WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Two million years ago, glaciers clawed 11 long, deep gashes into what is now central New York. The resulting Finger Lakes are among the deepest in the United States, creating a microclimate perfect for growing cool-weather wine grapes.
The region, some 250 miles (400 km) northwest of New York City, is home to more than 100 wineries and has a reputation for world-class wines. My husband, Rick, and I were eager to explore these vineyards and take in some of the region’s scenery: rolling hills, farms, country roads and waterfalls. We compiled a list of top-rated wineries and narrowed it down to those near our base on Seneca Lake over a long weekend visit.
We began at the north end of the lake and stopped at three wineries along the east shore: Wagner Vineyards Estate, Chateau Lafayette Reneau and Atwater Estate Vineyards.
Having battled the heavy traffic in more well-known wine regions on the West Coast, we were pleased to find few cars on the road when we visited in July and were able to walk right up to the tasting bars. Fall visitors might find the region busier with events and activities keyed to the harvest season at wineries and other attractions — apple orchards, pumpkin patches and the like. October’s peak autumn colors also draw leaf-peepers. Even in November, tickets typically sell out for events like Keuka Holidays wine-and-food tastings on the Keuka Lake Wine Trail.
Fees at our stops were reasonable: $4 to $5 per person to taste six wines from a menu of a dozen or more. We were especially impressed by Lafayette Reneau’s 2012 cabernet sauvignon owner’s reserve. We also liked Wagner’s Fathom 107, a 2015 vintage that blends riesling and gewurztraminer, and is named for the depth of the adjacent lake. We picked up a bubbly rose at Atwater as well.
By the end of the afternoon, we had arrived in Watkins Glen at the south end of Seneca Lake and our home base for the weekend, Lake Valley Legends Bed & Breakfast. The house has a spacious two-level deck with a lake view, and our hosts provided delicious breakfasts along with tempting homemade snacks, such as carrot cake and chocolate chip cookies.
Watkins Glen’s main drag is on the lake, a short but steep walk downhill to a variety of restaurants including the Blue Pointe Grill, with a lakeside terrace, and the Crooked Rooster Brewpub.
The next morning, it was off to the famed local racetrack, Watkins Glen International, and the site of a wine festival the weekend we were there. Large garages and tents were filled with booths: nearly 90 wineries, along with crafts, jewelry, nuts, coffees, gourmet sauces and the odd distillery.
We were disappointed to find that many of the wineries on our list weren’t there. We did locate and like Standing Stone’s riesling, Three Brothers’ Jazz Infusion red blend, Glenora’s Trestle Creek chardonnay and Ravines’ pinot rose.
Rather than having people lugging around boxes of wine, the festival offered wine claim checks. When you buy wine, you give the winery a numbered sticker with your name and phone number. Golf carts pick up the purchased bottles and ferry them to a tent where you can pick up your wine on your way out.
Drivers leaving the festival must pass a Breathalyzer test to get out, and many camp at the racetrack for the weekend. We had caught a ride to the track with another couple from our B&B and called an Uber for the trip back, which took quite a while: Uber was very busy there that afternoon.
On our final day, we ventured west to Keuka Lake to visit three wineries that weren’t at the festival: Heron Hill Winery, Keuka Lake Vineyards and the highly rated Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars.
Heron Hill’s 2013 vintage was one of the better dry rieslings we tried, and we had lunch on the winery’s outdoor patio, serenaded by a guitar player. Keuka Lake has had success with French hybrid grapes: Leon Millot, a fine lighter red, and vignoles, a dry white.
Dr. Frank’s wines, however, stood out to us as the top of the class. We especially enjoyed the 2014 Hilda chardonnay, the 2016 dry riesling, the 2016 rose of pinot noir, the 2014 saperavi, a dry red; and the 2012 sparking blanc de noirs.
Before going home, we took a break from wine to tour the breathtaking Watkins Glen State Park, walking 840 steps up the gorge trail to view 19 waterfalls, some close enough to touch. After the 2-mile (3.2 km) hike, we were happy to take the shuttle back down to the parking lot.
Then we started the drive home, looking forward to sharing our new wine with friends.
If You Go…
FINGER LAKES WINE REGION: http://www.fingerlakeswinecountry.com/ and http://www.fingerlakes.org/ . Located in central New York, about 250 miles northwest of New York City. Accommodations and wine tasting events often book up so plan ahead. Upcoming events include the Watkins Glen International Finger Lakes Beer Festival, Oct. 21; Keuka Holidays I and II, Nov. 11-12 and Nov. 18-19; Cayuga Wine Trail’s annual Holiday Shopping Spree, Nov. 17-19; Seneca Wine Trail’s Deck the Halls Weekend, Nov. 17-19.