When you think of the best wine growing regions in America, where does your mind wander to? Some may say California or Oregon but there is way more depth to winemaking in this country—think east coast. Yes, east coast. This past month, I spent a few days in the Finger Lakes, NY and learned why it’s a winemaking region to be reckoned with.
It all started thousands of years ago when the Finger Lakes were carved by successive waves of glaciers, creating cuts as deep as 618 feet below sea level. The cuts became lakes and they are vital to region’s viticulture. This cool climate region benefits greatly from the temperature-moderating influence of the deep lakes which supports quality grape growing.
A pre-Prohibition wine region, the first vines were planted in Hammondsport, New York in 1829. By 1900, more than 50 wineries were established along the lakes. The Finger Lakes AVA was established in 1982 and boasts two sub-AVAs, the Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake AVAs, both established in 1988. Today, the region is home to almost 150 wineries and 11,000 acres of vineyards and produces about 54,600 tons of grapes.
Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting the region for the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance Riesling Camp. This three-day adventure was jampacked with tastings, vineyard visits, panels/discussions, hands-on winemaking activities, and—of course—a ton of Riesling.
Day 1 | Vineyard visits, panels, tastings, and more
Departing from the beautiful Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen, we started our day with a welcome reception at Lakewood Vineyards and learned about the history of the region. It was the perfect introduction to get us prepared for the day’s activities.
Next stop was Boundary Breaks Vineyards to walk with Owner Bruce Murray about vineyard practices. We learned about how every decision in the vineyards takes effect on the wine—from drainage to pruning to sustainable cover crop. We whisked away to Silver Thread Vineyards to take a look at their sustainable practices before diving into a panel about single vineyard Rieslings at Lamoreaux Landing.
Our night ended at Weis Vineyards for a speed dating meet and greet dinner, where we met with representatives from every winery and tasted 18 different Rieslings. It was hard to pick a fan favorite since they are were so good.
Day 2 | Panels, tastings, blending trials, disgorging, and more
Our second day was extra exciting because we were going to participate in an activity that not many people have experienced—blending our own Riesling. First stop was at Cornell AgriTech to conduct a benchmark tasting of typical Rieslings in different styles and then a blending trial. We each received six different, unmarked tank samples to play with. Through tasting and trial and error, we each measured up our samples and created three signature bottles to for a blind tasting.
After a quick lunch, we headed to the real OG—Dr. Konstantin Frank—for a sparkling Riesling disgorging experience with sparkling winemaker Eric Bauman. He showed us how he used to disgorge bottles manually, before they got more automated equipment, and then he put us to the test. We each we able to disgorge and label our own bottle to take home. While we were enjoying the fruits of our labor, we also sampled some Riesling from Living Roots and Anthony Road.
After the excitement, we went to Heron Hill Winery for a panel/tasting of vintage variation. Four different producers showcased two vintage years side by side—Heron Hill Winery 2020 and 2021 dry Riesling, Wagner Vineyards 2016 and 2017 dry Riesling, Weis Vineyards 2018 and 2020 Winzer Select Riesling K, and Hosmer Winery 2018 and 2020 semi-dry Riesling. This is probably one of my favorite ways to taste because it’s like tasting history in a bottle. You’re getting a slice of the terroir with a taste of the weather conditions of that year.
Then we zipped over to Anthony Road Wine Company for a discussion about sustainability, which is always an important practice to me. It’s just as important to take care of your employees as it is to take care of the earth and you’re working with.
That night, we took a break from Riesling and enjoyed some of the region’s best reds and dry rosés during dinner at Fox Run Vineyards. Chef Brud Holland created a special menu to specially pair with the cool-climate wines. The best part—we each were seated at a table with winemakers, so we were able to connect on a personal level and ask them all our questions. I sat with Bruce Murray from Boundary Breaks and Chris Stamp from Lakewood Vineyards (fun fact: he is a pilot).
Day 3 | Riesling competition, tastings, and waterfalls
On the last day, we started our day at Six Eighty Cellars for a tasting and panel discussion about house styles. Even though it was about house styles, we started talking more about experimentation and what interesting wines were in the pipeline. The panel included winemakers Peter Bell from Fox Run Vineyards, Dave Breeden from Sheldrake Point, and Six-Eighty Cellars, as well as representative Stephen Taylor from Bully Hill Vineyards. One of the memorable moments was when Breeden said, “House wine means that I’m trying to make wine that doesn’t suck.” Amen.
Then we made our way to Sheldrake Point Winery for the Riesling blending competition. Not only were our fellow campers judging the Riesling blends but so were actual winemakers! After four flights of six glasses, there was only one true winner. Drumroll please…my fellow Floridian @The_Vino_Ronin won! Out of the four flights, mine was actually in one of the two good flights (the two others were just terrible). Overall, my wine was middle of the road, which was all I could ask for haha.
The day ended with a farewell lunch at Taughannock State Park. We ate and drank wine from Trestle 31 and Living Roots by Cayuga Lake before hiking up to the towering (215’ tall!) Taughannock Falls. My favorite part of the hike was that winemaker and Master of Wine Nova Cadamatre was walking along with my group, pointing out the terroir and answering our questions. And, of course, the gorgeous waterfall wasn’t too shabby either.
Overall, it was an amazing trip and opened my eyes up to the beauty that is the Finger Lakes. If you ever see a bottle from the Finger Lakes, do yourself a favor and grab it. And here’s the line up in case you’re interested in trying wine from any of the camp producers:
Anthony Road Wine Company
Boundary Breaks Vineyard
Bully Hill Vineyards
Buttonwood Grove Winery
Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery
Fox Run Vineyards
Glenora Wine Cellars
Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard
Heron Hill Winery
Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars
Living Roots Wine & Co
Red Newt Cellars
Sheldrake Point Winery
Silver Thread Vineyard
Six Eighty Cellars