New York’s Finger Lakes region isn’t really that far from Washington, DC; just under six hours away, it’s makes for a perfectly reasonable three-day weekend getaway. Adam and I decided to make the journey for Labor Day weekend. We figured if we left after work on Friday, stopped for the night close to the Pennsylvania/New York border, and spent Saturday exploring and sipping Finger Lakes wine, we would have all of Sunday to visit Niagara Falls (just two-and-a-half hours away) before returning home on Monday. Nice, relaxed, and easy: quite a change from the breakneck speed we’re used to during weekend trips! After all, it was just a couple of months ago that we found a way to explore Panama in just two days. Having three leisurely days to spend in New York could set us up for our easiest trip yet.
Our first itinerary change came a few days before we were planning to leave. My dad was visiting us and was excited to join us on our road trip; however, his birthday was on the Friday we were scheduled to leave, so Adam and I made an executive decision that we would trade a late start on Friday for an early start on Saturday so we could take my dad out for a birthday dinner. No one should have to spend their birthday sitting in traffic on a highway, so we enjoyed a great meal and a round of cocktails close to home on Friday night.
Alarms went off throughout our house at 4:00 AM on Saturday, and by 5:00 we were settled into the car and backing out of our driveway. To be sure we maximized our time at the Finger Lakes we stopped only briefly for breakfast; shortly before 11:00 AM our car was winding along Keuka Lake as we all gazed out the windows. We left home in the dark; it was if dawn dropped us off in a new, peaceful world.
Finger Lakes Wine
Although I knew that the Finger Lakes are among the top five wine producing regions in the United States, I didn’t know the extent of their rich wine production tradition—or how connected their history is to that of our home state of Virginia. As early as the country’s first settlement at Jamestown colonists tried to grow grapes, but many of the European vines they brought to plant just wouldn’t grow in Virginia’s soil. Throughout the 1700s Thomas Jefferson and other contemporaries tried to grow grapes with the hopes of producing wine like they enjoyed in France, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that hybrid grapes started to grow and eventually thrive. A few wineries opened during around the Finger Lakes during that time, but the industry remained small into the 20th century. Finger Lakes wine started to take off in the 1960s. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant, and Charles Fournier, a French immigrant, joined forces to guide the successful growth of a few different European grapes, and the region saw the beginnings of its commercial success.
Today, you won’t have trouble finding your favorite wine in the Finger Lakes region. While Riesling is the shining star in terms of how well it grows and how many wineries offer it on their tasting menu, many other German varietals are prevalent, as are plenty of rosés, reds, and even sparkling wines. In fact, we were amazed by how many wines each winery produces; we visited four wineries, and each boasted at least 10 and sometimes more than 20 different wines. There are more than 120 different wineries in the Finger Lakes region, and of the 11 Finger Lakes you will find vineyards nestled on the shores of seven of them. Seneca Lake, Keuka Lake, and Cayuga Lake each have their own wine trails—a great benefit for tourists who need some guidance as to which wineries are often visited together. We found it just as easy to do some quick research on some of the best wineries in the area, and we were not disappointed!
A Quick Note about Tasting Finger Lakes Wine
We have tasted wines around the world, and most often that means we are presented with a set tasting menu and a chance to try all of the wines on the list. The tastings we experienced in the Finger Lakes had significantly longer lists, and for a nominal fee (ranging from free to $6 at the wineries we visited) we were able try our choice of any of the wines available; most wineries allowed up to five or six selections. I found this to be a great approach to wine tasting because it allowed Adam, my dad, and me to create a customized tasting experience while still enjoying time together as a group. When Adam wanted to focus his tastings on some of the eastern European wines we discovered in Austria a few years ago, that didn’t prevent my dad from enjoying more sparkling wines or me from tasting a few more reds. Keep in mind that it isn’t possible—or advisable—to try all of the wines a winery offers. Even if you wanted to sample 25 different wines, chances are you wouldn’t be able to taste the difference between them by the time you reached the end of the list: there are just too many.
As with all winery experiences, we absolutely recommend a designated driver, hiring a transportation company, or an organized tour.
So which wineries did our Finger Lakes wine experience lead us to visit? We had enough time to check out four different wineries, each one unique and each one worth exploring if you find yourself in the region!
Dr. Konstantin Frank
One of founding fathers of Finger Lakes wine, Dr. Konstantin Frank arrived in the United States in 1951 with a Ph.D. in viticulture; he took a position at Cornell University, which relocated him to upstate New York. The wine region was struggling during this period, and Dr. Frank didn’t believe the misconception that it was because of New York’s cold climate. He thought the problem lay within challenges the vines had establishing their roots. Charles Fournier was the first person to hear Dr. Frank’s theory and agree with him, and the two men not only proved it was possible to grow European grapes in the United States, they established a solid foundation for the growth of the Finger Lakes wine industry. Dr. Frank opened his winery in 1962, and today—more than 50 years later—the winery is managed by the fourth generation of Frank’s family.
Tastings at Dr. Frank are complimentary, and you get to choose five wines from their selections. We loved our tasting with Joanne, who demonstrated great knowledge of everything from the winery’s history to each of the wines on the list. We tasted with another couple who favored sweet wines, so for each of our five tastings Joanne gave us a choice of two wines—a dryer wine and a sweeter one—to be sure there was something for everyone’s palette. She was also happy to swap out wines upon request; when Adam delighted over their inclusion of a Grüner Veltliner (a wine we loved in Austria), she offered it alongside a similarly dry Rkatisteli, a Georgian grape that we also loved when we visited Croatia.
It’s no surprise that Dr. Frank is a true standout among the Finger Lakes wineries we visited, and it’s also no surprise that the wines we tried were truly exceptional. In addition to bringing home a bottle of Rkatisteli, we also left with a bottle of Célèbre, a nice, slightly sweet sparkling wine that was a favorite for Adam, my dad, and me. The dry and semi dry Rieslings were also well-done (the semi dry was one of my favorites of the day—big on melon and with a higher acidity, it’s a double gold medal winner!). Although we were limited to five tastings, Joanne poured some of the Pinot Noir rosé for my dad, who thought it was a truly great wine. I’m not often a big fan of rosés, but even I thought the wine was nice; it had all of the characteristics of a great rosé without being too heavy on the strawberry notes, which to me can sometime taste a little too artificial. We left with half a case of wine between the three of us and declared Dr. Frank to be the perfect place to kick off our day—and a can’t-miss winery.
More Information: DrFrankWines.com
Ravines Wine CellarsJust across Lake Keuka sits Ravines Wine Cellars, our second stop of the day. Ravines celebrates the marriage of food and wine just as much as the marriage of its owners and founders, Morten and Lisa Hallgren. Morten’s French heritage and degrees in enology and viticulture combine forces with Lisa’s love of great food to produce a well-rounded winery experience. In addition to a lovely restaurant, they also offer wine and food pairings throughout the year. The winery and its vineyards sit between two ravines, which serve as its namesake.
For just $3 we were offered our choice of any five of their 14 wines, with the recommended bonus that selecting Riesling would lead to a sixth taste so we could compare the two Rieslings they produce. We started there, with two different dry Rieslings that were distinctly different; while the first was more acidic, I preferred the fruitier version a bit more. Also of note was the Maximilien, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. I usually love blends, and this wine was no different for me. Heavy on cherry notes and a bit tannic, it was my favorite of the wines I sampled. However, we ended up leaving with two bottles of Ravines’ dessert wine, Ayre, a crisp Muscat that drinks well when it is very cold. It has lovely summer fruit notes including peach and orange. All in all, we were happy we visited Ravines Wine Cellars to try some of their Finger Lakes wine.
More Information: RavinesWine.com
Glenora Wine Cellars
Our third stop of the day took us to Seneca Lake and Glenora Wine Cellars, a large and enormously popular winery that immediately felt a little bit more like a party than a quiet, cultured tasting space. We paid $5.00 per person upfront and received a stamp on our hands before being admitted to the tasting room (“It feels like a different kind of winery!” I remarked to Adam; I usually don’t pay a cover and get a stamp unless I’m at a nightclub!). Glenora does have a reason to make their tasting experience feel exclusive, though; their claim to fame is that they were the first winery to establish on Seneca Lake in 1977.
Glenora’s tasting menu was the most expansive of all of the menus we saw during our day sampling Finger Lakes wine. We were encouraged to select up to six wines out of more than 40—their list of options covered both sides of a sheet of paper! They had something for everyone—whites, reds, rosés, sweets and semi sweets, sparkling wines, and even fruit wines. Somewhat overwhelmed, my strategy was to sample wines I otherwise might not get to try. I started with a pinot blanc, which was deliciously full of vanilla and pear—it was a white wine I could picture drinking in the winter by a fireplace just as easily as outside in the summer. The Alpine White, a blend of Cayuga and chardonnay, was light and refreshing. I was surprised by how much I liked the Glenora port, which really was similar to the ports I enjoyed in the Douro Valley and at Morais Vineyards, a Portuguese-style winery in Virginia. The winner was actually a wine my dad selected, Peach Spumante, which he appropriately characterized as a “Bellini without the work.”
One of the best parts of our visit was that, despite each of us selecting six wines to try, our hostess was gracious enough to pour a sample of each of our selections for everyone in our group—or a taste big enough to share amongst ourselves. Another highlight was that, periodically, our hostess would reach into the refrigerator behind her and emerge with a platter of cheese samples from Yancey’s Fancy New York Cheeses for us to try. The cheese samples weren’t necessarily intended to pair directly with the wines we selected, but they were all really good—I especially loved a wasabi cheese I tried. To bring our visit full circle, when we stepped outside on our way to the car (with a few bottles in tow!) it felt a bit like leaving a nightclub; we were in need of some fresh air, some space away from the crowds, and we were all smiles after a really fun time.
More Information: Glenora.com
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards
Our final Finger Lakes wine stop of the day took us just down the road from Glenora, but if felt like the difference between night and day. Wiemer’s 80-acre estate sits quietly in the shade of tall, mature trees, and although it, too, was busy, a smiling staff member was happy to take our names and the number of people in our party before giving us an estimated wait time before our tasting would begin. So much for the nightclub atmosphere; it felt like we had traded that for a lovely, formal dinner at an upscale restaurant. We only waited about 15 minutes before our names were called and we were escorted inside to a tasting table; instead of being grouped with another party, we were given our own space.
Hermann J. Wiemer got his start in Finger Lakes wine during the same era that Dr. Frank and Charles Fournier were pioneering the industry, and Wiemer’s German roots and knowledge of German wine led him to correctly believe Rieslings could thrive in the Finger Lakes’ climate. Aiming to create an elegant tasting experience, Wiemer produces some lovely wines. We were offered a choice of three different flights: the Winery Tasting, which provided six samples; the Dry Riesling Flight for guests interested in the region’s most famous grape; and the Style Flight, which shares a taste of four of their premium wines. We all selected the Winery Tasting, although Adam swapped out the rosé offered as part of that flight with the Grüner Veltliner from the Style Flight. Of the six wines we tried, I enjoyed the late harvest Riesling the most. It’s produced from seven pickings during a few short weeks late in the year, which creates a sweeter wine.
More Information: Wiemer.com
Plan Your Own Finger Lakes Wine Tour!
Finger Lakes wine is among the best we have tried, and we’re glad it’s only a weekend trip away from us in Washington, DC. It’s also a feasible weekend trip from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston—although we understand if you want a few extra days to explore the gorgeous scenery that welcomes you around every turn. While we focused our visit just on the wine, there is plenty more to do, including hiking and boating during warmer months. Meal options are plentiful as well; we stumbled upon the Timber Stone Grill in Hammondsport, just south of Dr. Frank along Keuka Lake, and enjoyed our sandwiches and flatbreads while we planned the rest of our afternoon.
There’s a lot more Finger Lakes wine for us to try, and we’re looking forward to planning another trip in the future. After an incredible day by the water, it was time for us to trade calm lakes for rushing waterfalls as we made our way toward Buffalo and Niagara Falls for the second part of our weekend adventure!
If you are thinking of creating your own Finger Lakes wine tour, here are a few great maps and resources that helped us plan our experience!
Cayuga Lake Wine Trail
Keuka Lake Wine Trail
Seneca Lake Wine Trail
Finger Lakes Restaurants, Breweries, Places to Stay, Shopping, Activities, and Events
From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited wineries located throughout the New York Finger Lakes, and this post includes our candid review of our experiences. We selected these wineries based on our own research, travel needs, and interests; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.