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I first discovered the Finger Lakes in 2011 on a return visit from a road trip to the East Coast. Needing to break up the drive to Chicago, we were looking for interesting places to stop and came across references to wine in the Finger Lakes of New York. Given that I am an avid Winetraveler, I didn’t need convincing. We ended up staying a day longer than planned, bouncing from Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka Lakes’ numerous wineries and what we discovered were not only great wines, but an incredible wine community.
I have since returned to the Finger Lakes at least ten times, sometimes with my family, other times with friends, and even one romantic anniversary trip. Each time has been an incredible experience from discovering new wines to making new friends. We’ve hiked waterfalls, visited museums, gone boating and even dancing. Every trip is unique, except for one thing, the warmth and hospitality of the community. Each time we have been welcomed as friends, family in some cases, and each time we grow closer and closer to calling a realtor.
Since 2011, the Finger Lakes has gained increased notoriety for their wines; however, it’s largely still viewed as a place for Riesling or sweet wines. Well, I’m here to tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, you’ll find Riesling – and a lot of it – but much of it dry, not to mention incredibly good, and if you’re into sweet wines, you’ll find those too. But, if like me, you prefer dry European-style red wines or dry, cool climate whites, this is a region you’ll want to discover. Some of the best domestic Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay I’ve experienced has come from this beautiful wine country (not to mention often while watching a stunning sunset over Seneca Lake), and that’s to say nothing of the other varieties from Riesling and Pinot Noir, to Pinot Blanc and Zweigelt – oh, and there’s bubbly too!
What are you waiting for Winetravelers? Let’s get to the Finger Lakes for a long weekend – perhaps I’ll see you there.
How to Get To The Finger Lakes Wine Region
The Finger Lakes are located in central New York State and are comprised of long thin lakes, long ago carved by glaciers. If you’re a crazy, road-tripper like me, it’s a 10-hour drive from Chicago or about a 5.5-hour drive from New York City. I realize this may be a lot for some, but when you bring home four to five cases of wine because you can’t help yourself, having the car is an advantage. However, if you’re only planning a long weekend and don’t live within a few hours’ drive, air travel is best (and if you don’t have a wine suitcase, many of the wineries will ship wine to your home). The one time I did fly, I flew into Greater Rochester International Airport on a direct flight with American Airlines. However, you can also look at flights from your hometown to Syracuse Hancock International Airport, or the Elmira/Corning Regional Airport.
Winetraveler Tip: If you fly into Rochester, visit Living Roots Wine & Co. in Rochester before heading to wine country. Here you can compare Finger Lakes wines to Australian wines – often the same varieties – made locally in Rochester or at the Wine Co.’s Australian winery.
If you opted for air travel, you will need to rent a car. Getting to Seneca Lake, our recommended lake on which to stay, will take about 1.5 hours from Rochester and Syracuse or 45 minutes from Elmira. It’s also necessary to have a car to tour the region. Drivers and car services are available for winery tours, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Uber or taxi, particularly in the evening hours. With that in mind, if you plan to visit multiple wineries in a day, pace yourself or designate a driver. The winding, hilly, two-lane roads from which you’ll spot the occasional deer throughout the region require your full attention.
Where to Stay
As I previously mentioned, I recommend you stay on Seneca Lake – especially if it’s your first visit to the region. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has 31 member wineries and there’s dozens of others not listed on the trail around the lake as well. No matter your taste in wine or the style of tasting you prefer, it can be found here and each of the places listed is within proximity to any number of wineries. Here are some of the best hotels to stay at in the Finger Lakes area, with a few personal favorites below.
The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel – A water-front hotel on the south end of Seneca Lake, in the town of Watkins Glen, you’ll be close to some great dining options, shopping and the beautiful waterfall laden, Watkins Glen State Park.
The Belhurst – Three unique hotels, located in Geneva, New York on the north end of Seneca Lake. Choose from the 1880s stone castle overlooking the lake, a Georgian Revival mansion nestled in the vineyards, or the luxurious Vinifera Inn with fireplaces in every room.
Numerous hotel chains and franchises can also be found to fit any budget in Geneva and a few private hotels and motels are available in Watkins Glen. That said, when I visit the Finger Lakes, I prefer to find a bed and breakfast, Airbnb or cabin rental. While there are numerous options, I do have a few favorites:
The 1885 Fruit Packing House – Search for this place on AirBnB. It’s perfect for a romantic weekend getaway. A guest house set on Seneca Lake and surrounded by vineyards. I’m seasoned traveler and this is arguably one of my favorite rentals and it’s conveniently located in Hector, New York on Seneca Lake’s eastern side.
(Winetraveler Tip: Make sure to visit Hector Wine Company nearby – they make some of my favorite red wines in the region as well as my all-time favorite Pinot Blanc.)
The Ort Resort – Traveling as a family or with friends, this multi-bedroom house will accommodate all your needs, not to mention offers stunning sunset views from the raised deck overlooking the lake. Located in Burdett, New York, just south of Hector, this will feel like a home away from home.
Recommended Seneca Lake Itinerary
East Seneca Lake Wineries
Boundary Breaks – Come for the Riesling (seriously it was among the best I’ve had in the region), but make sure to try the Cab Franc as well. Then venture outside with a glass and take in some of the most fabulous views along the east side of Seneca Lake.
J.R. Dill Winery – In the mood for a little bubbly? This family run winery has a great Blanc de Blanc, a lovely tasting room and outdoor patio. I very much enjoyed the 2017 Dry Riesling and the blended 2016 Cab Sauvignon and Cab Franc. And the glass top bar is a stunner!
Wagner Vineyards – One of the first family wineries in the region, Wagner has been making wine for decades and the ingenuity and passion here is tangible. There’s a wide variety of tasting options (including beer from their brewery), but I have to say the Gewürztraminer was among my favorites. Also, if they have their 2012 Cab Franc available, and you’re a Cab Franc fan, you’ll be in heaven.
Atwater Vineyards – Now Atwater has some fun wines – including a few Pét-Nats, but for my money, they had one of my favorite bottles of Lemberger from my most recent visit as well as, you guessed it, a good Cab Franc too. If you’re into dry red wines, this is a must-stop along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.
Barry Family Cellars – Barry Family Cellars is in Burdett’s downtown, east of the lake. I discovered this little gem recently and I am thankful I did. I was once again surprised to find more interesting and fun Pét-Nats including a Léon Millot, but make sure to try their Chardonnay as well. (Winetraveler tip: If you can get a tasting appointment with Nine Four Wines it will likely be at Barry Family Cellars – and the Nine Four Chardonnay cannot be missed. Seriously.)
Forge Cellars – Forge Cellars is appointment only and you’ll only find Pinot Noir and Riesling here. Made up of three partners —French Winemaker-Grower, Louis Barruol of Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas and American partners Richard Rainey, and Justin Boyette, Forge Cellars has some of the best wine of the region, so make sure to set your appointment in advance.
West Seneca Lake Wineries
Lakewood Vineyards – Another family-run winery, this brother and sister winemaking team is shaking things up. After working in wineries and vineyards around the world, they’re putting their knowledge to work for the family. The grounds, views and open-air patio are also a perfect place to enjoy a glass overlooking the lake. Both sweet wine and dry wine lovers will find something to their liking here.
Hickory Hollow/Nathan K Wines – A small tasting room nestled among pine trees, Hickory Hollow and Nathan K Wines (Nathan Kendall was a Top 40 Winemaker for Wine Enthusiast Magazine) is a great place to experience different winemaking styles side-by-side. The Dry Rieslings were excellent as was the Cab Franc Rosé.
Barnstormer Winery – Located in an historic barn, more than 170 years old, Barnstormer focuses on dry, European-style whites and reds. They have an incredible Sangiovese Rosé, a Bordeaux blend called Departure that was among my favorite red wines from the region this past season, and a Cab Franc from the renowned Leidenfrost Vineyards. (Winetraveler tip: Want a place to sit outside and enjoy a glass of wine from the comfort of an Adirondack or toss around some bags, this is the place.)
Billsboro – Remember that Airbnb I mentioned previously, the packing house? The vines surrounding the house are the source of this winery’s grapes and they are among the best on the lake. The entire line-up of dry, European-style wines is worth trying, but the Albariño and Syrah are among my favorites.
Recommended Finger Lakes Restaurants
FLX Wienery – Bring your appetite and sense of adventure. These aren’t your ordinary hot dogs.
Stonecat Café – Closed for the winter months, Stonecat has a great patio, delectable local and seasonal fare with an outstanding wine list to try any number of Finger Lakes wines.
Graft Wine & Cider Bar – One of my more recent finds, the food here is eclectic and mind-blowing. Every dish I had could rival any big city gastro pub. And again, numerous Finger Lakes wine options can be found on the menu (this is a great way to try wines from places you won’t be able to visit this trip).
Watkins Glen State Park – Within two miles, the park’s stream drops 400 feet along the 200-foot cliffs, creating an astounding 19 waterfalls along the path. The hiking trails wind over and under waterfalls, through the spray of Cavern Cascade and overlook the dramatic gorge.
Plan Your Getaway
Honestly, this is just a fraction of the wineries I could recommend to you. In fact, I could stay on Seneca Lake for an entire summer, if not lifetime, but I’ll take any long weekend or four-day stay I can get. My typical four days will include mostly winery visits, a trip (and in some cases two trips) to Stonecat Café and a hike through the State Park. If you prefer visits with less crowds, opt for mid-week or off-season stays. If weekends are your only option, not to worry, you’ll find live music and plenty of options for tasting both indoor and out. Most important of all, please do yourself a favor and make a visit to Two Goats Brewing (they have wine too!) for one evening to watch the sunset over the lake. There’s nothing like a summer or autumn sunset here. In a word, it’s magical.
The Finger Lakes Wine Country of New York drew me in, spoiled me with its charm and beauty and kept a piece of my soul. It has a way of welcoming travelers into its fold and keeping us coming back. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time you see what this region is all about from the waterfalls to wine. And if you’re in need of more recommendations or have any questions, shoot me an email because if you can’t tell, I’m a little in love with this region. I’ll be happy to help you make your very own Finger Lakes Winetraveler memories.