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"Off the beaten path" is an often-misused description. For some independent travelers, it can even be a portent of doom — especially when it crops up in one of the more patronizing travel guidebooks. By the time you get to your Shangri-La, thousands of eager backpackers have beaten the less-trodden path to a bloody pulp, pillaged it of its tranquil charm, and spurred several local spin-off t-shirt enterprises.
At the risk of accelerating similar carnage, allow us to introduce to you to the Finger Lakes Region of New York, America's most exciting "off the beaten path" wine region.
Wine comes in many styles: from the fruity and friendly French Beaujolais to the uber-expressive New Zealand whites and the enormous "fruit bombs" for which much of California is famed. Traditionally, American wines have fallen firmly in the latter category. This is fitting: America doesn't do subtle. Or does it?
A short spin from Manhattan up the New York State Thruway takes you to a cool-climate wine region in the mold of Alsace or Austria, and what may well be the future of American wine. As some of California's dominant, massive wines venture farther and farther over the edge of "overblown", the Finger Lakes, one of America's largest (but barely known) wine regions, is beginning to corner its own market with its knack for more subtle, European-style wines.
Morten Hallgren, Danish-born owner and winemaker of Ravines Wine Cellars, a top Finger Lakes producer, describes these wines as "transparent" and "balanced". As he explains, "transparent" means the winemaker hasn't tried to manipulate the wine or force his or her agenda during the winemaking process — such manipulation tends to lead to a stylistic wine, but one that fails to showcase the most important component: the fruit. He envisions the Finger Lakes as being a region that allows the grapes to express their true character. This true character of cool-climate grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay — most of which originated in the cooler northern regions of France — often expresses itself in nuanced dry wines, rather than wine-on-steroids examples that have come to dominate the shelves of wine stores and supermarkets in the US.
Owing to its cool, continental climate, the Finger Lakes region is simply more suited to producing a subtle style of wine. Its frigid winters and lack of prolonged summer sunshine or intense heat mean that many grapes struggle to survive, let alone deliver massive over-ripe wines. The region has much more in common with northern France or Germany than it does with its compatriots on the West Coast of America. Through years of improvement in producing cool-climate grapes — Riesling in particular — the Finger Lakes has begun to cement a new reputation as a serious player in the wine world. Rob Terek, a sommelier at Spina in Manhattan's East Village, thinks top Finger Lakes Rieslings are "without a doubt" as good as their German counterparts.
MAKING A SPLASH
John Ingle, owner of Heron Hill winery on Keuka Lake, says Riesling is king in the Finger Lakes. Experts from the wine-media oligarchy agree with him; the top Rieslings from the region routinely win international competitions and score well in the influential wine magazines. But in spite of this success and the fact that most local wine folk agree that Riesling is the way forward, you are unlikely to find many Finger Lakes Rieslings outside of New York State. Rob Terek of Spina often has trouble getting hold of Finger Lakes wines even though his restaurant is only four hours away. For the "off-the-beaten-path" wine tourist, this is a blessing. But for those with a vested interest in the region's growth, it's a persistent problem.
As Bob Madill, chair of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, an association of 40 or so leading producers, notes, old habits die hard. "Our history and tradition of relying on a local and tourist clientele has become a weakness," he said. "It has been made worse by very limited investment in developing what might be termed export markets: any geographic market out of the Finger Lakes. But over the last few years we have been investing in developing 'brand Finger Lakes' through organizations such as our own and Finger Lakes Wine Country [a body that promotes the region as a tourist destination]."
Happily, such investment has been matched by a growing interest among up-and-coming wine professionals in plying their trade in upstate New York. A new generation of young, experienced, and international winemakers, drawn to the region by its relatively untapped potential, is hastening the elevation of the region’s status. John Ingle, owner of Heron Hill, one of the larger and more established producers, says his operation has been transformed by the arrival of Tomas Laszlo, a Hungarian-Canadian winemaker who arrived in the Finger Lakes in 2002. "Tomas has been hugely influential in three main areas: his expertise, his ability to develop a consistent and unique style for our wines, and his know-how that he applies to solving problems, because, in this kind of climate, there are many."
The Finger Lakes has struggled over the years to shake off a reputation for mass-produced, sugary, and non-serious wines. In the last decade, however, the level of quality emanating from the region has made this reputation obsolete. But perceptions in the outside world still need to catch up. For Morten Hallgren of Ravines, who was one of the first qualified enologists to set up in the Finger Lakes, the time has come for the region to step up its efforts in export markets and take its place among the top up-and-coming wine regions of the world. "It's very difficult to alter mindsets," he says, "but our quality is improving all the time and our marketing is getting better." It's an exciting time for wine tourists to visit. As Morten puts it, he and his counterparts are "defining a new kind of US wine region."
PLANNING A WINE TASTING TRIP
The Finger Lakes wine region spans roughly the east-west distance between Rochester and Syracuse, and south to the Pennsylvania border. It's a sizeable area to navigate in a short vacation. Moreover, deciding which wineries to visit can be daunting; there are well over one hundred across the three wine trails (along Seneca, Keuka, and Cayuga lakes). So it's worth doing some advance research, making sure to hit the top quality places. Some producers offer wine in a style that really only works with a limited local target market, and tends to be too sugary for those who are accustomed to mainstream dry wines. To make the planning easier, we've compiled a short, and by no means exhaustive, list of some of the best Finger Lakes wineries to visit.
TOP FINGER LAKES WINERIES
Dr. Konstantin Frank pioneered the introduction of European grape varieties to the Finger Lakes in the 1960s, and the Frank family estate is the largest and best know in the area. It produces consistent quality across a range of styles. Its smaller, quieter, but arguably superior fellow-pioneer Hermann J. Wiemer is perhaps the region's best candidate for a major international breakthrough. Heron Hill is perfect for those who prefer a more relaxed atmosphere, and its wines are among the best and most acclaimed in the region. Ravines Wine Cellars boasts top winemaker Morten Hallgren, and wines that showcase his talent. It is also among the friendliest and classiest wineries to visit, thanks in no small measure to the delightful Lisa Hallgren, who pairs her exquisite culinary creations with the Ravines wines, and runs relaxed and educational tastings.
Other notable quality producers include Sheldrake Point, Lamoreaux Landing, Lakewood Vineyards, Fox Run, Anthony Road, and Standing Stone. Be sure to also check out the new Finger Lakes Distilling, which produces a remarkably aromatic gin, and a range of other liqueurs and spirits. Tasting fees across the board are low — expect to pay two to five dollars to try about six wines. Most wineries will also refund your tasting fee if you buy some wine.
WHERE TO STAY
Like just about anywhere in America, there's no shortage of lousy cheap motels in the Finger Lakes. A far better option for the frugal traveler is the legendary Seneca Lodge. You can stay in a comfortable — if a little poky — cabin for about $40. The best part is the fantastic on-site bar where they give you rare US currency like 50-cent coins and two-dollar bills in your change. It remains a mecca for car racing enthusiasts drawn by nearby Watkins Glen racetrack.
For more upmarket lodging, try one of the many excellent inns and B&Bs in the area. These are usually cheaper than the chain hotels and offer infinitely better charm and comfort. The Fox and the Grapes on Seneca Lake is a beautifully restored Victorian mansion, while the Swiss owners of Villa Bernese in Corning deliver exceptional hospitality in addition to one of the finest and most lavish breakfasts your correspondent has ever enjoyed.
WHERE TO EAT
The Stonecat Cafe on Seneca Lake serves first-rate local and organic food in a cool and friendly environment. Prices are fair considering the high-quality local produce used. Nearby Dano's is in a splendid (or appalling, depending on your architectural taste) modernist building overlooking the lake. This is apparently America's first "Heuriger" restaurant: served in traditional Austrian style. If you like sauerkraut and Germanic meats, this place is for you. The dining room is exquisite and the food is, as you can expect across the Finger Lakes, top quality. For a throwback to true Americana, Mac's Drive-In near Geneva will give you a hotdog, a draft PBR, and some change in exchange for $5. See if you can decide whether the ambience is closer to Happy Days or Dazed and Confused.
OTHER SIGHTS & SOUNDS
The Corning Museum of Glass is a fascinating introduction (for those who weren't already in-the-know) to the art and science of glassmaking. Expect to easily while away half a day there.
Despite suffering as much as any part of the northeast from post-industrial economic decline, this bit of upstate New York has a number of beautifully preserved Victorian-era towns and cities — and a fair share of dreary spots, too. The understated cool of Trumansburg and the college-town verve of Ithaca are two highlights, while quiet and somewhat depressed Elmira is lit up by a glorious slice of American culture in the form of Green Pastures Jazz Club.
BEST VALUE BOTTLES
Hermann J. Wiemer, Riesling, Finger Lakes, 2007 ($17)
One of the original trailblazers for world-class wine in the region, Wiemer produces an array of exceptional Rieslings. Their entry-level offering is as good a Riesling as you will find anywhere in the world at this price range.
Ravines Wine Cellars, Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes, 2007 ($17)
Morten Hallgren produces two Rieslings. His less expensive bottle offers exceptional value. In his trademark style, it is clean and crisp, with lemon rind on the nose and a dry, grapefruit palate.
Ravines Wine Cellars, Pinot Noir, Finger Lakes, 2007 ($19)
Hallgren says he has always been convinced of the Finger Lakes' potential for producing great Pinot Noir. This is a beautiful, "transparent", and pure expression of the grape’s unique and seductive characteristics; a velvety-smooth, medium-bodied affair with tons of vibrant fresh berry and cherry flavors.
Heron Hill, Cabernet Franc, Finger Lakes, 2006 ($15)
Winemaker Tomas Laszlo has floated the idea of turning the Finger Lakes into a Riesling-only region. This would be a shame, if only because it would mean the demise of his modestly priced Cabernet Franc, with its brambly fruit and hint of licorice on the palate. This is a subtle red wine, in the mold of the famous Loire Valley Chinon, which is also made from Cabernet Franc.
Heron Hill, Select Late Harvest Ingle Vineyard Chardonnay, Finger Lakes, 2005 ($45)
This is supposed to be a column about good value fine wine. But sometimes $45 represents good value. In any case, you can visit the winery and taste it for a buck or two. Heron Hill owner John Ingle says this wine was pure accident. He discovered a fungus affecting his Ingle vineyard Chardonnay grapes and called winemaker Tomas Laszlo for backup. Laszlo identified the fungus as being the magical and benevolent botrytis cinerea, which, under the right conditions, concentrates the sugars in grapes and produces a heavenly sweet wine. Having spent much time working with the majestic Tokaj wines in his native Hungary, Laszlo knew when he had found the right kind of rot. The result of this serendipity is a mind-blowing medley of butterscotch, peach, marzipan, and orange-zest flavors, with a persistent freshness that keeps it from being overly sweet. This is a very approachable sweet wine, even for those who profess not to care for the style.
Story and photos: Copyright 2009, Shoestring LLC and Ryan Thompson.