauvignon Blanc at least, but I'm sorry to say that I was pretty underwhelmed by all of the wines that I tasted. At least it was a scenic location.

Fox Run Vineyards
Fox Run Vineyards is located on Torrey Ridge overlooking Seneca Lake.  They have fifty acres of vineyards and appear to be one of the larger operations in the area. Production of 15,000 cases per year includes Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc; they also have plantings of Lemberger, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Gewurztraminer for the future.

The staff at Fox Run was very knowledgeable and helpful, but they seemed to be geared towards running busloads of people through their tasting room efficiently and quickly. I noticed this after a few attempts to take pictures of the wine bottle they had just poured a taste from. They were snatched away before my auto-focus could lock in on them.
I liked the marketing effort at Fox Run - they started the tasting off with their 2010 Reserve Chardonnay poured as a Welcome Wine (White Springs Winery, are you getting this?), then offered a choice of either Flight A or Flight B (dry or sweeter wines) for $2, followed with a complimentary wine. Other than the Reserve Chardonnay though, I wasn't very enthusiastic about the wines that I tasted in Flight A. 

Red Tail Ridge Winery
Red Tail Ridge Winery is on 32 acres near the western shore of Seneca Lake. The vineyards are scenic, it's a very nice winery, and the tasting room is very comfortable for small groups. 
I tasted six wines:
  • 2011 Estate Dry Rosé
  • 2011 Chardonnay, sans oak
  • 2011 Estate Grown Chardonnay, barrel fermented
  • 2010 Estate Grown Pinot Noir
  • 2010 Pinot Noir, Winemaker Selection, Estate Grown
  • 2010 Teroldego (a red grape from northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy)     
Finally, the last winery of the day and a bunch of winners! I especially liked the unoaked 2011 Chardonnay and the 2010 Estate Grown Pinot Noir.

Keuka Lake Panorama

The Keuka Wine Trail

After an overnight rainstorm on Friday, the skies cleared and on Saturday morning we drove south on NY 54 through Penn Yan and along the east side of Keuka Lake. 

View of Keuka Lake from Rooster Hill Vineyards
Our first winery visit of the day was Rooster Hill Vineyards. The view of Keuka Lake from the hillside was very colorful.

Devon at Rooster Hill Vineyards
The wine tasting experience at Rooster Hill was very good. Marsha poured wines from their "Featured Wine List" for Devon and from the combination of the "Featured, Premium & Dessert Wine Lists" for me.
The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Heritage (Merlot, Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc blend), 2011 Estate Cabernet Franc - Lemberger, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon were my favorites.  After our wine tasting I had a chance to meet Amy Hoffman, President of Rooster Hill, and she recommended Ravines Wine Cellars to the south.

Carolyn - our guide to wine and cheese pairing
Ravines Wine Cellars in Keuka Village was a nice change of pace with a food pairing available. These 2 combos were tops on my list:
  • 2011 Dry Riesling with Across the Pond Irish cheese
  • 2012 Cabernet Franc with Chocolate & Cherry

Other wines (not paired) that I liked were the 2009 Pinot Noir and the 2008 Meritage (Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc & Merlot blend).

It was the most informative and entertaining wine tasting we  experienced.  Carolyn explained the 10 wines she poured and the background of the winery and the winemaker, Morten Halgren.
Bully Hill Vineyards
Bully Hill has always been an amazing grass roots winery with a great marketing story, and over the last 40+ years they have become a large enterprise that still leverages the folksy approach. We were never wild about Bully Hill wines when we lived in the Rochester area in the 90s, but the winery has always been a fun place to visit. They still focus on fun at Bully Hill, but the 20 minute interval, scheduled wine tastings that are herded into the mega-tasting room are too large of a production to be a good tasting experience. I guess they have to do it that way to keep up with the busloads of tourists they attract. That's progress! Just as their old Wine without Guilt! slogan changed to the more positive spin of Wine with Laughter!

Devon, Joan, Jim, and some guy who has a haircut like mine.
Devon and I met my brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Joan, at Bully Hill and we did have wine with laughter, in a grand central station sort of way.  The wines being poured (out of 1.5 liter bottles) for tasting that day were Growers Chardonnay, Traminette (sweet white), Felicity (semi-dry blush), Meat Market Red, and Growers Red. The Growers Chardonnay was drinkable and the rest had nice labels. The labels have always been very creative and my favorite one is on their Pinot Noir.

Finger Lakes Fall Foliage from Heron Hill Winery
Heron Hill Winery has one of the most scenic and colorful views from a winery that I've ever seen. 

Wine Tasting at Heron Hill
I opted for the "Premium Wine Tasting" and picked 2 white wines and 4 red wines from the list. 
  • 2010 Ingle Vineyard Chardonnay Unoaked
  • 2010 Classic Chardonnay Unoaked
  • 2009 Classic Pinot Noir
  • 2009 Ingle Vineyard Pinot Noir
  • 2009 Ingle Vineyard Cabernet Franc
  • 2010 Classic Cabernet Franc
I thought the 2010 Classic Unoaked Chardonnay the best.  It wasn't a Sauvignon Blanc, but is sure had a nice citrus/grapefruit taste for a Chardonnay.

Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars is a well regarded winemaking operation in the Finger Lakes.  Like Bully Hill, they also have crowds of visitors that want to taste wine. So there was a little queuing when we got there, but not quite as bad as Bully Hill. We tasted their wine outside at a tasting bar with a great view.

Devon and I tasted the dual tasting that they offered.

We started with Chateau Frank Sparkling Wines:
  • NV Célèbre
  • NV Célèbre Rosé
And then tasted their white and red wines:  
  • 2010 Pinot Blanc
  • 2011 Pinot Gris
  • 2011 Dry Riesling
  • 2011 Semi Dry Riesling
  • 2009 Merlot
  • 2010 Cabernet Franc
  • NV Coho Red
  • 2010 Pinot Noir 
Wow, all that wine and I didn't really like one of them.  Must be mistaken since this is a winery that everyone from NY likes.

 Jim welcomes us to the winery
Hunt Country Vineyards was the last winery we visited. Devon and I liked visiting Hunt Country in the 1990s. I guess our tastes have changed since then.

I tasted the following wines while the rest of the gang checked out the gift shop (they were done tasting).

Dry White Wines
  • 2011 Chardonnay
Dry & Semi Dry Red Wines
  • 2011 Cabernet Franc 
  • 2011 Meritage
  • NV Alchemy
  • NV Classic Red
Sorry to say that my notes indicate that the 2011 Chardonnay was only "OK."  I wasn't a fan of the rest of the wines I tasted. The gift shop was nice though.

Dining in the Finger Lakes

We ate dinner in Penn Yan on Friday night at the Keuka Restaurant. Great food and I discovered Southern Tier IPA there - a very good, hoppy IPA.

Keuka Artisan Bakery & Deli
On Saturday afternoon we had a quick lunch at the Keuka Artisan Bakery & Deli. A nice bowl of chili and some bread was just what I needed to keep on wine tasting.

Saturday night after we finished our day of wine tasting we went t the Union Block restaurant at the Esperanza Mansion. The food was very good and it was a scenic view from the restaurant.

Hammondsport, NY
It was a nice change of scenery to be in the Finger Lakes. We drove back through Naples and the Bristol Mountain Ski area on the way back to Webster.  Joseph's Wayside Market in Naples was a good place for buying fall produce, apple cider, and some of the strangest gourds I've ever seen.

I really enjoyed seeing the fall colors in the Finger Lakes, staying at the Los Gatos B&B, and tasting wine at Red Tail Ridge Winery, Rooster Hill Vineyards, Ravines Wine Cellars, and Lacey Magruder Vineyard & Winery.
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March/April - Exploring the Ventura County Wine Trail
July/August - Wine tasting in the Bu