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Nordic Libations

April 1 2009


Come winter, New York’s fabled Finger Lakes region makes for one warm, intoxicating outing, where cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails lead to century-old vineyards, restaurants, resorts, and quaint B&Bs.

With more than 100 wineries and endless networks of trails winding past splashing waterfalls and cavernous gorges, New York’s Finger Lakes region during the winter is a sipping, snow-covered mecca for outdoor-obsessed oenophiles. Almost all of the allure can be attributed to the area’s geography; 11 finger-shaped lakes, each dubbed with Native American names, define the landscape to create a natural playground that has drawn the active-obsessed, 365 days a year, for as long as humankind has known it exists. And vineyards have been there since the 1860s, naturally fortified by the sunshine that reflects off the lakes onto the vines. The deep lakes also absorb considerable amounts of heat, which is then released during the winter to maintain moderate microclimates and prevent early frost in hillside vineyards—geographically unique conditions that help produce a variety of award-winning wines, from Riesling and Gewürztraminer to chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and a grab bag of indigenous varietals.

This fledgling wine country stays close to its roots, and winemakers are often on-hand to discuss their favorite varietals and blends. Each grape-growing area has its own characteristic feel and crafting style that’s as different as the wine’s they produce. Some vineyards have gift shops that sell locally made mustards or maple syrup in addition to bottles of their finest product, while others run lake-side restaurants, terrific for refueling after a morning of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing on the nearby trails.

Boasting the largest concentration of wineries (covering nearly 11,000 acres), outside of California’s Napa Valley, the Finger Lakes is broken into four sections: Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka, and Canandaigua, with wineries open year-round; most from 11 to 5 daily.

Give yourself a week to explore this region, and you’ll leave wishing you’d planned for an entire month. But then, there’s always next winter…

The Finger Lake region’s largest wine district, Seneca Lake Wine Trail covers 36 miles between the northern tip of Geneva and southern tip of Watkins Glen. With wine roots dating back to 1866, when the Seneca Lake Grape Wine Company opened the first winery on the western shores, Seneca Lake now boasts 36 wineries, two breweries, a distillery, and meadery (honey wine), most clustered on the lake’s western shores.

For outstanding Riesling, stop by Fox Run Vineyards; its 2005 Reserve Riesling won Double Gold at the 2007 New York Wine and Food Classic. Once a dairy farm perched on the steep sloping shores of the lake, Fox Run is one of the area’s top wine producers, crafting notable chardonnay and cabernet franc. Their bright, modern tasting room is adjacent to a cozy café that churns out gourmet sandwiches, salads, and assorted cheeses, making this vineyard a perfect lunch spot.

To turn back a page in time, visit Hermann J. Wiemer Winery, owned by German native Hermann Wiemer, who planted 140 acres on the west side of Seneca Lake in the early 1970s. Today, he is among the area’s top Riesling producers, making layered, crisp, clean wines from 30-year-old vines. The hedonistic Gewurztraminer and late-harvest wines are golden love in a glass.

On the lighter side, Amberg Wine Cellars pours wines called Pegasus, Red Baron, and Red Panda, made from the uncommon corot noir grape. They also have a neat gallery of local art. For solid cabernet sauvignon and uncommon varietals like Cayuga, Vignoles, and Foch, check out Prejean Winery in Penn Yan. For a fun family winery that produces great wine, visit Arcadian Winery. Its award-winning “Shine on Me” Pear wine, cabernet franc, and merlot all won silver medals at the 2006 Florida State Fair. They also have a fully stocked gift shop brimming with gourmet sauces, salsas, chocolates, cheeses, and munchable snacks that make for great trail food.

Foodies—and those in need of some solid sustenance—will adore Geneva’s Red Jacket Orchards. Its fragrant farm store overflows with local cheese, maple syrup, honey, baked goods, seasonal fruits, juices, and cider.

To sober up and ski off the consumption—or to build up a pre-touring appetite, head to Keuka Lake Outlet Trail. Stretching from Seneca Lake to Keuka Lake, it boasts nearly eight miles of undulating, skiable paths that zigzag through deserted mills once used to harness waterpower from the waterway connecting the lakes.

Before hitting the trails (vineyards or woodlands), fuel up at the Penn Yan Diner (315.536.6004) in the town of the same name. The restaurant is housed in a 1925 E.B. Richardson Galon dining car, serving hearty omelets and homemade pies. For a swank place to put your body to rest after all that effort, bed down at Belhurst Castle, a Romanesque castle in Seneca Lake that was built in the late 1800s. With restored original woodwork, furniture, and fixtures, guests can stay in the Carriage House, Butler’s Suite, or Tower Suite. Two restaurants—Edgar’s dining room, serving upscale fare like escargot, short ribs, fillet mignon, and a deep wine list, and Stonecutter, a buttoned-up leather-chair lounge with appetizers and salads—means you don’t even have to leave the property. But if you do, consider Nonna’s Trattoria, a local favorite for Italian, and Port’s Café in Geneva, which has a lovely lakeside view and an eclectic menu ranging from black-bean-and-steak quesadillas to dry-rubbed Atlantic salmon and penne with house meatballs.

If you’re looking for more intimate digs than a castle, consider Trimmer House B & B in Penn Yan, a charming Victorian home with period furnishings, a library, and a music room—and private baths in all rooms. Also in Penn Yan is the Lake B & B, which has five elegant guest rooms and a lush living room/parlor (they also offer cooking classes).

Established in the early 1980s, the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is the first and longest-running wine trail in America. Its 15 boutique wineries have won more than 5,000 national and international medals and five prestigious Governor’s Cup awards. It also has four distilleries, a cidery, and meadery (honey wine), and it runs festive events throughout the year, like the annual Mardi Gras festival (held this year from February 21 to 22), which awards participants with strings of beads and wine glasses as part of an all-day wine-and-food pairing event.

Most of Cayuga Lake’s wineries are on the western side. Swedish Hills Winery has gained international recognition after its Vidal Blanc won Wine of the Year at the 2008 New York Wine and Food Classic: The Governor’s Cup. Its Riesling and dry Riesling are multiple gold winners and they also make nose-tickling Champagne, port, and brandy, and a line of wines—Doobie Blues and Jack Ass reds—named after the owner’s pet miniature donkey, Doobie.
To savor pinot grigio, traminette, Viognier, merlot, and white port, visit Goose Watch Winery—and be sure to crack open its seasonal farm-raised chestnuts, hopefully after roasting them over an open fire. Ruth Lucas’s Lucas Vineyards is also a must. Established in 1980, it’s Cayuga Lake’s oldest winery and is well-known for its extra dry Champagne, baco noir, cabernet franc, and tug-boat-inspired sweet “Nautie” wines. Lastly, stop into Bellweather to sample the only hard cider on the trail.

To hit the ski trails, head to the western side of Cayuga Lake toward Trumansburg and visit the Podunk Cross Country Ski Center (607.387.6716), with access to seven miles of groomed trails along with rentals and instruction. The traditional Finnish ski center’s lodge has a toasty wood-burning stove to warm you up after working the trails.

For a snack, stop by Bet the Farm in Aurora, a lively gourmet shop with local baked goods, meats, cheeses, mustard, and beyond. There is also ZuZu Café in Seneca Falls. Named after ZuZu, the daughter of the George Bailey character in the 1946 cinema classic It’s a Wonderful Life, it serves steamy espresso drinks, crunchy Panini, wraps, soups, and salads—and there’s free Internet access to boot. When craving cozy comfort food, head to Connie’s Diner (315.539.9556) in Seneca Falls. The chrome-trimmed diner is run by the Caratozzolo family, who serve homemade eggplant Parmesan, lasagna from an old family recipe, and house favorites like raspberry and coconut cream pies. For a new world country meal, consider Pumpkin Hill & Bistro, a charming 19th-century farmhouse serving lunch, dinner, and traditional English Farm House Tea (reservations required).

If you’re yearning for a break from the snow and the wine, visit the Corning Museum of Glass, with its prestigious glass collection, hands-on exhibits, live glass-making demonstrations, and “Make Your Own Glass” exhibit. The Museum of the Earth PRI has assorted natural history, art, and interactive exhibits featuring PRI’s world-class paleontological collection, including whale and mastodon skeletons. Learn local legal history at Friends of the Three Bears. Housed in an historic 1845 court house and jail, the museum offers a chance to learn about the justice system in the mid-1800s and the evolution of a dual county seat system. Or give in to your shopping instinct at Waterloo Premium Outlets, with 100 designer and brand-name stores.

After an action-packed day, bed down at A Wicher Garden Bed & Breakfast in Auburn. A restored country inn in the hub of wine country near Skaneateles and Seneca Falls, it offers cozy private rooms and a hot tub for post-ski muscle recovery (just watch the wine consumption while half-submerged, please!). Or consider The Barrister’s Bed & Breakfast, an 1860 historical home in Seneca Falls with a fireplace and five bedrooms with private baths, or pet-friendly John Morris Manor Bed & Breakfast in Seneca Falls, a 1836 Greek-revival manor sitting on six secluded acres with five bedrooms and fireplaces. Juniper Hill Bed & Breakfast & Art Gallery in Trumansburg melds an American Impressionist fine art gallery with an upscale stay in a Colonial revival mansion.

Keuka Lake Wine Trail is the westernmost trail, sandwiched between the towns of Penn Yan at the north and Hammondsport at the south. Most of the trail’s nine wineries are along the lake shore, paralleling Route 54A.

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars & Chateau Frank is internationally renowned for its outstanding bright, juicy Rieslings. Founder Dr. Frank, an immigrant from Europe and regional pioneer, is thought to have revolutionized New York’s state wine industry by introducing European grapes like Riesling, Gewurztraminer, chardonnay, and pinot noir to upstate soil in the early 1960s. Its dry Rosé, Rkatsiteli, and cabernet sauvignon have also received notoriety.

Northwest of Keuka Lake, Stever Hill Vineyards is run by fifth-generation grape farmers Terry and Kelley Nesbit, producing dry and semi-dry whites and reds, plus a rainbow of belly-warming sweet wines such as Cooper’s Pink, Mae Rosé, and blueberry served in a rustic, restored barn that dates back to the mid 1800s and, now renovated, serves as the tasting room. Another “must-see” tasting room (at least according to Gourmet magazine—and who are we to argue?): the quaint, Tuscan-style environs at The Rooster Hill. This relative newcomer melds old world wine savvy with state-of-the-art equipment, crafting dry, European-style wines that are frequently paired with gourmet cuisine made from locally grown ingredients alongside artisanal cheeses and exotic chocolates. They also host winemaker dinners and music-theater events throughout the season.

Those looking for less culture and more fun should stop into Bully Hill Vineyards, where the staff thrives on telling corny jokes and leading group sing-along’s while pouring a stash of eclectic wine with fun names like Fish Market White, Love My Goat, Equinox Blush, and Bulldog Baco Noir. The winery offers group tours and has a stocked gift shop with hats, shirts, and wine accessories.

Skinny-ski enthusiasts, meanwhile, should start the day at 621-acre Keuka Lake State Park. Near Hammondsport, past the snow-dusted hillsides and dairy farms, this spot is great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, with a hilly seven-mile trail that weaves through vineyard-laced slopes, fragrant woodlands, and hibernating orchards alongside frozen stretches of Crooked Lake, with a 486-foot climb to keep you honest.

Afterward, visit RobLyn’s Roost (607.569.2361) in Hammondsport for a taste of local maple syrup. Then warm up with bubbling Swiss fondue at Castel Grisch Winery & Restaurant in Watkins Glen. It also serves Bavarian favorites like bratwurst, jaegerschnitzel, and burgermeister. For a casual dinner check out Wildflower Café & The Crooked Rooster Brewpub, grilling up thick, juicy burgers and salmon with salads, soups, and brick-oven pizza. Those desiring upscale fare can head to Three Birds Restaurant in Corning, with a soothing lakeside view and house favorites like toasted corn and Chesapeake crab cake, homemade pumpkin ravioli, oven-roasted New Zealand rack of lamb, and honey-roasted pecan-crusted pork tenderloin.

For lodging, Black Sheep Inn in Hammondsport is a nifty historic octagonal house with serene lighting, cozy overstuffed furniture, and organic gourmet food. While Blushing Rose Inn, also in Hammondsport, is ideal for those looking for simple elegance in a casual atmosphere.

Shallow on wineries, but deep in outdoor activities, Canandaigua Lake, meaning the “chosen spot” in the Seneca language, is the first major Finger Lake approaching from the west. The bustling streets of Canandaigua are lined with historical architecture, but come winter, Cumming Nature Center and Bristol Mountain Nordic Center are the real draws. With cross-country skiing on 15 miles of groomed trails and a two-loop snowshoe track, 900-acre Cumming Nature Center also boasts an environmental education center and living museum operated by the Rochester Museum & Science Center, along with ski rentals and instruction. Mountain Nordic Center has two shorter trails, one for beginners, and one for the more experienced, and they also host group events such as the Full Moon Snowshoe & Music outing. Downhill skiers will enjoy the 33 runs at Bristol Mountain Resort. Or, to get off the beaten path, head over to the Ontario Pathway Rail Trails. Sporting 23 miles of rails-to-trails, it’s open to the public year-round, from dawn to dusk, for cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

After playing in the snow, take a sugar break at MacKenzie Family (716.374.6102) in Naples for a maple syrup tour. Then head to the century-old Widmer Wine Cellars in Naples on the banks of Canandaigua Lake and taste some of its more than 50 styles of wine, ranging from bubbly to dry to sweet. Its sprawling gift shop is stocked with jellies, juices, wine gifts, and—of course—cases of wine. Heading back into town, Wilhelmus Estate Winery and Manischewitz Winery, the world’s largest producer of kosher wines, have a tasting room and daily tours. Two and half miles down the road is the New York Wine and Culinary Center, which hosts wine and culinary education classes, tastings, and wine events throughout the year.

Drop into Casa de Pasta, tucked away on a side street in downtown Canandaigua, for terrific Italian food in an intimate setting with burgundy linens and candlelit tables. House specialties include scampi, homemade gnocchi, and braciole (thin slices of beef rolled with a filling of prosciutto, sliced egg, Parmesan, and onions). There’s also Pasta Only Cobblestone Restaurant (315.789.8498) in Geneva. Carb-phobes breathe easy, the restored 1800 farmhouse serves more than just pasta, including veal chop stuffed with spinach, smoked mozzarella, and roasted garlic; pan-seared tuna in a soy-ginger sauce; chocolate soufflé; and, yes, pasta in a cozy fireplace setting.

 

Stefani Jackenthal is an adventure journalist for print, TV, and radio and an elite endurance racer who has competed and reported from around the world. She has contributed to The New York Times, Outside, Conde’ Nast Traveler, Marie Claire magazine, Shape, Women’s Health, Fitness, Prevention, among others worldwide. She writes a monthly wine column for several outlets and penned The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Rock Climbing (Alpha Books/Macmillan). Her work appears in The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything (St. Martin’s Press).

She was the on-air host for the pre-race web-coverage of the 2006 Primal Quest Adventure Race in Moab, UT, June 2006, an in-action camerawoman for Primal Quest Adventure race – airing on CBS and USA networks, and ran the entire NYC Marathon with a camera filming racers for ARD TV. She co-Hosted “Buff & The Adventurers” daily talk show on eYada.com, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, Oxygen Network, Fox Sports, OLN. Her athletic achievements have been featured in film, TV, Radio & Web.

A former All American triathlete, Stefani won the 2005 women’s division and finished 2nd overall in the Augrabies Kalahari Extreme Marathon, a 6-stage, 150-mile self-supported running race (carrying all food and provisions for entire race) across the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. Her article ran in Runner’s World Magazine as did her piece about finishing 2nd in the 2005 The Coastal Challenge; 150-mile, 7-day running race in Costa Rica. She also won the 2006 Big Sur Trail Marathon and wrote about for Trail Runner magazine. In October, Stefani competed in the Hawaii Ironman, won Team RAAM, and recently competed in TransRockies 5-day, 110 mile running race in Colorado.

In March 2008, Stefani reported for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” from Uganda, featuring a kayaking doctor who is preventing Malaria. She was in Tibet, fall 2004, on the Climbing Blind team; taking six blind Tibetan teenagers on a two-week expedition to the summit of Lhapki Ri (23,100ft), on the north side of Mt. Everest. Her first-person story aired on NPR and the climb was made into a documentary called BLINDSIGHT, which showed internationally and has swept awards across the globe. In 2002 she reported for NPR from Sabah, Malaysia while racing the 2002 MSOQ adventure race.

Stefani has an MBA in marketing and is the founder and president of NTS Wine Tasting, LLC; an entertainment-educational company crafting corporate and private wine events and producing the “Wine Tasting Without the Attitude” series at 92nd Street Y and Learning Annex. Stefani lives in NYC.