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An Insider’s Guide to Finger Lakes Wine

An Insider’s Guide to Finger Lakes Wine

You’re thinking about visiting the Finger Lakes “FLX” wine country.  If you aren’t, you probably should be, really; it’s affordable, gorgeous, and the wine is one of the best kept secrets – but let’s keep that between you and me. I see a lot of these articles: “My weekend in the Finger Lakes,” “Escaping NYC to Upstate for Wine,” or “What to drink in the Finger Lakes.” The problem is, few of these authors actually live here. I’ve lived here now for 15 years. I’d like to think I’ve grown, developed, and matured with the Finger Lakes wine scene as well – it really has taken a huge step the last 10-15 years.

I’m here to help you out with some local tips and suggestions, specifically about things to consider to check out some of the best wineries, and tips about some of my personal favorite wine locations in the area. I haven’t been to every winery, but I’ve been to many. I’m no professional, but let’s just say I get giddy like a child, still, every time I go wine tasting – even if I’ve driven the road 100 times, quite literally, or have been to the winery 10 times. I fully admit I’m a wine nerd, but hey, we all have our passions! One of the great things about wine: it’s always changing, evolving, developing, and it changes every year, so you’re rarely getting the same thing twice.

Keep in mind, this piece is purely about the wine, the wineries, and my personal tips for your potential visit! Yes, there is also great food, hiking, and festivals, etc. But today I’m only focusing on this one area – the wine and wineries.

Right now, there are approximately 150 wineries spread out across about a two hour radius of glacier carved lakes here in upstate New York. They are not all created equal in terms of size, quality, or the experience they have to offer. For the sake of this piece though, I’d like to give you some insight into a few of my preferences. Have I done the “classy” wine bus tour thing? Yes, sadly. But it was many years ago in college, and let’s just say that was more about the quantity, not the quality, so essentially the complete opposite of where I am now!

The Finger Lakes are long, some are over 40 miles long; and there are not any bridges across them. So you either need to pick one lake to target, go North/South or down one lake, or possibly go between two lakes. A big thing to keep in mind when looking at maps is that not every winery belongs to a “wine trail.” You can quickly find maps and lists of the “Seneca Lake Wine Trail, the “Cayuga Lake Wine Trail,” and the same for Keuka Lake; but these wine trails are essentially associations. If you simply use those maps, you’ll be missing many of the best wineries – and incredible wine – along the way.

A few questions to consider:

What type of wine do you like?

It’s probably good to start with the basic “sweet or dry” question. Some wineries only produce dry wine and vice versa. If you’re part of a large group with different tastes, it might be good to check out some of the larger wineries where they really do have something for everyone! If it’s just you and a friend or partner with similar tastes, you’ll be able to narrow things down much more. I lean dry. I’m ok with fruit and strong aromatics in my wine, but I’m not OK with grape juice. Therefore most of my recommendations will lean toward dry wine.

How big of a group are you? A group of 8 or 10? Do you need to look into a limo?

I’m asking this question because not every winery accepts large groups. You can’t show up with a group of 10 and expect to be accommodated. Make sure to check with the winery first. They usually mention it on their website, but it’s safe to call ahead.

What type of wine tasting do you want? Do you need a reservation?

Some large wineries will shuffle you through like a line of cattle and a coupon for next time. Others require a reservation well in advance, sometimes weeks in advance! If you want a small, personalized, sit-down experience, consider that when you’re making plans. For some, you can make the reservation on their website. For others you need to email/call and give them specifics for a set reservation. If you want to have a full lunch somewhere with a glass of wine, make sure there is a restaurant or café at the winery.

How much are tastings? And how much do I get?

Most tastings are $5 or so. You usually get 5 or 6 wines with that. For some, you can pay a few dollars extra to taste reserve wines as well (I highly recommend these if you truly love wine; the reserve wines are more expensive for a reason!). For some, tastings are complimentary with a purchase of a certain amount.

What’s the protocol?

At some wineries there are set flights, like the “Riesling Flight” or the “Dry Red Flight,” but for the most part, you are given a list and you simply choose which ones you’d like to try.

Ask questions! If you don’t know something, if you’re curious, just ask! Sometimes we wine people get caught up in our own jargon (“Well it was on lees for an extended amount of time and the RS isn’t balancing the acidity I’m getting”), but don’t hesitate to ask about anything, or a good recommendation. As you probably guessed, the locals usually do know best.

Other items?

  • Always double check hours on websites and social media. Often times, in the summer and fall, wineries close early for weddings or special events on the weekends. Many are closed in the winter too, or have limited hours in the spring.
  • Ask what else might be available (but not on the tasting list). Sometimes there are options left off of the list, or possibly something already open that would be worth trying.
  • Plan your route and visits ahead if you are making a formal vacation or trip out of it. Yeah, it’s fun to sometimes drive and see where you end up if you live around here; but if you’re visiting and don’t have the luxury of that most weekends, make a route with the places you really want to visit.
  • Much of the Finger Lakes is rural: Get gas, food, bathroom breaks, etc. in while you can, it won’t be readily available like you’re driving on a highway every exit.
  • Bring snacks and water, or whatever else you want to drink.

With those things in mind, here are a few of my favorites:

Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars:

One of the things I like about them is that they have some unique higher end options, but they also have more “everyday” or approachable options, possibly for someone who just wants a good glass of wine every once in a while. They have a long list of unique Riesling options, but don’t miss their 76 West (Bordeaux Blend), Cabernet Franc (Unoaked and Oaked), and their Merlot.

Heart and Hands Wine Company 

They only grow Riesling and Pinot Noir. You can sometimes get their Pinot Noir Rosé, or the white wine, “Polarity” from Pinot Noir. Both are great from different vintages in different ways. It’s off the beaten path, but very highly recommended just for the wine.

Bloomer Creek 

An absolute must. They’re closed in the winter. Even if you are here when it says they aren’t open, you should try to call and make an appointment because you can’t miss them. They’re not certified organic, but for all intents and purposes, they use organic practices for their incredible natural wines.

Sheldrake Point 

They are consistently, making some top products across the board, really, both reds and whites. Their “reserve” wines are an absolute must try and buy. But both their whites and reds are strongly recommended. 

Boundary Breaks 

They used to be Riesling specialists, but now they make a few more things. It’s a beautiful building quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Their Rieslings are still great, the 2014 #239 Dry Riesling was a Top 100. Picked late for fruit, but fermented dry.

Forge Cellars 

They are new to the FLX scene, but have been around a while. One winemaker from France, and some from here. Their 2015 Dry Riesling Classique was a Top 100 (and one of the wines from the French winemaker’s winery in France, in the same year, so he had two). The 2016 Dry Riesling Classique is an absolute must try and buy. They only do Pinot Noir and Riesling also. It’s by reservation only (on their website), and small, intimate groups.

Kemmeter Wines 

Very small, by appt only (must email/call ahead of time!), only 6 or so people at a time. No tour buses. It’s essentially a one-man operation. He always has Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and sometimes Pinot Noir or a Pinot Noir Rosé. He is German, and his wine shows that influence, which is certainly a great thing!

Atwater Vineyards:

Atwater has some incredible views of Seneca Lake; but fortunately they also have really great wine! They have some unique sparkling options, a traditional method option, good whites, and VERY good reds. Their vineyards are blessed with a slightly warmer climate, so you can get a great Syrah here, among other reds.

Hermann J Wiemer:

Hermann Wiemer is one of the most well-known Finger Lakes wineries, with one of the largest, global reaches, but still making truly great wine. They are known for their Riesling, but they also do a number of other options too. Their wine tasting experience is what an ideal tasting is like to me: personal, intimate, informative, in a beautiful setting, and all with incredible wine.

Domaine LeSeurre Winery 

Started by a young French couple from a long history of winemakers in France, they have some good Cabernet Francs, some great Chardonnay options, and a unique barrel fermented Riesling too. If you make a trip to Keuka Lake, this is a must stop.

Hector Wine Company:

Hector Wine Company is also a bit under the radar. They have some incredible dry red options every single year, but they also do whites well too. Hector Wine Company is the fun, local hub, where you can get great wine, but also great local beer and cider too from other Finger Lakes friends. Don’t miss their Bordeaux Blend, “Essence,” and their Syrah and Merlot! Local tip: they stay open later than other wineries.

Billsboro Winery: 

See Also

They have their main location on the west side of Seneca Lake near Geneva. I’m always blown away by their Reds! Consistently, every year. Lookout for their Cabernet Franc and Syrah. This is one to seek out without a doubt.

Ravines Wine Cellars 

Ravines is similar to Sheldrake in that they are quite great at everything, really. The winemaker is French and that certainly impacts many of the styles. A quintessential Dry FLX Riesling, a great Provence-like Rosé, and good reds always too.  NOTE: They have two locations, one on Seneca and one on Keuka. I’ve been to both, and both are great, just different locations!

Keuka Lake Vineyards

They are a small production, but definitely under the radar. They specialize in dry wines, both red and white, and have an incredible view of Keuka Lake. The staff are very knowledgeable and the wine is consistently tops!

Zugibe Vineyards:

Zugibe has a great view, bistro, and wine. They also have a consistently great Gruner Veltliner, Gewurztraminer, some red blends, and occasionally a Lemberger! This is the perfect place to relax with some friends, have some lunch outside, have some great wine, and enjoy the view.

A few others I would strongly add if I didn’t keep this above list to 15:

Barry Family Cellars: Great music, great people, and a great supporter of all things FLX wine.

Standing Stone Vineyards: Completely re-done, Hermann Wiemer bought them recently.

Ryan William: Very good all-around, beautiful space, good food. Incredible Cabernet Franc.

Randolph O’Neill Vineyard: Very small, just getting started, but truly outstanding wine.

Red Newt: Long list of great Riesling options, and a new Unoaked Cabernet Franc.

Fox Run Vineyards: A great spot for lunch outside, and a good list with different options.

Lakewood Vineyards: I haven’t been there in a couple of years but I know they’re making great wine!

Red Tail Ridge: See one line above.

Hickory Hollow and Nathan K Wines: See one line above again.

McGregor Vineyard: See one line above again, last time.

Let it be known: I don’t have an investment or financial interest in any wineries in the Finger Lakes, I’m just a fan of good wine! With these suggestions, and with your answers to my questions above, you should be ready to start planning your trip to the Finger Lakes wine country! If you need an extra nose on your travels, you know where to find me. Cheers!





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