This world-class wine region was in my backyard.


As a long-time resident of Philadelphia, trips to “Wine Country” for me consisted of a lengthy flight, usually in the neighborhood of 6-7 hours. I would either head west, to one of the many regions in California, Oregon, or Washington. Or, I would fly east, heading across the Atlantic to one of the countless wine regions in Europe.

It was not until I moved to Texas two years ago that I realized that there was a world-class wine region that had been virtually in my back yard, a mere four hours away. And I was not alone. In fact, nearly a quarter of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of one of the country’s great wine appellations: the Finger Lakes in New York State.

A few weeks ago, I got back from my second trip to the region in the last couple of years and my overall sentiment both times was the same: “Why on earth did I not visit when I lived in Philly?"
While the Finger Lakes have experienced considerable growth (there are now over 100 wineries), the region is not all that different today than it was a couple of decades ago. Sure, there has been a much brighter light on the wineries and wines as of late, but surprisingly, it remains a sleepy enclave of wine production despite being just a few hour drive from New York City.

Unlike other wine regions in the U.S. (think Napa, Sonoma, Washington, the Willamette Valley), the Finger Lakes has not seen a large influx of cash from the metropolis to its southeast. While it seems that owning a Napa Valley winery is every hedge fund manager's retirement plan, winery owners in the Finger Lakes are there for a curious reason: to make great wine under what can be very difficult conditions.

Winemakers in California, one has argued, have it fairly easy; while they certainly worry about the vagaries of weather in an increasingly changing environment, folks in the Finger Lakes have the added complexity of winter. It is often the coldest months--where temperatures frequently drop below 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C)—that cause the most concern, necessitating particular vineyard practices in hopes that the vines merely survive the extreme conditions.

There are a total of eleven lakes that constitute the Finger Lakes, but the vast majority of the wineries are situated around just three: Keuka Lake (20 wineries) to the West, Seneca Lake (56) that runs due north from Watkins Glen, and Cayuga Lake (25), the longest of all the lakes at just under 40 miles.

During my first trip to the Finger Lakes a couple of years ago, I focused on the traditional wineries, those that have been making wine in upstate New York for generations. I wanted to get a better understanding of the traditions and history of the region and I could think of no better way than to start with those that had been there the longest.

My First Trip to the Finger Lakes

My first stop was Seneca Lake and Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, which, as the name of the winery indicates, the Hazlitt family has been farming since the mid-19th Century. The first vintage of their own wine, however, did not appear until almost a century and a half later (1984), and now the winery produces around 200,000 cases each year. As I was tasting through the vinifera wines at the welcoming horseshoe bar in the tasting room, I kept hearing a peculiar chant from the adjoining tasting room:

Red Cat, Red Cat, it’s an aphrodisiac. Red Cat, Red Cat, will get you luck in the sack.

Hazlitt’s Red Cat (a sweet red wine made from the Catawba grape), the state’s top selling wine, has its own tasting room, where customers repeat the Red Cat chant at the top of their lungs all day long.

Another fantastic tasting experience on Seneca Lake includes Fox Run Vineyard, which boasts its own café where I have been fed very well on a couple of occasions, has some of the best Rieslings I have tasted in the region (their Lot 11 Series is superb), and a Tawny Port that rivals some of the top wines from Portugal.

Staying on Seneca Lake, Glenora Wine Cellars produces some fantastic sparkling wines using the fairly rare transfer method and boasts a 30-room Inn and restaurant overlooking the lake. Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, which arguably produces one of the best Chardonnays in the Finger Lakes also has a wonderful unoaked Cabernet Franc.

On Cayuga Lake, no run-down of the “old guard” would be complete without Swedish Hill (try the Optimus, a Bordeaux blend); Sheldrake Point (who, among many stellar wines, has a Gamay Noir and a Reserve Gamay of which the folks in Beaujolais might just be jealous); and Hosmer Estate Winery, who are one of the few making Sauvignon Blanc in the appellation and are frankly crushing it.

There are two more “stalwart” wineries that are perhaps in classes of their own making. The first, Dr. Konstantin Frank, on Keuka Lake, is perhaps the most recognizable brand in the Finger Lakes, opening its winery in 1962. Today, the winery thrives with stellar wines across the board, but I continually return to the Rieslings, and two, the Eugenia ($30) and the Margrit ($35) are particularly noteworthy.

Oft cited as those “in the know” as the maker of the best wines in the Finger Lakes, the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, started making wines in the Seneca Lake appellation in 1979. Perhaps not surprisingly, Riesling is king at Wiemer as Hermann hailed from Bernkastel, Germany in the heart of the Mosel, but the sparkling wines are quickly catching up and now are considered among the top bottles of bubbles from the Finger Lakes.

My Second Trip to the Finger Lakes

On my latest trip to the region I focused on some of the newer brands that have popped up in the region since the turn of the millennium. I stopped first at Ravines Wine Cellars, near the top of Seneca Lake, just outside of Geneva, NY., where I met the owners Lisa and Morten Hallgren.

The Hallgrens have been making Ravines wines for the better part of the last two decades, and Morten was the winemaker at Dr. Frank for almost seven years prior to Ravines’ first vintage in 2002. A native of Denmark, Morten spent his teenage years in the south of France, where his family operated the Domaine de Castle Roubine.

Lisa, Morten’s wife, handles both the marketing and the burgeoning hospitality portion of the business. Like many winemakers, Morten refers to his vintages as if they were his children, as each one comes from a different beginning with dissimilar evolutions. Sure, there are perhaps some similarities, but each vintage and each wine has its own "personality."

Although my time with Morten was brief, we tasted through a slew of varieties and vintages, and while his Rieslings receive much of the praise (and rightfully so), his Chardonnays, Cabernet Francs, and sparkling wines are among the best that I have tasted from the region:

2008 Ravines Blanc de Blanc, Finger Lakes: Retail $35. 100% Chardonnay. Wine club only. Just disgorged last year (2017), it would be difficult to identify in a blind tasting that this wine is nearly a decade past its harvest. Light and lively with plenty of yeastiness this is fresh with great citrus aromas and flavors. Very nice. 90-92 Points.

2015 Ravines Wine Cellars Chardonnay, Finger Lakes: Retail $20. An adaptation of the appasimento method: Morten dries 20-30% of grapes, looking to balance the fruit and oak. The fruit is stacked on trays for 4-7 weeks where it would lose about half its weight, then foot tread whole cluster before basket pressing. Golden yellow. Certainly an oxidized aspect with some lemon rind. Concentrated and rich with lemon rind and a finish that last for minutes. A very Jura type feeling to it. Rich yet lithe with really nice acidity and concentration. 91-93 Points.

My next stop was Kemmeter Wines, about half way up the west side of Seneca Lake, right across the street from another stalwart of the region, Anthony Road Wine Company. I first met Johannes Reinhardt a couple of years ago when a fellow writer insisted I stop by the tiny tasting room outside the town of Penn Yan, New York.

She insisted that I would be impressed, that it was well worth the detour. She was wrong. I was not impressed, I was blown away.  From the moment Johannes starts to speak, his passion for making great wines is palpable.

2012 was Kemmeter Wines first vintage, and Johannes opened the doors to his tiny chapel-like tasting room a year later. He began planting in 2014 and this vintage (2018) will be the first that 100% of Kemmeter wines will come from the estate.

While Kemmeter (named after Johannes' maternal grandmother) is a newcomer as a brand, Johannes is far from a newcomer to wine. He hails from the Frankonia wine region in Germany, where his family has been making wine for close to 600 years, and before moving on to his own project, he had been the winemaker at his now neighbor, Anthony Road for over a decade.

When asked what makes making wine in the Finger Lakes unique, Johannes quickly responded: “There has never been a year in the Finger Lakes that was an easy one. Every year it is something. In my nineteen years [here], there have been 17 different kinds of vintages.” While I find all of his wines stellar, here are a couple of his current releases that stood out:

2017 Kemmeter Estate Sonero Rosé of Pinot Noir Seneca Lake: Retail $22. Screwcap. Johannes takes 75% of the wine and treats it like a Blanc de Noir: straight to press with no skin contact. The other 25% is made like a red wine and the two are then blended. Brilliant red, not really pink. Strawberry and rhubarb dominate the nose. Great tart fruit on the palate with a touch of residual sugar that is barely noticeable. Fantastic. 90-92 Points.

2017 Kemmeter Estate Riesling Dry Seneca Lake: Retail $28. Straw yellow with pineapple and just a hint of petrol on the nose. The wine took a bit of time to present itself on the palate, but when it did, wow. Bountiful fruit, a zingy tartness, and incredible length. This is a stunner. 91-93 Points.

I then headed over to the East side of Seneca Lake, to Boundary Breaks Vineyard, to sit with Bruce Murray for a spell and delve deeply into Riesling, the Finger Lakes’ signature grape variety. Bruce’s previous career was first in publishing and then in tech, but when he cashed out, he knew that he needed to do something. Being a wine-lover, with the prospect of being his own boss, he figured: “Why not?"

He would likely be the first to admit that the learning curve is rather steep, but he appears to have few regrets around his choice to dive into the Finger Lakes winemaking business. A hard-working native of Syracuse, he was familiar with both the Finger Lakes region and the harsh winters of upstate New York.

One regret he did share with me, though, was that when he started this project ten years ago, he wishes that he would have planted a bit more Cabernet Franc (he initially planted only Riesling), as he predicts that in a mere 5-10 years the Finger Lakes will be seen as a world-class region for both whites and reds.

Those original Riesling plantings, though, are faring quite well, and Bruce makes five clone-specific wines, which we proceeded to taste through in the newly opened (and quite beautiful) tasting room:

2016 Boundary Breaks Clone 239 Riesling: Retail $18. Selected by the Wine Spectatoras a top 100 wine.  Loaded with stone fruit, particularly peach. Really beautiful nose. Tart peach on the palate and comes off as. quite dry. Very nice. 91-93 Points.

2016 Boundary Breaks Clone 198 Riesling:Retail $22. Made in a spaëtlese style (the grapes are picked after an extended maturation period), this wine has a bit of a muted nose but good lemon and lime on the palate with a tad of sweetness. Great length. 90-92 Points.

If you are one of the roughly 80 million Americans that still live within about a six-hour drive of the Finger Lakes, do yourself a favor: visit. Before you have to up and move to Texas.

Photo Credit: New York Wines

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