As seasoned regional travelers as we are, our home state of New York State still surprises us. Home to both the most populous city in the country, and the largest protected natural area in the contiguous US states, New York is filled with gems from downstate to upstate. One of those gems we recently discovered is the second-largest concentration of wineries in the USA, also known as Finger Lakes Wine Country. Bested only by Napa Valley in California, there are no less than 120 wineries in the Finger Lakes, all within a couple hours of each other. Inspired by our home state’s penchant for wine, we packed our bags and paired up with regional tourism website Finger Lakes Wine Country to create a guide for the area.
The history of the Finger Lakes begins some two million years ago, when the unique region was created by continental glaciers, forming a series of long, skinny, deep lakes. (They’re also responsible for the massive gorges that nearby Ithaca is famous for, or more locally, those in Watkins Glen State Park.) Its natural combination of deep water—Seneca Lake is 632 feet at its deepest point—and steep sloping hills create the ideal micro-climate for grape growing. The unique geology and topography protect the growth of hardy native grapes, premium hybrids, and even the more delicate varieties of Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.
These days, over 35 wineries are included in the Finger Lake’s longest official wine trail along Seneca Lake. (By the way, this number doesn’t include additional wineries that aren’t listed on the trail—or all the breweries, cideries, and distilleries!) Its wineries have won hundreds of national and international medals, and are recognized as world-class producers of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Meads.
The best part? This wine-soaked getaway is less than five hours from NYC, making it a perfect winter getaway to indulge in some of the USA’s best wine—without ever stepping foot on a plane. Ready to start planning? Read on, and be sure to check out Finger Lakes Wine Country for more recommendations and additional itineraries.
Where to Stay in Finger Lakes Wine Country: An Airbnb in a Vineyard, an Inn Above a Winery, or Lakeside Rustic Cabins
Planning your Finger lakes adventure begins with finding a place to stay, and there’s no shortage of inns, B&B’s, hotels and Airbnbs around. We opted for Airbnb “1885 Fruit Packing House,” a two-story, one bedroom home located on a 5th generation family homestead. The owners, Tina and Eric Hazlitt, grow grapes on the property as Sawmill Creek Vineyards. Their grapes can be tasted at a number of the wineries in the area, including a few within a stones throw. The cottage, which dates back to 1885, is part of a cluster of buildings including an 1881 farmhouse and a beautiful white barn from 1901. Inside, the upper level is comprised mostly of bedroom, with 360º views overlooking the farm and its many vineyards, and Seneca Lake. Downstairs, a full kitchen allows guests to cook their own meals, and a gas stove keeps the two-story home warm and cozy. (As luck would have it, the gas stove also happens to be a great place to curl up and enjoy a glass of wine!)
The 1885 Fruit Packing House is only rentable for part of the year, so if it’s not available, check out the neighboring Rustic Cabins, whose log cabins overlook Seneca Lake. Ten minutes down the road in Watkins Glen, Seneca Lodge offers A-frame cabins, cottages, and motel rooms. For a more traditional hotel room, check out the Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars, on the west side of the lake. It’s one of the first wineries in the region, and the history is rich here. The restaurant and easy commute home from the bar make this a popular choice for visitors.
What To Do in Finger Lakes Wine Country: Eat & Drink Your Way Around the Seneca Lake Wine Trail
When visiting Finger Lakes Wine Country, spending at least one day sampling its world-class regional wines is a must. We spent two days exploring our way up and down the trail, leaving with the feeling of having just scratched the surface. With so many wineries to try, we planned our days based on what side of the lake we were on, eventually making our way to Watkins Glen each night for dinner.
On the west side of the lake, begin your day in Penn Yan at Wager’s Cider Mill, offering up fresh apples, cider, and most importantly, cider donuts. Wager’s standard old-fashioned and cinnamon-sugar donuts area fantastic; their more adventurous offerings of blueberry, coconut, pumpkin, or maple glaze are drool-worthy too, so grab a dozen to go. Add a gallon of ridiculously good cider to your order too for a perfect hot toddy. Ten minutes away, the village of Penn Yan is cute and worth stopping in to explore. One highlight is the Keuka Candy Emporium, whose nostalgic-full candy shop is full of the amazing throwback candies that made up most adults childhoods… Think shoestring licorice, Necco wafers, Swedish fish, and candy bracelets. Next door, for a more adult indulgence, grab a cup of coffee or a beer at the beautiful Publick Coffee Bar, whose baristas serve up coffee, tea, wine, cider, and beer.
Once you’re ready to hit some wineries, make northern-most point Ravines Wine Cellars your first stop. Like many other wineries, Ravines Wine Cellars is in a beautifully restored barn right on Seneca Lake. Try their Brut Méthod Classique, or opt for a cheese fondue pairing. Continuing the journey south, stop into Glenora Wine Cellars, where you can relish in the history at the first winery on Seneca Lake. Since its founding in the 1970s, Glenora grew from a farm winery to a top commercial producer, winning recognition in Wine Spectator magazine as one of the world’s top wineries. Next stop, Fulkerson Winery is another historic point, currently in its 7th generation of family farming. Several types of tastings are available, from standard to group tastings, or book an intimate cheese or chocolate pairing in their loft space. Last, our favorite stop on the west side of the trail was at Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard, regarded as one of the pioneers of winemaking in the Finger Lakes. The tasting room and winery are housed in large, beautiful barns and features intimate tastings in a room overlooking the vineyard. (Pro tip: get there for sunset!) Best known for their Rieslings, it’s also a must-visit for everything from brut to its wonderful Cabernet Francs.
For lunch on this side of the lake, you’ll need something pretty substantial to wash down all that wine—and there’s no better place to fill up and refuel than the FLX Wienery. The roadside restaurant in a ranch-style home offers up an array of gourmet hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages, french fries, cheese curds, and desserts. Vegetarians will find great options here too, including a delicious black bean burger, or a whole roasted carrot in place of a hot dog. After you’ve ordered your base, there’s five or six topping combinations on the menu—or just create your own. Craft beer drinkers will also appreciate FLX Wienery’s bottle, can and tap selection, with semi-regular appearances from hard to find Vermont breweries like The Alchemist’s “Heady Topper” or Lawson’s “Sip of Sunshine.” Those with a sweet tooth should try their $1 giant homemade marshmallow, or pair a boozy milkshake with lunch.
On day two, turn your gaze to the eastern shores of the lake, where there’s another long string of wineries. Beginning at the northernmost point, start at the beautiful Wagner Vineyards, whose wrap-around windows overlook a beautiful landscape and its large outdoor seating area. There’s also a brewery on the premises, so don’t skip this stop to sample both wine and beer. (Speaking of breweries, you can catch lunch or dinner on this side of the lake at Grist Iron Brewing, which has pretty great pizza.) Next, head to Standing Stone Vineyards who are known for their reds; try the Saparavi. We loved the wine/cheese pairing here, grabbing some local cheeses from their gift shop on the way out. Then, just down the road is Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, whose antique and taxidermy-filled felt cozy and cabin-like. Grab the spot by the wood stove if you can! Another few minutes down the road is Hector Wine Company, whose wines are made with many of the grapes from Sawmill Creek Vineyards–which is across the street. Last, Atwater Vineyards is yet another marvelous winery, whose location overlooks Seneca Lake. Atwater’s winemakers Vinny and George are very experimental in their production process, resulting in dynamic wines from over a dozen varieties, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.
Getting Outdoors in Finger Lakes Wine Country: Hiking & Horseback Riding in Finger Lakes National Forest
Of course, you can’t drink wine all day, so best to plan your mornings exploring all this beautiful region has to offer. An absolute must-see is nearby Watkins Glen State Park, whose wintery landscapes are sure to enchant visitors. Despite trail closings in winter, there’s still enough to kill a couple hours here. Take in the views of the 200 foot gorge from above, where a churning stream generates 19 waterfalls along a 2-mile course. Look for the parking lot at the recreation center, then head down the stairs in back of the building to access the main trail. A five minute walk will take you to a bridge that passes over the gorge. Once you cross the bridge, take the short trails on either side that lead to scenic overlooks.
Another way to take in the amazing landscapes in Finger Lakes Wine Country is on horseback, which can be arranged through Painted Barn Stables. Owner Erika Eckstrom is super friendly, catering to all levels of riders, year-round. We booked a 5-mile trail that took a little over an hour, making our way through forest, open fields, crossing multiple streams. If you’ve never done it before, winter rides are especially beautiful–just make sure to dress appropriately!
Additional Dining & Drinking Recommendations: Dinner In a Cabin-Turned-Brewery, or a Downtown Cider + Wine Bar
Aside from the recommendations above (read: FLX Wienery and Grist Iron Brewing), add a few more to the list. First up, Graft Wine + Cider Bar has the area’s best dinner, who highlight premium Finger Lakes producers on a rotating, seasonally focused bar and kitchen menu. Manned by Culinary Institute of America’s grad and chef Christina McKeough, the food is ridiculously good; try at least one of their specials, which are written up on a chalkboard toward the back of the restaurant. For breakfast, check out Toni’s Diner, serving up classic comfort food in a small roadside cabin. The menu and decor are equally simple, but sometimes there’s no better cure for a wine hangover than a big stack of pancakes.
Though it’s known for all the wine producers in the region, the Finger Lakes has had a resurgence in breweries too. Around the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, check out Two Goats Brewing, which is housed in a barn with a fabulous view. Inside, the barn feels compact but cozy and cabin-like, made complete with live music entertaining its guests on weekends. Carnivores relish in the food menu, which is composed of one item: a hot roast beef sandwich. Just down the road, the menu at Grist Iron Brewing is a little more extensive–but most visitors and locals relish in the pizza. The area’s best brewery is also its newest: Lucky Hare. Follow the wooden arrow sign reading “BEER” from the busy road, to a barn where the beer is brewed. Spend an hour in their tap room doing a tasting, grabbing a pint; or, just grab a growler to go. Don’t miss their pale ales, a strong point on their menu.