The Best Finger Lakes Wineries in Finger Lakes Wine Country
Choosing the best Finger Lakes wineries in Finger Lakes Wine Country is, in all honesty, a trying and difficult task. Largely thats because, more often than not, the wine that I sipped upon was fantastic, so how can I go about separating the best from the rest? Well, dear readers, this wouldn’t be a very useful article if I didn’t try to do just that, so let’s get to work.
There are few, if any, wine regions in the United States that I’m more familiar with than Finger Lakes Wine Country, and that’s for a few reasons. Firstly, I was invited on a press trip down to the Finger Lakes to help promote the region by the incredible Carol Cain, co-founder of Brave World Media along with running Girl Gone Travel. I did this trip to help to promote TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange), which would be taking place in Corning, New York.
Naturally, it wasn’t just only me. Carol also invited some other amazing individuals who I’m now proud to call friends such as Scott and Megan from Bobo and ChiChi, Jessica from The Dining Traveler, and Kae Lani with USA Today 10 Best and Kae Lani Says.
Can you say dream team?
Throughout our time in the Finger Lakes Wine Country, we did our best to explore as many of the Finger Lakes wineries as humanly possible. I sipped on this, I sipped on that, and I’m confident that after visiting likely dozens of Finger Lakes wineries that I can talk with a little authority on the best finger lakes wines to be had.
Naturally, with wine, there’s always room for ample disagreement, but this information will guide you to some can’t miss places, then you can continue your journey from there.
A Brief History on the Finger Lakes Wine Country
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning off the bat that the Finger Lakes Wine Country is the largest wine producing region in New York State, and this year the Finger Lakes was awarded the best wine region in America. Talk about justifying me writing this article, right?!
When I’m talking about the Finger Lakes Wine Country I’m referring primarily to the Finger Lakes wine trails which are built out on Canandaigua Lake, Keuka Lake, Seneca Lake, and Cayuga Lake. On these lakes and in this region, we’re talking about well over 10,000 acres of vineyards, which is a fair bit. The region is known for growing a large array of grape varietals, but especially from Germany, as the climate is somewhat comparable. That’s why you’ll see plenty of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and other wines typically found in Germany.
The history of Finger Lakes wineries essentially starts in the early 19th century, but only in a commercial sense in the mid 19th century. Quickly, the region became famous for its sparkling wines, even winning European awards as early as 1867. Prohibition and other factors ended up devastating the industry, which, ultimately, didn’t make a comeback until the middle of the 20th century.
By this time, folks were getting tired of all the sweeter wines, and they were looking for something drier, but the problem was that people assumed you couldn’t make decent dry wines in the Finger Lakes due to the climate. The Finger Lakes Wine Trail about 75 years ago would have been one sweet wine after another, which is hard to imagine nowadays.
In comes Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian immigrant with a PhD and a lot of drive. The man is an absolute legend in the area, and rightfully so, as much of the success of the area is a result of his ability to figure out how to grow grapes, which usually rely on a warmer climate, in the much colder Finger Lakes region. He grafted rootstock to the vitis vinifera grape varietals, and instantly proved the haters wrong.
The Finger Lakes Wine Country as we know it today was born. Thanks, Dr. Frank! Nowadays, there are about one hundred wineries who call the Finger Lakes Wine Trail home.
Let’s Get a Bird’s Eye View of the Finger Lakes Wine Trails
At the very least, I can imagine you now instantly have less questions about why this region is known as the “Finger Lakes.”
From left to right, you’re looking at the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail, the Keuka Lake Wine Trail (which many people say resembles a slingshot), the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, and the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. In general, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail is the most famous simply because of its size, and the fact that it has a huge amount of wineries on both the east and the west side of Seneca Lake.
For the sake of ease, I’ll be splitting up the Finger Lakes wine trails into sections according to lake, and talking about which wineries I’d visit if I were to do it all over again. I’ll work from left to right, so we’ll do Canandaigua, then Keuka, followed by Seneca west, Seneca east, and finally Cayuga. You can see some Finger Lakes wineries already pegged on my Google Maps screenshot up above, and I’ll be mentioning some that are highlighted there, and some that aren’t. This is just a basic overview to serve as a general map of Finger Lakes wineries, which will allow you to reference throughout.
Alright, let’s get to it.
The Best Finger Lakes Wineries on the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail
The Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail is the western most Finger Lakes wine trail, and while not as well known as the rest, it still offers a fair bit to wine and nature lovers. It’s much smaller and less well known, but, with travel, that often just means more opportunity to forge your own path and find your own experience. The trail as we know it has been around for about thirty years, and it’s considered a good New York wine trail for an afternoon or day.
Here’s what I’d recommend from the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail:
Casa Larga Vineyards - It’s a pretty property, and located conveniently close to Rochester, New York if you happen to be visiting. It’s been around since 1974, and they’ve got an emphasis on hands on wine experiences such as making wine. They’ve got over twenty different award winning wines last time I checked, but are particularly well known for their ice wine, which isn’t my thing, but could be yours!
Inspire Moore Winery & Vineyard - Located in Naples, New York, the property is bright, funky, and colourful. I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually tried their wines, but I wanted to include them because I’ve read about their emphasis on sustainable practices in winemaking, which is something that I’m really keen on these days.
The Best Finger Lakes Wineries on the Keuka Lake Wine Trail
Certinaly, Keuka Lake has to be the most famously shaped of the Finger Lakes. It’s a beautiful spot and, truthfully, my first spin through the Keuka Lake Wine Trail blew me away because I feel that some of the region’s best wineries are on Keuka Lakes’s southwestern shore. Most of the oldest Finger Lakes wineries are here, so even just beyond the picturesque scenery, there’s a whole lot of history to be learned.
Dr. Konstantin Frank - As you’ll have noted if you read some of the introduction, Dr. Frank was a legend around these parts and his techniques drastically changed the name of the game in Finger Lakes Wine Country. Not to mention, they’ve got some lovely wines, and tasting is available year-round totally free of charge, which isn’t particularly common in the Finger Lakes. If you’re on the Finger Lakes Wine Trail, this has to be one of the first wineries on the list, no question.
Keuka Spring Vineyards - For my money, this is my favourite winery in all of the Finger Lakes. I tried pretty much all of their reds - the Cabernet Franc, the Lemberger, the Miller’s Cove Red and so forth, and they were all outstanding. I guess now would be a good place to mention I prefer reds, but believe me they more than met the test. It’s also a picturesque property, and a great place to taste wine. It would not be a stretch to suggest this is in the running for my number one winery in America.
Hunt Country Vineyards - For seven generations the Hunt family has been producing wine, and for seven generations people have been happily drinking it. Their wines are a little on the sweeter side, but I appreciated the Hunter’s Red, which has notes of cherry and plum. They’re particularly well known for their ice wine, as they’re the oldest continuous producer of ice wine not only on the Finger Lakes Wine Trail, but in the whole country.
Heron Hill Winery - The property alone makes Heron Hill Winery worth visiting as you make your way down the Keuka Lake Wine Trail. It’s much more something I would have expected to see in rural Italy then New York State, and that’s very much part of the charm. They’ve got an impressive tasting room with a million dollar view, and a whole slew of award winning wines to boot. It’s the sort of place you really hope your friend gets married at, so you can spend a few hours there.
McGregor Vineyard - Deep fruity reds like the Rob Roy Red and Black Russian Red had me purring to say the least. When we visited we actually got to sit down with John McGregor, and his passion for wine was palpable. I don’t do sweet whites, but their Dry Gewürztraminer Reserve was really to my liking due to the low natural sugar. This is another gem not to be missed in the Finger Lakes, and especially not on the Keuka Lake Wine Trail. It’s worth noting that McGregor was around before the Keuka Lake Trail was even a thing to do!
Pleasant Valley Wine Company - I never did get a chance to stop by and try the wine, but I do know that this is the first bonded winery in all of America, and that’s got to stand for something for wine enthusiasts. The five oldest structures were built in the 1860’s, so you could say that the current prominence of the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, and the Finger Lakes in general, owes a lot to Pleasant Valley Wine Company.
Vineyard View Winery - Of all the wineries, this might be the most aptly named. The tasting room is built high up on the hill overlooking the vineyard and Keuka Lake, which makes for an awfully pleasant viewing experience. Their cheese platters were also delicious if you’re into that sort of thing while you’re tasting wine. Like much of the region their 2016 Cabernet Franc is spot on (it was a good season for that grape), but, for the most part, it was the view that really stuck with me as opposed to any one particular wine.
If you like this article, you may also want to read about Pelee Island, which is “Canada’s Wine Island.”
The Best Finger Lakes Wineries on the West Seneca Lake Wine Trail
Whether you’re going to the west side or the east side on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, you’re going to be happy. For the sake of ease, I’ll cover the West Seneca Lake Wine Trail first, then I’ll create a separate heading below for east. The Seneca Wine Trail has be the most famous of the Finger Lakes wine trails and that’s largely because it’s the largest lake, and thus has the most member wineries (nearly 30.) I absolutely love Watkins Glen, the town at the bottom of the Seneca Lake, so this area and these wineries hold a special place in my heart.
Fox Run Vineyards - Fox Run Vineyards utilizes state of the art technology to ensure that their wines are top notch across the board, yet their property offers a view of what a simple, quaint vineyard should look like. You can do a winery tour here for five bucks per person, which isn’t bad at all. I’m not a rosé person, by the way, but their chilled dry rosé would be perfect for a hot day.
Glenora Wine Cellars - So, the Glenora Wine Cellars might be misleading in that it’s really much more of a “wine resort,” if you will, but they certainly do deserve respect as the first winery on Seneca Lake back in the late 1970s! They won several awards with their very first vintage, so suffice to say they started with a pretty darn good plan.
Fulkerson Winery - If you want to talk about history on the Finger Lakes, the Fulkerson family has owned the land that the winery sits on for over three hundred years! I’ve actually met Steven Fulkerson on many occasions, and he’s the seventh generation to run this operation. I’d also like to offer my congratulations as the eighth generation was born in October of 2018 if I’m not mistaken! I like their tasting room with the high, high ceilings, and I also appreciated the wine. Try something different and take a sip on their Syrah, Grüner Veltliner, or Pinot Noir!
Lakewood Vineyards - An old apple and peach farm turned into an award winning winery - how’s that for a family story? The Stamp family continue to look towards the future, and hope to use their 80 acres to add a few more awards to the collection. If you can, get your hands on a big steak (or some strong flavoured cheese if you’re a vegetarian), and get a bottle of their Cabernet Franc (2016, if possible).
The Best Finger Lakes Wineries on the East Seneca Lake Wine Trail
As I alluded to above, it’s really hard to say that one side of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail is better than the other. Both the east and the west side are home to some phenomenal wineries with optimal growing conditions. I would say, though, that if you’re thinking about how to do the Finger Lakes wine trails in general, it’d make sense to spend time at both the east and west Seneca Lake wineries. Without further adieu, here are some wineries to keep an eye out for on the east Seneca Lake Wine Trail!
Wagner Vineyards & Wagner Valley Brewing Co. - I can’t think of a better vineyard in the Finger Lakes to just chill out and take in the scenery. They’ve got an enormous back patio that often features lively bands and even a touch of dancing. In the warmer months, they’ve got bean bag tossing and the whole thing, and it makes for a perfect summer eve. Wagner, well they’re one of the big boys - they produce over 50,000 cases of wine each year, and their wine and beer are fantastic, and also quite inventive. I know a lot of folks who work at Wagner, and they’re absolutely salt of the earth.
Boundary Breaks Vineyard - They’re a relatively young winery, but don’t count them out. For starters, they’ve got one of the finest views of the region (though, thinking about it, it’s hard to think about who doesn’t have an impressive view), but I’d also note that if you’re a Riesling fan, then you just discovered your pot of gold. They openly profess their love for Rieslings, and it shows in what they can produce.
Hazlitt 1852 - Can you, by chance, guess when Hazlitt was founded? Exactly, it’s right in the name and, to be fair, that’s a pretty darn long time. In the Finger Lakes Wine Region, you can’t escape seeing the name Hazlitt, as they’ve clearly put their mark on the region. The Hazlitt family is six generations in, and still going strong. They pride themselves on producing an eclectic array of wines to ensure that everyone leaves happy.
Damiani Wine Cellars - If you’re looking to sip on wine outdoors, Damiani, like Wagner, has a nice outdoor area to look over the terroir. If it’s cold, you can also stick to the tasting room, which is open daily. Damiani does reds particularly well if that’s your thing - as I’ve mentioned, it’s certainly mine.
Chatuea Lafayette Reneau - One major appeal of Chateau Lafayette Reneau is that their tasting room is actually in a barn that’s about one hundred years old. And that’s what Chateau Layafette Reneau is all about, using old world techniques and charm to woo you with flavour and ambiance. They’ve been awarded the Governor’s Cup three times, so you know they must be doing something right.
Three Brothers Wineries and Estates - With three wineries, a microbrewery and a coffee shop, Three Brothers is a bit of an institution. They’re located in Geneva on the east Seneca Lake Wine Trail, and they throw a whole lot of events, so head to their website and see if there might be something on while you’re there. If you’ve got a feuding family, this might be a nice place to split up, since they’ve got four separate areas, though I’m sure your family would never ever need that.
The Best Finger Lakes Wineries on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail
As far as I understand, the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail wasn’t just the first wine trail in the Finger Lakes, but rather the first wine trail in America. In that case, you can justify spending that extra time on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail not because you’re a huge wine lover, but rather because you’re an ardent historian who needs to do his or her proper research. For reference sake, the Cayuga Lake Trail is the wine trail that is the furthest east in the Finger Lakes. There are a few wineries on this trail worth mentioning, so let’s get to work.
Americana Vineyards - This place is just fun. The tone is set with Joseph, the exuberant owner, and his two pups Lilly and Maverick who he notes “work as full time greeters.” They’ve got homemade fudge and a shop filled with all sorts of goodies. I’ve also eaten at the Crystal Lake Cafe a few times which is on their property, and the food was always solid. It’s a really relaxed atmosphere at Americana, which can be a nice break from wineries who have a predilection to be a little pretentious.
Goose Watch Winery - The picture above was actually taken at Goose Watch, so that gives you some indication of the view you can expect. Goose Watch Winery tries to do things a bit differently, and that shows in the varietals they produce such as Aromella and Viognier. I thought it was a pretty pleasant place to spend a bit of time and try a handful of wines.
The Lucas Winery - As with Goose Watch, I think I was more intoxicated with the atmosphere and view here than anything the wine could have done to me. There are some chairs out back where you can look out at a seemingly never ending field, and sitting there was a memorable moment for me during my time on the Finger Lakes wine trail, and more specifically the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. The wines here were a touch sweeter than I’d typically go for, but that might just be my pallet more than anything.
Which Finger Lakes Winery is for You?
The truth is, that’s something only you can decide, but you’re going to have a splendid time trying to answer that question. The purpose of this article was merely to give you a place to start and let you know what wineries I found that had something special about them.
If you can, take a week in the warmer months, and do your best to start on the left with the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail, then move right and spend some time on the Keuka Lake Wine Trail. Spend a couple of days doing the east side of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, then do the west side of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Finally, you can finish with the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. You can use this guide to help you figure out where to stop along the way, but just be sure not to be drinking and driving. We had Carol as our ever trusty designated driver, and it allowed us to taste a whole lot more than we could have if any of us were driving.
The Finger Lakes might just be the most underrated region in the states, so plan a route around the wineries above, get yourself a quaint hotel room in Watkins Glen, and bring your appetite for quality wine and breathtaking views.
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