The vintners of New York's Finger Lakes region make wines that stand alongside California's best. And the scenery is likewise first-rate: Road-trippers can taste their way from vineyard to vineyard amid rolling hills, tidy Amish farms, and long vistas of blue water. These glacier-gouged lakes, like the fingers of a splayed hand, extend southward from a 75-mile-long (120-kilometer-long) line reaching roughly from Syracuse in the east to Rochester in the west.
Like much of central New York, the Finger Lakes region is a pleasing patchwork of rich farmland and small towns, with a mix of handsome 19th-century homes and red-brick downtowns that would have inspired Edward Hopper. Two-lane blacktops follow the lakeshores, sometimes hugging the waterlines, sometimes drifting up into green, pillowy dairylands. Except along Keuka Lake, popular with summer cottagers, farms and forest run right down to the water. On Cayuga and Seneca, the lakefront properties aren't cheek by jowl and you won't see any McMansions. Traffic moves at a slower pace, and you may have to slow down for bikers or a haywagon.
The finest of the area's nearly one hundred wineries nestle along the shores of Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka Lakes, taking advantage of a microclimate created by the deep water's moderation of winter and summer weather extremes. "No vine likes roller-coaster temperatures," says Dan Mitchell, tasting manager at Fox Run Vineyards on Seneca Lake. Here among the lakes, the vines usually get what they want. You could spend a week or more visiting wineries around the Finger Lakes, zigzagging between shores. But a more straightforward 175-mile loop (280-kilometer) beginning and ending at Ithaca does ample justice to vineyards and views alike, and can be accomplished comfortably in four days. The attractions below lie along a route following the western shores of both Cayuga and Seneca Lakes, then swinging west and south to reach Keuka Lake before returning to Ithaca.
Start in Ithaca
Ithaca, at Cayuga's southern tip, is served by regional airlines and rental car agencies. Home to Cornell University, Ithaca is a small but lively city clinging to steep hills above the lake. Sciencenter (601 First St.; www.sciencenter.org) presents some 200 hands-on exhibits engaging for adults as well as kids. Just north of town, at Taughannock Falls State Park, a 20-minute walk leads through a deep gorge to the 215-foot (66-meter) falls.
Follow Cayuga's western shore to Lucas Vineyards (3862 County Rd. 150, Interlaken; www.lucasvineyards.com). The Lucas family pioneered winemaking on Cayuga in 1980. Their 30 acres (12 hectares) of vines slope in orderly rows from a neat lawn down toward the lake, where vistas continue over three miles (4.8 kilometers) of water to the opposite shore. It's a wonderful setting for sipping Lucas's Beaujolais-style Tug Boat Red.
Sheldrake Point Vineyard (7448 County Rd. 153, Ovid; www.sheldrakepoint.com) tucks even closer to the water, near a pocket of rambling summer homes that look like the setting for a Rockwellian August idyll. The vineyard's outdoor café, rimmed by gardens, pairs wines with daily lunch specials.
Traders Village (Route 89 and Swick Rd., Romulus) is just that—or maybe more like a small town. It occupies a string of cavernous buildings crammed with sturdy colonial and mission furniture made by Amish craftsmen. The prices are astonishingly low, and the bargains extend to a huge inventory of quilts, rugs, toys, and other handmade items.
In historic Seneca Falls, believed to be the inspiration for Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, the National Women's Hall of Fame (76 Fall St.) and Women's Rights National Historical Park (136 Fall St.; www.nps.gov/wori) commemorate the work of activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, who both lived here.
The splendidly restored 1894 Smith Opera House (82 Seneca St.; www.thesmith.org) is the downtown jewel of Geneva, a small city graced with a wealth of Greek Revival and Italianate homes at the northern tip of Seneca Lake. The Smith Opera House books touring performers whose acts compete with a riotously colorful art deco interior.
Fox Run Vineyards (670 Rte. 14, Penn Yan; www.foxrunvineyards.com), on Seneca Lake's western shore, offers tours as well as tastings. "Wine is a mystery to a lot of people," says Fox Run owner Scott Osborn. "It's important for them to see the grapes on the vine." Osborn shows off his entire operation, from grafting to bottling. He's especially proud of his French oak barrels. "They're made by hand, by traditional coopers. A new one costs over $700." South of Penn Yan and just east of Keuka Lake, the Windmill Farm & Craft Market (3900 Rte. 14A, Penn Yan; www.thewindmill.com) rambles through 26 acres (11 hectares) and four buildings like a big state fair—with all the exhibits for sale. Recommended: Stoltzfus Bakery's Pennsylvania Dutch shoofly pies.
Miles Wine Cellars (168 Randall Crossing Rd., Himrod; www.mileswinecellars.com) has the most serenely gorgeous setting of any winery in the region. Co-owners Doug Miles and Suzy Hayes greet visitors, some of whom arrive by boat, in a chaste white temple of a house overlooking Seneca Lake. It's picture-book Greek Revival ... and it's haunted. "Clairvoyants have come by and said we had seven ghosts," says Miles. More important, he's seen two—a young man and woman, on the porch. Spooks aside, Miles makes a terrific Pinot Noir, and a chocolatey, smoky Cabernet Franc. But he just had to name one of his wines Ghost—it's a refreshing white with a label depicting the ectoplasmic pair.
End at Hammondsport
Hammondsport, with a lovely town green and a public beach on Keuka, harbors two of the Finger Lakes' finest wineries. At Château Renaissance Wine Cellars (7494 Hatchery Rd.; www.winesparkle.com), French émigré Patrice DeMay's offerings include a sophisticated Merlot; a sherry with butterscotch tones; and champagnes whose recipes have been in DeMay's Loire Valley family for 400 years. DeMay loves the terroir that his 17 acres (7 hectares) of grapes inhabit. "A French word," he explains. "It's hard to translate. It's not just the land, but the air, the vegetation, the water, the wild local yeasts." Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars (9749 Middle Rd.; www.drfrankwines.com) honor the man who introduced true European vinifera wine grapes to upstate New York. Located in the late doctor's white farmhouse, the company's tasting room is one of the region's busiest, thanks to the superb Riesling and Gewurztraminer varietals that grow just across the road, on slopes high above Keuka Lake.
—Text by William Scheller, adapted from National Geographic Traveler