Drink in the beauty
NY's Finger Lakes region beckons with fine wineries, natural wonders
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- We ducked our heads as the boom came across the deck. Captain Doug Hazlitt was tacking the schooner Malabar X to head straight up Lake Seneca. Then we extended our glasses as the wine steward appeared, pouring samples of the red and white (and one virulently pink) wines of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards.
It was certainly one of the more unusual tastings we've ever experienced, but the vintners of New York's Finger Lakes go to great lengths to capture the attention of American wine drinkers.
This northerly region of 11 narrow glacial lakes might seem at first blush an unlikely wine district, but grapes have always been a primary crop. In 1860, the Pleasant Valley Wine Co. of Hammondsport became the first bonded, or federally licensed, winery in the nation, and by the end of the century, Taylor Wines, Gold Seal, and others were producing a prodigious quantity of New York State Champagne, a sweet, bulk-process sparkling wine made from native grape varieties.
But things have changed. In the late 1950s, vineyards began experimenting with French-American hybrid wine grapes. Walter S. Taylor, scion of the Taylor Wine Co. clan, parted ways with the family business in 1970 and made his Bully Hill Winery the bastion of these winter-hardy, heavy-bearing hybrids. The winery's ''museum" lauds the family's contributions to viticulture and lays out in cranky detail Walter's losing legal battle to put his own name on his winery. (
By the 1960s, a few pioneers were adopting sophisticated cultivation practices to raise European wine grapes typical of cool climates like Alsace and Champagne. When their experiments literally bore fruit, the winemaking gold rush was on, as entrepreneurs sought the ''next Napa-Sonoma." Today, some 90 wineries carry the Finger Lakes appellation, and most of them are open for tastings and tours. Right now, the wineries are in the thick of the harvest.
''Eight to 10 people harvest all 60 acres by hand," said Dan Mitchell of Fox Run Vineyards. ''They can be more selective than a machine." The vineyard and winery tour at Fox Run is a good introduction to contemporary Finger Lakes winemaking. Mitchell demonstrated the grape trellising system developed at nearby Cornell University, led the group through state-of-the-art crushing and fermenting equipment, and explained the effects of aging in different kinds of oak barrels.
''Pinot noir is one of our winemaker's passions," he said, ''but Riesling is the king of the Finger Lakes. We're lucky to have an area that grows world-class Riesling."
Almost every Finger Lakes winery considers Riesling its flagship, and most pay homage to Konstantin Frank, the German-born immigrant from Ukraine who demonstrated the viability of Riesling when he founded his winery, Vinifera Wine Cellars, in 1962. From his experience in Ukraine, Frank knew that many noble European wine grapes could flourish in cold climates with extensive organic growing techniques. The retail operation of Vinifera Wine Cellars has none of the flash of Bully Hill or the guided tours and big retail store of Fox Run, but it attracts dedicated oenophiles nonetheless. Frank's wines have taken gold medals in competitions in California and Alsace.
It would be easy to spend a weekend visiting wineries, but we didn't want to miss the area's most striking natural attraction and the quirky museum devoted to local-boy-made-good Glenn H. Curtiss, the aviation pioneer.
The same silicate-rich soil that makes the Finger Lakes prime Riesling-growing country also produces striking natural features such as the 2-mile-long gorge at Watkins Glen State Park. On an introductory tour, park naturalist Natalie Oliver explained that the shale and sandstone were formed more than 300 million years ago when the area was an inland sea. By geological standards, the gorge itself is a Johnny-come-lately, having been carved from the soft rock in the years since the last glacier receded from the area.
''It's taken 10,000 years to get as deep as it is," Oliver said. A small stream continues the slow erosion as it descends about 400 feet. It tumbles down in 19 waterfalls, including Cascade Falls, where hikers pass behind the cataract on a stone ledge.
From the parking lot just south of Watkins Glen village, trails and hand-carved tunnels ascend the walls of the gorge for dizzying views. Walking the entire length takes about an hour.
We wouldn't have been surprised to hear that Curtiss had raced up the streambed on a motorcycle or buzzed the gorge with one of his signature biplanes. He did neither, as far as we can tell, but the Hammondsport bicycle shop owner was one of the first to build viable airplanes, and he vied for years with the Wright brothers for recognition. (After his death in 1930, the Curtiss and Wright companies merged to build World War II fighter planes.)
Perhaps appropriately, the Curtiss Museum occupies a former wine storage facility. Few other buildings would be big enough to hold the full-size airplanes -- or the larger-than-life derring-do -- of Curtiss. Along with chronicling the early years of aviation and the breadth of Curtiss's inventions (he designed an ingenious travel trailer, for example), the museum also deals with local history on and around the Finger Lakes -- including the ubiquitous wine business.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon are freelance writers based in Cambridge.