Rolling in Riesling: Finger Lakes Wine Country

Written by Jane Antoniak

Just five hours from London is a weekend getaway with the feeling of the German Rhine and its world class Reisling at every turn. And I thought I was a red wine drinker! Not so much anymore, as a splendid winery weekend in the Finger Lakes Wine Country near Corning, New York (yes, where they make the CorningWare) quickly converts you to the vibrant wines being grown in this premier cool-climate winegrowing region.

With 1,000 acres of Riesling being grown in the Finger Lakes and more than a hundred thousand cases of delicious, rich Riesling being produced from 200 different brands, the area is worth several visits, as it’s only humanly possible to taste so much wine in one weekend.

This first venture was a pleasant car trip, departing London on a Friday afternoon, crossing at Lewiston into New York State, and then enjoying a picturesque drive on a two-lane highway through towns that all have a local bar, likely serving Genesee beer. While cruising through rolling hills, farms and tiny college towns, it seemed like our own little North American version of Ireland: lots of turns in the road, so to speak.

Arriving in Corning, we stopped at Market Street Brewing Co Restaurant in the heart of town. Why not start off a wine weekend with a pint of locally brewed Mad Bug Lager, part of a flight of beers all big on flavour? As dinner arrived in this self-described “rowdy” pub, I enjoyed my first glass of local Riesling, which fittingly, it turned out, was from Dr. Frank, who is hailed as the “father of vinifera” in the Eastern United States. At the Market Street Brewing Co, Chef John-Paul Burris pairs beer and wine with low-country southern US cooking, including grits and fish tacos. Rather unexpected, but fun!

Also on Market Street is The Cellar Wine Bar, Martini Bar, and modern fusion restaurant. Chef Michael Lanahan draws upon local farmers’ markets for his sleek, uptown-feel lounge and restaurant. A chef’s tasting menu with wine and martini pairings features peach tempura, Scottish salmon, duck, lamb lollipop, seared scallop and more. Good that it’s within walking distance to the hotel!

Conveniently located at the end of Market Street is the hospitable and modern Radisson Hotel. With 177 guest rooms, all with Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs and other amenities, depending on room type, the Radisson is a great home base to the Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka Lake Wine Trails, with the impressive Corning Museum of Glass and excellent dining and shopping choices just a walk away.


Seneca Lake Wine Trail

After a delightful coffee stop at Soul Full Cup on West Market Street in Corning, it’s a scenic drive to Watkins Glen, home of the spectacular gorge walk (best to do prior to wine tasting!), which is the starting point of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. It may be hard to imagine a first wine tasting at 10 a.m., but our stop at Atwater Estate Vineyards proved exceptionally memorable, as winemaker Vincent Aliperti and his assistant Kris Matthewson were pulling off Aliperti’s sixteenth harvest, 95% estate grown. Just days off the press, we sampled Pinot Noir and Riesling fermenting grape juices from the tanks. Like most in the region, Atwater is excited about the 2012 harvest. “Where cucumbers are bitter, grapes are great,” says Amanda Gumtow of Atwater tasting room. Aliperti is equally excited. “Everything looks beautiful,” he says scooping out a cup of grape juice to taste. “It’s a clean, full crop because we had such a dry summer.”

Lunch was at the Red Newt Cellars Winery Bistro in Hector (8 miles north of Watkins Glen), which showcases the region’s local cheeses. Under “must-haves” on the 30-Mile Menu are the local cheese plate and the brisket burger. Featuring Muranda Cheese Company of Waterloo, NY, Lively Run Goat Farm in nearby Interlaken, and Kenton’s Cheese Company in Trumansburg, the local cheese plate included edible flowers, pickled green beans and garlic greens. With Red Newt’s award-winning aromatic white wines, including Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and of course Riesling, the meal and the panoramic setting were spectacular.

Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars in Lodi was named the 2011 NY State Winery of the Year at the NY State Wine & Food Classic, and their 2009 Reserve Riesling won double gold at the NY State Classic in 2012. They draw on twenty vineyards over 105 acres for grapes and are able to select grapes from a variety of growing conditions in the region. Some of their wines, like Yellow Dog and Round Rock, are named after plots of land they own and grow on. You can sample the subtle differences of the terroir in the tasting room. Our guide, Jackie Dresser, explained how the glacial valley soil replicates the growing conditions in Germany.


Cayuga Lake Wine Trail

A quick jaunt off the Seneca Lake Trail takes you to the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail and to a world of fun at Lucas Vineyard in Interlaken, where late-afternoon wine tasters get a kick out of the Nautie Wines collection including Miss Chevious, a dry white blend; Miss Adventurous, a “flirty” blush; and Miss Behavin, a sweeter white. And every time someone new buys a case to join the “Captain’s Table,” they ring the bell and cheer! With a motto of “Wine if by Land — Tug if by Sea,” Lucas is a party headquarters on the Cayuga Lake, and you’ll likely walk out with a case just for the fun of it! ;

Keuka Lake Wine Trail

Heading out again from Corning, we started our trip back to Ontario by hitting the Keuka Lake Wine Trail. Fifty years ago, Dr. Konstantin Frank immigrated to the US from the Ukraine, and with a PhD in viticulture, he moved to upstate New York for a position at Cornell University’s Geneva Experiment Station. Working with Charles Fournier and using his knowledge of cold climate vinifera, he began the transformation of the Finger Lakes area into a leading-edge Riesling region. Our Sunday morning began with a tasting of sparkling Blanc de Noirs at the legendary Dr. Frank Wine Cellars. Our rounds of champagne-style tastings were led by the very informed George DiTomasso, who encouraged us to try bubbly developed by Dr. Frank’s son Willy. He planted classic French champagne grape varieties in the Finger Lakes, resulting in Chateau Frank, made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, yet white in colour.

Dr. Frank was a founder of the American Wine Society, and his wines were recently served at a State Luncheon in Washington for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Dr. Frank team now has 120 acres of grapes, among the largest in the region, and certainly the oldest.

Another interesting white at Dr. Frank is the Rkatsiteli, while the Semi-Dry Riesling is the signature wine, 91 rated. Being at Dr. Frank Winery and looking out at Keuka Lake below really makes you feel like you are on the Rhine.


Hunt Country Vineyards

Art and Joyce Hunt, the first to grow grapes from their family farm near Branch­port, are pioneers on the Keuka Lake Wine Trail. Now their son Jonathan is also an owner of the winery and director of winemaking. Interestingly, and maybe it was a break from the Rieslings, it was their red wines that caught our eye: Alchemy is a Meritage blend and one of 24 wines the Hunts make from their 40 acres of active grapes. The Hunts also make ice wine akin to Niagara ice wines, a rarity in the Finger Lakes. We also enjoyed a chocolate and wine tasting experience at Hunt. Guests choose a wine and then receive a handmade chocolate from Hedonist Artisan Chocolates of Rochester, NY. We found that the Vidal Blanc Ice Wine pairs well with the Cherry Apricot chocolate, while the Alchemy pairs with the Pecan Cranberry chocolate. A great way to wrap up a weekend in the Finger Lakes! “It is a wonderful region,” says Art. “Clean air, clean water and fertilized soil. That’s why wine making does so well here,” he says proudly.


Jane Antoniak is a culinary travel writer for eatdrink magazine who is always on the lookout for a new road trip.

Bruce Fyfe is a librarian at Weldon Library, Western University, who enjoys taking his camera on the road.

About the author

Jane Antoniak

Jane Antoniak is a longtime contributor to Eatdrink, sharing her passion for food, drink, travel and the arts through her writing, while always connecting with the people she meets along the way. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations, at King’s University College in London.