New York State wine country
With August marking our 20 year wedding anniversary, John and I were pondering many different ways to celebrate this milestone in a meaningful way. Should we go to Europe, Ireland and the British Isles where John’s family hales from, France or Eastern Europe of Dar’s heritage and where she lived in the 90s, or Denmark where we have dear friends who are musicians and artists and lovers of good food? How about Montréal, one of our favorite cities and near to where Dar grew up, and where we spent part of our honeymoon two decades ago?
Or how about closer to home, to a region in the Northeast that is equally as abundant in beauty, and rich in culture and history, Western New York state, where John’s mother’s family created a homestead after arriving from Ireland, and where John spent his high school years? A big part of the allure to travel to that region were the Finger Lakes, long, slender bodies of water that sprang from earth carved by glaciers long ago. The rock and mineral deposits that were laid behind along with the relatively cool climate created the perfect soil and weather composition for some delicious varietals of grapes and wine that we had been exploring and enjoying in recent years. These wines hav captured our attention with their balance of fruit, acidity and minerality, their focus on German rieslings and gewurztraminers as well as cabernet franc, grapes suited to the region’s climate yet expressed differently and beautifully in their adopted home. A bonus was being able to meet family later on who were flying in from California and D.C. to gather at Cuba Lake, a smaller lake further west, where John’s mother’s family settled.
We started plotting out our adventure, mapping out some of our favorite vineyards, as well as a couple of intriguing unknowns. As we drove west from Vermont, over the Green Mountains and into Western New York State, we felt ourselves relax into the thrum of verdant rolling hills and emerald green pastures dotted with cows and hay bales.
First stop was Boundary Breaks, where we began our visit in the tasting room to sample their range of wines and learn more about their process. Boundary Breaks puts their emphasis on the grapes themselves and their approach to viticulture in a cool, damp climate. They planted their vineyards close to the shores of Seneca Lake, the deepest of the Finger Lakes, to take advantage of the natural temperature moderation the mass of water offers. Grapes thrive in drier conditions and with certain challenges and stressors, so draining the high-clay water-retaining soils with a series of tile ducts further below the surface forces the roots of each vine to reach deeper down to find water. A trellising system that allows the grape clusters to bask in sunlight without being shaded by their foliage ensures maximum ripening, which allows the sugars in the fruit to increase as the grapes mature to become a complex, flavorful ingredient for fermenting wine.
We ended the long drive with a refreshing glass of one of their lovely rieslings on their patio overlooking Seneca Lake. The view was just stunning, and the clouds gave it their all to create a gorgeous painterly backdrop.
Hector Wines was one of the unknowns, but one we had heard about in our research as an exciting up-and-comer approaching winemaking in their centuries-old vineyards in new and creative ways.
The vibe was younger and hipper, the tasting room reminding us of the craft beer rooms we love to visit, warm and convivial with a good playlist filling the space, a place to hang out and talk to the bartender, have a bite and enjoy a glass of their wares.
The wines were interesting and adventurous, created by a group of wine growing and wine making friends, one a 7th generation viticulturist who oversees his family’s historic vineyards that supply the fruit, a winemaker who mentored with local vineyards and worked in restaurants and wine bars in New York City, and another a local oenologist of renown, closely following the production and craft from vine to bottle. A range of red and white varietals and inspired blends fills out their portfolio.
It was time for a little fortification, so we meandered our way to a charming restaurant recommended to us by a friend. The Stonecat Café overlooks Seneca Lake, and its menu featuring local, organic food, local craft beer and the region’s wines was creative and incredibly delicious. We loved the staff, and the laid back, relaxed atmosphere. We felt right at home and so well taken care of. It was the perfect way to end a long, full day and celebrate an anniversary.
After a enjoying a satisfying meal and getting a good, deep sleep in a comfortable room on nearby farmland, we drank coffee and took a walk through fields and meadows before hopping back in the car and heading out to Keuka Lake to visit more wineries.
First stop was Keuka Lake Vineyards, another that we were eager to check out, the grapevine trellises fringing the lake and the sky raked with sheets of billowing clouds.
The tasting room was incredibly charming, a small and intimate space, and the people leading the tasting were friendly and knowledgeable, eager to share their expertise. A black board near the tasting bar listed a number of notable restaurants in New York City that served their wines, as well as some cheese and chocolate pairings the winery offered. We made a note of the pairing suggestions and started imagining which of our chocolates we would use in a tasting.
We loved these wines! Focusing on Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and the hybrid grapes Vignoles and Leon Millot, the wines are superb, crisp and refreshing, and have lots of bright acidity balancing the luscious fruit. Definitely standouts and favorites.
Last stop was Ravines, another favorite. The oenologist grew up in the Côtes de Provence region of France on a vineyard and estate winery, learning about growing and making wine starting as a boy. Going on to study at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Agronomie in Montpellier, he went on to work in vineyards in the United States, ultimately as Chief Winemaker for Dr. Konstantin Frank Cellars, one of the Finger Lakes’ most respected and pioneering wine makers, before starting his own business. Ravines specializes in growing and making wine from vinifera grapes and is credited with introducing the mineral, bone dry rieslings we now equate with the region to the Finger Lakes.
With vineyards and tasting rooms on both Seneca Lake and Keuka Lake, the wines encompass a wide array of flavor profiles, mostly dry, but expressive and balanced. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon with their gracious and knowledgeable staff, and once again were able to take note of the chocolate pairings they offered, picking up some chocolate and wine to take home.
We may have signed up for a couple of the wine clubs (um, yes), and hope to get back to the region soon to visit more favorites, like Forge, Dr. Konstantin Frank Cellars and Hermann J. Wiemer amongst others, and find new favorites.
Check out our instagram post for a few more pics.
Vermont has a wine culture well worth diving into, as well as its infamous craft beers and ciders. We have started to explore the exciting innovations in growing and making natural wines, ciders, sour beers and gruits in our alpine regions, with viticulturists and enologists proving that hybrid grapes, once looked down upon, can produce beautiful, nuanced, world-class wines. Some of the notable pet-nat producers we admire and hope to visit next summer are La Garagista, Co Cellars, and Iapetus amongst others. Sour beers are being crafted by many different small brewers, but Hermit Thrush Brewery is at the forefront making creative, delicious sours using local wild yeasts and fruits and herbs (and nibs supplied by us), aging them in local spirit barrels.
As for our history…
…while we are not experts, we have always been wine lovers, and a big part of our courtship was learning more about viticulture and terroir, and exploring Northern California’s renowned wine making regions, sampling glasses and stocking our cellar with bottles in our little house on Potrero Hill. When we got married wine star Wilfred Wong helped us choose the wines and sparklers for our reception, and our greatest desire was to celebrate by treating our friends and family to some of the region’s best offerings in the intimate, casual setting of a lovely garden.
Come along with us as we continue to explore Northeastern terroir expressed in food and wine! Keep your eyes peeled for more blog posts in the future.