For much of my youth, the objective of a trip to wine country was to drink as much wine at as many wineries as possible. The problem with this strategy is two-fold. First, you risk getting your car wrapped around a tree and secondly, by the end of the day your taste buds are so shot that everything tastes the same and you end up making some rather bizarre purchases. (“Why on Earth did I buy THAT wine!”) Now that I’ve matured (or maybe aged is a better word) and I’m a bit more judicious about my wine consumption, my objectives have changed and I now want to taste wine, not simply drink it. So, when doing a wine excursion not only do I carefully choose which wineries to visit, but also which wines to drink at each stop. It’s no longer a Scorched Earth approach where we stop at every single winery we pass, but a strategic operation, where we target specific wines & wineries. While on a recent trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York State with the Texas branch of my family, I decided to share some of the strategies and tactics that I have formulated over the years.
BEFORE YOU DRINK – TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
I would never classify myself as a wine snob and have been known to willingly drink inexpensive popular wines like Barefoot Merlot or a Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio, but I must admit that I always get excited when I visit a winery and discover that they are serving an uncommon wine or a wine made from a grape that I’m unfamiliar with. So, this is my first rule, anything unique or unusual is of prime importance to me. The Finger Lakes is much more than just Riesling and sweet American hybrid grapes like Niagara, Delaware and Catawba. In addition to the usual suspects (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay), they also have Seyval Blanc, Pinot Gris, Lemberger, Traminette, Gruner Vetliner, Gamay Noir, Baco Noir, and the list goes on and on So, why not enjoy the diversity of the region?
While all wineries have a standard wine tasting menu, most wineries are flexible (especially if they’re not crowded) and they will usually let you design your own tasting. So, the second rule is to let the pourer help guide you into a tasting that will match your palate and desires. Most wine pourers are experts in the wines in their region, so why not take advantage of their knowledge and make your tasting a rewarding and memorable experience. Accordingly, I always ask the pourer a few questions before deciding what to try “What does your winery have that I can’t get anywhere else in the region?” “What are you famous for?” “Are you doing any interesting vertical tastings or pairings today?” And if you’ve been to that winery before, “Any new releases since my last visit?” One final note about questions, try to resist the urge to ask “What is your best wine?” Best is such a subjective term and what’s best for one person might be worse for somebody else. So unless the pourer knows you personally, this is a rather meaningless question.
The next rule, and very important if you’ve been selected the designated driver, is to remember to dump and/or spit on a regular basis. You are tasting wine, not drinking wine. Additionally, there is no reason why you can’t share a tasting. If the standard tasting is six wines for $10, ask if you can get two glasses and split a tasting with each person tasting three wines. Like I said, unless a winery is overwhelmed, they will usually cooperate with any reasonable request. Which brings me to another rule, visiting wineries midweek or in the off season is always a great idea. Not only are the crowds and traffic down, but you have more time to chat not just with the pourers, but possible winemakers and owners. And of course, you get more individualized attention. Which was one of the factors in deciding to visit the Finger Lakes in early May, before the Memorial day crowds arrive, when most of the wineries were still on a winter schedule. After my morning constitutional in the Watkins Glen Gorge and a hearty breakfast (always a good idea!), I was rarin’ to go.
READY FOR SOME WINE
After examining the wine trail maps for Seneca and Cayuga Lakes and checking the opening times, I decided that the first stop on our excursion would be the furthest point from our lodgings at Seneca Lodge in Watkins Glen, that way we’d have a shorter (and easier) trip home at the end of the day. Eleven Lakes Winery is a fairly new winery on the western shore of Cayuga Lake, not far from Seneca Falls. While all of the grapes are sourced from Seneca Lake, each bottle is dedicated to one of the eleven lakes that make up the Finger Lakes. As owner Matt Jones explains: “Finger Lakes wine should do more than just taste great. It should be fun and tell a story.” And sure enough every wine had a story. Listening to the commentary on each wine (and each Lake), I felt like I was on a boat tour cruising around the lakes. Our first tasting was Long Lake Reserve Cabernet Franc from Skaneateles, which means “Long Lake,” and is known for having clean water, a shale base and steep hillsides. The wine was full-bodied, a bit smoky with hints of raspberry on the finish. Next we traveled to Cayuga for some Boat Landing Cayuga White. Cayuga Lake is the longest of the Finger Lakes and is an Iroquois word meaning “Boat Landing”. This semi-sweet wine was refreshing with hints of apricots. We continued our tour of the Finger Lakes with two Rieslings, the Stoney Place Semi-Dry Riesling from Seneca and the Chosen Spot Dry Riesling from Canandaigua. And yes, as you’ve probably already guessed, the wine names for these Rieslings were derived from the Native American meaning of the name of the Lake. Both were food-friendly high acid wines with citrus overtones. We finished our tour of the Eleven Lakes with Moonglorious, a semi-sweet regional red made from Pinot Noir, De Chaunac and Rougeon.
We drove eight miles south along the western shore of Cayuga Lake to Romulus, where I did a comparison of Noirs, albeit at different wineries: Lakeshore and Swedish Hill wineries. Lakeshore is located on a farm that dates back to 1825 and it was founded by Bill and Doris Brown in 1978. They believed that wine should be tasted with food and paired each wine they served with some kind of food tidbit. This informal tasting is continued by the current owners Annie and John Bachman, where guests sit in rocking chairs arranged in a semi-circle in the tasting room continues to this day. Swedish Hill, about 4 miles to the west, is another stalwart on Cayuga Lake and has had a vineyard on their property since 1969. At Lakeshore, I tasted the Corot Noir, a new hybrid grape developed by Cornell University which is a cross between Seyve Villard and Steuben. This I compared a Landot Noir at Swedish Hill, a cold-hearty grape from France often used in Canada and New England. Both Noirs were full-bodied. The Corot had berry and fruit aromas, while the Landot had aromas of blueberries and cinnamon with hints of black pepper. Both grapes were new to me, so of course I had to bring home a couple of bottles of each for further study. (And to be used as ringers for a future blind tasting!)
Next stop was Lamoreaux Landing on the east shore of Seneca Lake. The first thing you notice about Lamoreaux is the tasting room, which is a spectacular Greek-revival temple with amazing views of the lake. While Lamoreaux has quite a few excellent whites, I decided to zero in on Cabernet Francs, a red grape that I’m partial to. The first was the T-23, so called because the grapes are from the T-23 section of the vineyard. This Cab Franc was rather different as it is aged in stainless steel tanks in the tradition of the Loire Valley. The result is a smooth, light-bodied red wine showcasing a stunning violet color and aromas of blackberries and dried cherries. This was compared with an oak-aged Cab Franc, which as expected was heavier & bolder. As a drinking-right-now wine, I preferred the T-23, but ended up buying the oak-aged Cab as I thought it was far from its peak and would only improve with a few years of cellaring. Most wines are bought to be drunk now, but it never hurts to do a little forward thinking.
A BREAK FOR LUNCH
By this time my party was ready for lunch, so we decided to head to the Bistro at Red Newt Winery, also on Seneca. As soon as I opened the menu, I knew I was going to get the Tasting Menu, which included seven selections from their kitchen which were accompanied with 4 Red Newt wines. There were no designated match-ups, so I just did my own thing and figured out my own pairings. I first tried the Gewürztraminer with the shot glass filled with spicy tomato soup. Not the best start as the spicy soup overpowered the Gewürztraminer. I then tried the soup with the Cab Franc, which was able to hold its own with the soup. The aromatic Dry Riesling was successfully paired with the grilled cheese sandwich. For both the Black Bean Cake and the pâté, I went back to the Cab Franc, where the cranberry and dark plum flavors and overtones of smoke of the wine was a perfect complement to the earthiness of these dishes. The local Kale, Fennel and Sunflower Seed Salad with honey verjus dressing was a bit problematic, as none of the four wines worked really well with the sweet & bitter flavors of the salad. But the salad was right up my alley, so I just enjoyed it on its own. The last pairing was a no brainer, the fruity high-acid Semi-Dry Riesling was perfect with the local blue cheese and quince. Because I was just doing a tasting, I shared the remainder of the wine with my companions. Another one of my rules: sharing is a good thing.
We then double-backed up Seneca Lake to the Silver Thread Winery. Silver Thread, which was established in 1982, is named for a local waterfall. The turtle image on their label was carved in a nearby rock by a Native American artist centuries ago and was an Earth symbol to the Iroquois. It turns out that May was Riesling Month in the Finger Lakes, so I went for the “Riesling Experience” flight. We compared four single-vineyard Rieslings (Silver Thread Estate on East Seneca, the Doyle Vineyard from East Seneca, the Randolph O’Neil Vineyard from Cayuga and the Gridley Bluff Vineyard from Keuka Lake) with their standard Dry Riesling. Like siblings from the same family, the single vineyard Rieslings had some overall similarities, but each had their own individual personalities. While the Keuka Lake Riesling was my favorite at the time of the tasting, I thought (as with children) that my opinion would probably change with each tasting, so I decided to purchase the single vineyard family pack, so I could do some further comparisons at home.
The last stop on the excursion was the Hector Wine Company, also on Seneca Lake. The winery, started in 2010, is owned and operated by local viticulturist and graphic designer Jason Hazlitt and winemaker Justin Boyette, and has quickly become one of our regular stops when touring Seneca Lake. After my usual questions, I decided to go with their Pinot Blanc, a wine I drink only occasionally. (Yet another one of my rules, don’t stick with your favorite wines, try something different.) Not a bad way to end the day: Aromas of pineapple with an earthy black pepper finish.
IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE FAT LADY DRINKS
But wait, the day wasn’t over quite yet. While walking around Watkins Glen that evening, deciding where we would have dinner, we noticed Graft Wine and Cider Tasting Bar on North Franklin Street. Like the Taste NY shops that are popping up all over New York State, Graftoffered wine from all regions of New York State. Which brings up another principle of wine tasting: flexibility. Wine tastings are an adventure and while it is good to have a plan, if you see something new or different it might just be the best stop of the day! After reviewing their menu, I decided to taste wines from wineries I had not yet visited during our stay in the Finger Lakes. I started the tasting with three whites from three different lakes: Riesling from Billsboro on Seneca, a Reserve Chardonnay from Treleaven on Cayuga and a Gewürz from Keuka Spring. After a short discussion with our server, I next tried a Tawny Port from Fox Run Vineyards, also on Seneca. You want to always end the day on a good note, so the last glass should be a great one. And this selection was a perfect way to end the day.
The selections that I made during my excursion are my personal tastes. I tend to drink dry wines and love trying anything exotic, but if you’re in the mood to go in a totally different direction, that’s perfectly OK. Which brings me to the final rule; these rules are really merely guidelines. The only real rule when doing a wine tasting is to relax, have a good time and enjoy yourself. It’s not just “In Vino Veritas”, but “ In Vino Festivus!”