After visiting the Finger Lakes for the first-time last fall, giving me a little taste of this vast wine region, I knew it wasn’t enough and I needed to come back for more sips and exploration. Last month, I had the opportunity to do just that…this time around my travels would take me to Steuben County, specifically Keuka Lake.
The Finger Lakes AVA consists of four main lakes: Canandaigua Lake, Keuka Lake, Seneca Lake (where I visited last fall) and Cayuga Lake. Because of the various microclimates, the vineyards surrounding each lake have their own individual characteristics which complement the unique flavor profiles in the wines. These lakes were shaped thousands of years ago by chronological 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 is something quite special about the charming towns surrounding the lakes. Everyone is friendly, nobody is in a hurry and the quaint vibes draw you in instantly. Driving into Hammondsport was no different. Tree-lined streets, manicured yards and Keuka Lake just off in the distance all added to the ambiance. There are a lot of “firsts” when it comes to Hammondsport. The first grapes in the region were planted here in 1829, following the first winery in the region in 1860. Seven years later, Hammondsport became the first American winery to win awards in Europe. Last but certainly not least, the vinifera revolution started here when Dr. Konstantin Frank took a risk, even with the cynics discounting his idea of planting vinifera in a cool climate, which eventually laid the groundwork for the next generation of grape growers in the Finger Lakes.
I had a full itinerary in front of me and I was ready for it! On my way from the airport to Hammondsport I had the opportunity to explore Corning’s Historic Gaffer District. This charming area is filled with boutique shops, cafés, restaurants, two world-class museums and local murals to admire as you stroll around town. I enjoyed dinner at Quincy Exchange on Market Street and couldn’t get over the chic vibes of the space. I started with a glass of their house Riesling, before moving on to some bubbly to go with the fresh oysters. I would highly recommend the Asparagus Risotto for a main dish. They also have a wine shop full of local wines from around the Finger Lakes.
As I checked into The Park Inn, located in Hammondsport, I was ready to unwind a bit, anticipating a full day of wine tastings to come. Built in 1861, The Park Inn is a historic property located across the street from a picturesque park and just steps away from Keuka Lake. The inn is quite cozy, offering just five suites total, including its own restaurant, adding to the small-town charisma.
A tour of Pleasant Valley Wine Co. was my first stop on the second day in town. This was a great place to start as it provided a lot of history of their property and the evolution of wine in the area. Founded in 1860, Pleasant Valley is the region’s oldest winery. Not only can you do a tasting, but they offer unique winery tours through their museum that provides great insight into the history of the company. They’ve even turned an old cask into a theater where you can watch movies and learn more about their story. They are known for their Great Western Champagne, which they can still call Champagne since they were grandfathered in before the regulations of Champagne took place. They also make sherries, port and a number of other wines. Make sure to check out their bottling lines, a fascinating production, where they bottle for a number of other companies. One bottling line can bottle up to 10,000 cases a day!
I stopped into Timber Stone Grill for lunch, where I enjoyed their street tacos. This hometown restaurant focuses on using local ingredients for their menu, as well as a drink list full of local breweries and wines to choose from. The ambiance is very relaxed, offering indoor and outdoor patio dining to choose from.
First wine tasting of the day was enjoyed at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery, which sits atop the southwestern hills of Keuka Lake, offering stunning views of the lake and rolling vineyards off in the distance. Dr. Konstantin Frank is the pioneer of the Eastern United States’ vinifera revolution, when he planted the first vinifera vines in this area in 1957, amid speculation that these grapes would not do well in a cool climate like the Finger Lakes. The Brut Rosé was a favorite! I also enjoyed doing a side by side of the 2017 Reserve Riesling and their 2022 Dry Riesling and I tried a new varietal (to me) Rkatsiteli. I liked the wines so much I shipped a half dozen of them home!
Next stop…Point of the Bluff Vineyards, who has been producing award-winning boutique wines since 2008. This is a place you can settle in and stay for a while. Enjoy a glass of wine with fresh bites on the wrap around deck while listening to live music and taking in the views. A few favorites included the Cabernet Franc Rosé, Cabernet Franc and Reserve Pinot Noir.
Last tasting of the day took me to Heron Hill Winery, which has been named one of the “Top 10 Most Spectacular Tasting Rooms in the World” by Travel & Leisure Magazine. The tasting room truly is spectacular, built by New York City architect Charles Warren, whose innovative and modern style ties in elements that reflect the unique fit and feel of the Finger Lakes. A tasting room you need to experience in person to fully appreciate its architectural beauty. Although they are known for their terroir driven Rieslings, seven different ones to be exact, they have plenty of other varietals to choose from. Other than the Rieslings, I especially enjoyed the bubbly, Baco Noir and Vidal Blanc.
After a full day of tastings, it was nice to get back to The Park Inn, where I could relax for a few before heading downstairs to the restaurant. The Park Inn was recently awarded a top-ranking spot in Western NY restaurants from Open Table and also received the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator for their wine program. The menu changes with the seasons, focusing on organic farm to table produce. The hospitality was top-notch! I settled in and started the night with a mezcal cocktail before moving on to wine. It was a night of seafood...I couldn’t pass up the oysters before relishing the Halibut as my main dish. Ended the night of a sweet note with a glass of Cream Sherry to go with my Crème Brulée.
Day three started with a hearty breakfast at Crooked Lake Ice Cream Company. Don’t let the name fool you, they cook up one of the best breakfasts in Hammondsport. Originally, it was an ice cream shop, established in the early 1930’s. In 2018 it had a little refresh and now includes brunch. I elected to splurge on the eggs Benedict, knowing I would have another full day of wine tasting ahead.
After breakfast I strolled down to Keuka Lake in anticipation of a cruise around the lake on the Pat II, a restored wooden boat from 1924. This boat worked as a tour boat from 1924-1955 before serving as a U.S. Postal Service boat until 1991, when she went out of service. In 2014, she arrived at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum and after 7 years of rehabilitation, she set sail again in 2021! The cruise was relaxing and quite educational. Keuka Lake is one of the few Y-shaped lakes in the world. It is the warmest of the three largest Finger Lakes, water flows both directions and it is 185 ft. deep.
Lunch was hosted at Bully Hill Vineyards, perched high above Keuka Lake, offering stunning views of the lake and endless vineyards in all directions. The history of Bully Hill Vineyards dates back almost 100 years before it’s inception and includes plenty of tumultuous family history. I encourage you to read the full story on their website, but in short, there was concern with one of the family members, Walter Taylor, who was an Executive Vice President in the company. He wasn’t happy with the deceit that was taking place with wineries in the area, many of which were adding chemicals, concentrates, water and “foreign” juice to their wines without including this information on the label. He eventually was fired and started Bully Hill Vineyards. It is a whirlwind of a story you have to read to believe. Walter was quite the character, ready to stand for what he believed in and wasn’t afraid to be a little spicy about the whole ordeal.
Bully Hill Vineyards is a beautiful estate that includes a tasting room, restaurant and a wine & gift shop. The grounds are absolutely extraordinary, including lush gardens surrounding the property. They offer winery tours daily and they are pet-friendly!
Okay, my belly is officially full, time to go wine tasting. First stop, Keuka Lake Vineyards, a small family-owned farmstead with a focus on terroir driven dry wines, many of which are made with hybrid grapes. They have 40 acres of vineyards with certified sustainable practices, use minimal intervention and they hand harvest all the grapes.
I had a fabulous time tasting through a variety of the wines with Winemaker, Margot Federkiel. Margot is new to the Finger Lakes and Keuka Lake Vineyards, but isn’t new to wine. She comes with an expansive background in the wine industry and isn’t afraid to take risks. I can’t wait to see how she shakes things up here in the Finger Lakes! The Turkey Run Vignoles was one of my favorites here. Vignoles is an aromatic white grape developed in France that is fruit-forward, crisp and fresh on palate. I also had the opportunity to do a few barrel tastings, which is always fun to see how the wine is evolving. Other wines to consider when making a stop here include their Rieslings, Cabernet Franc and Blaufränkisch.
Next stop, Living Roots Wine and Co. Watch out for this winery, they are up and coming and are destined to do amazing things moving forward. They were recently awarded ‘Best New Winery of the Year’ with the 2023 Halliday Wine Companion Awards.
The story of Living Roots Wine & Co. began well before it was established in 2016. Winemaker, Seb Hardy, comes from a family of winemakers and growers in South Australia, that goes back six generations. Seb and wife Colleen crossed paths in 2014 when she worked harvest in McLaren Vale. They now split their time between the Finger Lakes and Adelaide Hills of South Australia, with a focus on rich whites and sparkling’s from the Finger Lakes and medium-bodied reds in Australia. I can honestly say I loved all the wines I tried but here are a few stand outs; Blaufränkisch Pet-Nat Rosé, Cabernet Franc and Riesling.
If you are in the area and looking for a restaurant with a view, check out Lakeside Restaurant and Tavern. They are right on the Keuka Lake and have a great outdoor space to enjoy food and wine while taking in the serene atmosphere.
The last day at Keuka Lake started with breakfast at Vern’s Café in Hammondsport. Freshly baked croissants, cinnamon rolls and decadent desserts are made daily with locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. Make sure to come with an appetite, the servings are hearty!
Before enjoying another day of wine tastings, I stopped into the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum where I was able to admire a collection of vintage motorcycles, automobiles and airplanes, relating to early aviation that are historic to this area. Glenn H. Curtiss was a native to Hammondsport and as an inventor, engineer and pioneer of aviation, he worked on motorcycles & planes and also patented planes purchased by the U.S. government that were used in World War I. He was quite the daredevil, in 1907, Curtiss set a land speed record on an experimental V8 motorcycle, making him “the fastest man in the world.” If you like museums, this one is a good one to add to your list if you are in the area.
Another great restaurant with a view is The Switzerland Inn. Known as “The Switz” it is a local favorite right on Keuka Lake and offers traditional American-fare dishes. Kickback, relax and enjoy lakeside dining from their outdoor deck, doesn’t get much better than that in this neck of the woods.
First wine stop of the day, Ravines Wine Cellars. If you want to experience first-class Rieslings, this is the place to visit. Ravines Wine Cellars pioneered the bone-dry, mineral driven Riesling style that has become the flagship wine in the Finger Lakes. Winemaker, Morten Hallgren and his wife, Chef Lisa Hallgren started the winery in 2001 with a vision of creating elegant, expressive wines using old-world winemaking practices. I enjoyed so many of the wines that I can’t pick favorites, other than the Rieslings, make sure to try the Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Cerise (Pinot Noir and Blaufränkisch blend), the Cabernet Franc and the Maxilien, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Weis Vineyards, what a fun tasting this was! I was lucky enough to have the winemaker, Hans Peter pour my wines, something that isn’t as common as it used to be. Weis Vineyards is a small boutique winery, inspired by Peter’s German heritage intwined with the unique terroir of the Finger Lakes. His wife Ashlee, a native of Hammondsport, makes the perfect duo for creating handcrafted traditional German-style wines with a Finger Lakes flare. Considered a newer winery, established in 2016, Weis Vineyards was named New York State’s Winery of the Year in 2022. They have certainly accomplished a lot in a short amount of time.
If you like white wines, make sure to taste the Rieslings, Gruner Veltliner and Gewurztraminer. The Zweigelt Dry Rosé was also a pleaser. For the red wine fans, add the Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon to the list.
Last wine tasting of the trip ended on a sweet note, literally! I had a memorable Wine and Macaron Tasting at Domaine LeSeurre. I would highly recommend relishing in this experience at their beautiful estate that overlooks the Keuka Lake. You will enjoy five macarons paired with five different wines. I don’t normally eat a lot of macarons but this tasting was so delightful that I ate every last bite! Surprisingly to me, the Gewurztraminer paired with a Pistachio macaron was my favorite.
Originally from Champagne, France where the family has been making wine for six generations, Winemaking team Sebastien LeSeurre and his wife Celine fell in love with the beauty of the Finger Lakes, appreciating the unique terroir and landscape of the region. After working 15 vintages around the world, the Finger Lakes is now home where they are living out their lifelong dream of creating artisan wines.
With my second trip to the Finger Lakes complete, I’m already thinking, what lake next? The Finger Lakes AVA is special; unlike any other wine region I have visited. Keuka Lake is a rare gem, uniquely shaped with panoramic views galore and an inviting place full of more than just wine tasting. Consider this your sign to explore the Finger Lakes.