It is a satisfying feeling when you check something off your bucket list, especially when it involves traveling. I had the opportunity to do just that this past October when I visited the Finger Lakes wine region for the first time, specifically Seneca Lake. I was first introduced to this area during my WSET studies. The history, unique microclimates and ranging varietals intrigued me, I knew I wanted to experience it first-hand.
The Finger Lakes AVA consists of four main lakes: Canandaigua Lake, Keuka Lake, Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake. The latter two lakes are recognized as AVA regions on their own as well. Due to the various microclimates, the vineyards surrounding each lake have their own unique characteristics and flavor profiles. These lakes were shaped thousands of years ago by sequential waves of glaciers, cutting as deep as 600 feet below sea level. Considered a cool climate region, the lakes are extremely influential in the viticulture. There are nearly 150 wineries home to this region, boasting more than 11,000 acres of vineyards. Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir all thrive in this area, plus native grapes and hybrids.
Nostalgia immediately took over my emotions as the flight descended into the area. The trees were color coated with bright yellow, red and burnt orange, reminding me of home in Utah. October is a beautiful time of year to appreciate this wine region. Autumn certainly made its presence through the crisp air while showing off its beauty with the ever-changing colors of nature, offering a stunning backdrop against the vineyards.
The focus of this trip was Seneca Lake, the deepest of the 11 Finger Lakes, with depths up to 618 feet. The lake runs 35 miles long and rarely freezes; this temperature-moderating influence contributes to the unique grape growing conditions. Established as an official AVA in 2003, today there are more than 3,700 acres planted, with an emphasis on Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and sparkling wines.
Our first stop was the Inn at Miles Cellars, where my husband and I, would get settled and stay for the duration of the trip. The Inn is part of Miles Wine Cellars and has been called the “most serenely gorgeous winery in the region” by National Geographic Traveler. Nestled between vineyard vines, mature oak trees and Seneca Lake just steps away, you couldn’t ask for a better ambiance. The inn and winery are located in a historic Greek Revival home, which is rumored to be haunted. Luckily, we didn’t have any ghost encounters during our stay, although the ghosts are known to be friendly. It also showcases a stair railing which came from Mark Twain’s home in the nearby city of Elmira.
A couple fun facts about this place…at the front of the property is the oldest known willow tree in the Northeast, dating back to the late 1700’s. They also have a boathouse that has boat accessibility, where you can stop in and do a tasting right there on the dock. This is the only winery on Seneca Lake with this type of luxury, making it a unique experience with breathtaking views. Miles Wine Cellars offers more than just wine tastings. They also offer beer, cider and spirits tastings. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the cider, always fun to try something new.
The dining in the area is spectacular, the food was just as memorable as the wines. Dinner the first night was at Sapalta at Plum Point Lodge, offering lakefront fine-dining featuring scenic views of Seneca Lake, which you can enjoy from inside the restaurant or outdoors on the specious patio with heaters provided in the cooler months. Rated as one of the best restaurants on Seneca Lake, all the food is sourced from local farmers. We started with the Persian Lime Hummus, which comes with pita bread and then indulged in the beef tenderloin pie and Halibut for main entrees. We left on a sweet note with ice cream and cake pie.
Day two was busy, full of adventure, as we made our way around the entire lake, visiting multiple wineries. Before taking in all the wines, a breakfast stop at The Elf in the Oak is a must. This charming spot has an outdoor patio overlooking Seneca Lake and makes fresh breakfast sandwiches and savory homemade biscuits. They also create homemade syrups for lattes and coffees, the hazelnut was hands down my favorite.
Time to start wine tasting! First stop was at Atwater Vineyards, which is a family-owned winery located on the east side of Seneca Lake. They are all about sustainability and meticulously connect and care about every vine they grow. Their vineyards are located in the southern part of Seneca Lake, referred to as the “banana belt.” The area is warmer than any other spot in the region, allowing certain grape varieties to thrive. They offer everything from sparkling wines, rosé wines, white wines and red wines to specialty wines such as a skin fermented Pinot Gris and dessert wines. It was the 2020 Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Dry Rosé of Cabernet Franc that caught my attention and eventually walked out the door with us. They offer seated tastings, where you can order cheese and charcuterie plates as part of your experience all while taking in the panoramic views of Seneca Lake.
Second stop of the day was at Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery, which is also home to the Ginny Lee Café where we enjoyed lunch. At this point, I started to realize there is not a bad view in this area. The café overlooks the vineyards with Seneca Lake just beyond that, simply stunning. I mixed it up and enjoyed an IPA (they make beer too) with an open-faced Turkey sandwich for lunch before heading over to the winery. This was the first winery to open on the east side of Seneca Lake back in 1979, 100% estate grown and offers more than 30 different wines. They are known for their selection of Rieslings, which are phenomenal, and definitely try their dessert wines if you get a chance.
I don’t normally pick favorites but I’m going to break that rule. Our stop at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars was hands down a favorite! The staff was so hospitable, and the wines spoke for themselves. We spent a good hour and a half learning about the history of this winery, all the way down to the varying soil types, which includes Honeoye Silt Loam and Lansing Gravely Loam. My nerdy wine self definitely came out at that point. At Lamoreaux Landing they pride themselves on being growers first. All the wines are produced and bottled in house, using estate-grown fruit with an emphasis on sustainability. We even had a chance to go down to the cellar and speak with the Winemaker, Jesse Alexander, and discuss how harvest was going. The majority of their vineyards consist of Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, although they do produce some other great varietals such as Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner and Merlot. When it was all said and done, we walked out of there with a case of wine.
Last stop of the day was at Boundary Breaks Vineyards. This place has some of the best views of Seneca Lake with a great outdoor space to take it all in. They are known for their Rieslings, with ‘Top 100 Wines in the World’ accolades from Wine Enthusiast. Some of my favorite Dry Rieslings from the trip were from here. The wines have lively acidity and are full of fruit flavor. This winery is off the beaten path, one I consider to be a hidden gem.
After a full day of wine tasting, my appetite was growing. Kindred Fare located in Geneva, hit the spot! A warm and inviting atmosphere from the moment you step in, offering a dining experience that starts with fresh ingredients inspired by farmhouse cooking. We started with the Burrata salad, which was a favorite, but it was the Pork Belly Rice Bowl that stole the show. You cannot go here without trying that dish, it should be a requirement to order! Believe me. It was THAT good. And with that, day two was in the books.
Keep in mind, it is okay and acceptable to spit or not finish the wine when wine tasting. If you are planning more than two tastings per day, I highly recommend spitting wine, so you don’t get inebriated. That can ruin a day of wine tasting quickly. Although we were pretty exhausted at this point, it was nice to go back to the Inn at Miles Cellars, where each evening they had a bottle of wine waiting for us with a delicious charcuterie board. This was a great way to unwind and enjoy a glass of wine before bedtime.
Day three started at Glenora Wine Cellars, the first winery founded on Seneca Lake back in 1977. Since then, they have expanded to include an inn and a restaurant, which offers local cheeses, savory charcuterie boards and wine slushies! I was very impressed with their Blanc de Blanc and a couple of their unique wines; a Seyval Blanc, which is a hybrid grape variety used to make white wines, and a wild yeast Riesling.
Second stop of the day was at Tabora Farm and Winery. The vibe and ambiance of this place is everything! The winery includes a deli & bakery market with a South African flare, inspired from the owner, Jane, and her childhood home in Cape Town, South Africa. I highly recommend this place for a lunch stop. The deli food was delicious, just make sure you leave room for dessert!
Our next tasting was enjoyed at Anthony Road Wine Company. This is a family-run winery owned by Ann and John Martini, who started growing grapes back in 1973. During the month of October one of the tastings they offer is a wine and candy pairing, which was surprisingly good! A couple favorites from this winery includes their dry Riesling and Rose of Lemberger. Lemberger is a grape grown widely in Austria and Hungary where it is known as Blaufrankisch. These grapes do well in the Finger Lakes, producing medium-bodied reds with black fruit flavors and subtle peppery spice.
The last stop of the day ended up being another favorite, Lakewood Vineyards. The wines are exceptional, but the people and atmosphere added to the pleasure of our experience. Originally a run-down peach and apple orchard, the Stamp family took over, transitioning the land and planting grapes. In 1988, the family pressed grapes for their first vintage. Lakewood Vineyards Winery officially opened up to the public in June 1989, offering 7 varieties from their estate grown grapes. There wasn’t a wine we didn’t like, hence the reason we shipped a case back home. Some favorites included the 3Generations Riesling, Blanc de Blancs, Reserve Cabernet Franc and the Gewurztraminer. Looking for a winery where you want to relax, sip for a bit while enjoying the view? This is it.
I wasn’t sure our last dinner could live up to the other two, but it certainly did. Ports Café in Geneva has a quaint yet chic vibe to it. The menu is a little eclectic, you are bound to find something for every palate. If you are a meat lover, go with one of their house-cut prime steaks or there are plenty of fresh fish options and do not leave without having dessert! They have a great drink menu as well, not only do they have numerous wines to choose from, but there are also some fun cocktails to start the night with or draft beers from some of the local breweries. By the end of the night, we kindly rolled ourselves out the door. STUFFED!
The last day of the trip ended perfectly, starting off at Fox Run Vineyards on the West side of Seneca Lake, perched on a hillside, you can enjoy some of the best views in the valley. We had the pleasure of walking the vineyards and checking out the property with one of the owners, Scott Osborn. I love a good wine story, and this was a great one. Fox Run was a dairy farm for more than a century before the first grapes were planted in 1984. With more than 50 acres of east-facing vineyards on glacial soils, the winery produces a variety of limited production, estate wines. Their goal is to achieve full creative expression with each variety.
As a family-owned winery you are bound to run into at least one family member while visiting. The winery also has a café and a spacious deck off the front of the winery, where you can enjoy a bite to eat while taking in the view of Seneca Lake. The Blanc de Blancs, Dry Rieslings and Cabernet Franc Lemberger were a few favorites. The Tawny Port was also a hit, we made sure to snag one of those for home. Something not to be missed, literally as you are driving in, is the 20 feet tall gate that was created by local artist Sam Castner, who has been sculpting since the early 1990s. The 13 rust-coated and stainless-steel foxes span anywhere from three to five feet in length with the fabricated trees towering over 12 feet tall. With phenomenal wines and a pleasant ambiance, it’s easy to live by their motto; drink wine, be happy.
The trip would not be complete without a stop at Watkins Glen State Park. This is the most famous state park in the Finger Lakes. The park features deeply carved gorges, rigid cliffs with more than 18 waterfalls to relish along the way. The almost 2 mile hike up the stone path will have you mesmerized with each twist and turn as you explore its natural beauty. With all the wine tasting, it was nice to end the trip with a little exercise.
Seneca Lake fulfilled all my expectations and much more. Many thanks to the Seneca Lake Wine Trail and McCue Communications for this amazing opportunity. Three days was simply not enough time to explore the Finger Lakes AVA, hence the reason I’ll be going back this summer to continue discovering the wines and unique character of this region, stay tuned.