BY CHRIS KASSEL
(This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2009 edition of Touring & Tasting)
SITUATED IN UPSTATE NEW YORK, 350 miles from Manhattan, and consisting of 11 roughly parallel lakes creeping from north to south, the Finger Lakes area got its name because of its uncanny resemblance to a pair of outstretched hands. It was an Episcopal minister named Bostwick who was first credited with planting vineyards on the southern end of Keuka Lake. His initial goal was to produce sacramental wines, but he soon discovered that the region was blessed with its own holy trinity—good soil composition, terrain that drains, and a reasonably cooperative climate. Thus, an industry was born. Around Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, and Keuka Lakes especially, other fledgling winemakers found that a remarkable effect resulted from the unusually deep lake water. The fact that it rarely dipped below the freezing mark provided a warming effect and protected grapes from frost despite the relatively northern latitudes on which they were growing.
In the early 1950s, Ukrainian scientist, Dr. Frank Konstantin, working at the Cornell University Geneva Experiment station, tried to convince colleagues that New York was quite suitable to growing European (Vitis Vinifera) grape varieties. He contended that it was not the climate, but the quality of rootstock that had caused past Vitis Vinifera crops to fail. His idea was ridiculed. He founded his own vineyard and winery on the shores of Keuka Lake in 1962 and began producing Pinot Noir, and still found it difficult to sell his wine. Yet, his Vinifera Revolution weathered the resistance and took hold. Today, the Finger Lakes region has a strong reputation for the production of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other European varieties. And Dr. Frank Konstantin has been inducted into the Wine Spectator Hall of Fame.
MUST TRY TRAIL STOPS
Cobblestone Restaurant for pulled-pork zingers
Madderlake Café for spicy crab cakes
Ports for calamari-shrimp fry
Red Dove Tavern for Thai-veggie curry
Torrey Park Grill for chicken Marsala
Bully Hill for spinach artichoke dip
Snug Harbor for white cheddar horseradish fondue
Switzerland Inn for a Switz burger
Village Tavern for chicken Parmigiano
Wise Guys Pizza for calzone
Ithaca Bakery for a Campania panini
The Heights Café and Grill for duo of salmon salad
Rogue’s Harbor Inn for beef and Brie
Dano’s Heuriger for goulash
Suzanne for Muscovy duck breast
The Ginny Lee for a hot turkey club sandwich
Golden Buck Inn for a twice-baked potato
Essenhaus for a croissant club sandwich
Holly’s Red Rooster for prime rib
Keuka Restaurant for lobster ravioli
Sarrasin’s on the Lake for crab cakes
These days, more than one hundred Finger Lakes wineries crank out 40 million bottles per year, using 50 kinds of grapes, making the Finger Lakes one of the largest wine producing regions in the nation. Certainly, it’s the most diverse.
Rarely does wine country double as a sportsman’s paradise, but that’s the other side of the Finger Lakes. Winemaking tends to be a seasonal activity, and though there is always puttering going on in the cellar, there is plenty to do outside the gates. Hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling, rafting, tubing, and water skiing are natural Finger Lakes diversions. If you’re a fisherman, it’s an angler’s Mecca, boot to boat, from steelhead stream fishing to downrigger trolling. Keuka Lake’s unusual Y-shape coaxes 60 miles of shoreline from 22 miles of length, and Seneca Lake, 600 feet deep, provides habitat for dozens of freshwater species and has its own breed of lake trout that serves the other ten Finger Lakes as well as Lake Ontario. And the bait n’ hook goes on year round. Ice fishing with a thermos of ice wine beside you? It doesn’t get cooler than that.
Hunting is another big Finger Lakes draw, with 118 public sites covering a quarter-million acres of prime deer, waterfowl, and wild turkey territory. Of course, if you’d rather feed critters than feed on them, there’s Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park and, equally kid-friendly, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester’s Strasenburgh Planetarium, and a perennial favorite, the hands-on Sciencenter on Ithaca’s Discovery Trail.
For those of us to whom wine is still the king of sports as well as the world’s foremost energy drink, wine trails form the sinuous backbone of the Finger Lakes’ must-do activities. Eight wineries offer touring and tasting opportunities around the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, one of the many picturesque among a sea of wine trail superlatives. Four seasons of opportunity for sight-seeing, wine tasting, and general fun-having along with a remarkable array of museums and historical architecture make for a total destination package. Ultimately, it’s thumbs up for the Finger Lakes.