Our flight of wine at Red Newt Cellars in Hector, N.Y., seemed like a steal: $25 per couple for three tasting glasses each, along with a cheese and cured meat plate. My sister and I, along with our husbands, raised our glasses for a toast as we marveled at the orderly rows of vineyards that sloped down the sunny shores of Seneca Lake.
We’d grown up 30 miles east of Hector. But it took us until adulthood to explore the bucolic Finger Lakes wine region in western New York, which USA Today’s readers recently named the best U.S. wine region for the second consecutive year. Eleven lakes, carved out by glaciers 2 million years ago, splay like 75-mile-long handprints across lush, rolling hills.
In the 1950s, a Russian plant scientist named Konstantin Frank realized that the lakes provided an ideal microclimate for growing the cool-climate grapes he’d tended in Europe. Water holds its temperature longer than air, so it heats and cools the air that skims above it, protecting the vineyards against early and late frosts. Together with a former Champagne maker from France, Frank grafted vinifera vines onto American rootstock to grow the area’s first European grape varieties. Now, the region is a source of world-renowned rieslings and cool-climate reds, several produced by an up-and-coming third generation of winemakers.
While many of the region’s more than 130 wineries offer year-round tastings at an affordable price, fall is the perfect time to visit because it’s harvest season. Visitors are welcome to help stomp grapes at Hunt Country Vineyards’ Harvest Festival, Oct. 5-6, while nearby trees churn out a patchwork of fiery colors.
Four of the Finger Lakes have wine trails: Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka and Canandaigua. A loquacious driver I found on the internet recommended one lake per day, starting with Seneca Lake. Nearly 38 miles long, the Seneca tail leads to 31 wineries.
We passed farmhouses, rolling farmland, collapsing barns and an Amish buggy on our way to the southeastern shore of the lake. This area is known as the Banana Belt for the rich fruit it grows, as temperatures here run a few degrees higher than in the surrounding areas.
At the 30-year-old Chateau LaFayette Reneau, we paired cookies with three wines in an uncrowded restored barn ($5 per person). Next, we sipped dry wines at Damiani Wine Cellars ($5 for five tastings), unwinding outside in an empty yard beneath a sun-soaked sky tinged a gorgeous red. That was our third stop; worn out, we returned to Ithaca, sad to have missed the world-class rieslings at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard.
There was much in the area left to explore, so on a different day, my sister and I day-tripped to Seneca Lake with our kids. We hiked 800 stone steps that spiraled up the congested Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park, winding through rock tunnels and beneath waterfalls. We returned on the Indian Trail so we could see the dramatic rock formations from 85 feet above while crossing a suspension bridge.
In Geneva, we split a charcuterie plate at the renovated 1880s Belhurst Castle after searching for the self-portraits artisans had carved into the woodwork. Now a romantic resort, it has two restaurants and a spa, a red wine spigot free to guests, as well as an expansive lawn that seemed to roll into the lake.
One evening, we walked from my sister’s house in downtown Ithaca to Ports of New York ($5 per person). Old winemaking tools and large oak barrels surrounded us. Owner Frédéric Bouché regaled us with tales from his ancestors’ vineyards in France while we sniffed and swirled his fortified wines, which taste like port. The tasting had the effect of transporting us to Europe, and left us wanting more.
We drove to Sheldrake Point Winery for an unpretentious lakeside tasting of its award-winning riesling ice wine ($5 for four tastings). With ice wines, grapes ripen on the vine past harvest until they freeze. The sugars they contain do not freeze, resulting in a super-sweet, concentrated dessert wine. As boaters whipped inner-tube riders across the sparkling blue lake, I wished we’d floated in on a wine-tasting boat tour. Four of the wineries on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, said to be the oldest in the U.S., operate boat docks, including the noteworthy Thirsty Owl and Long Point Winery.
The best way to appreciate the beauty and solitude of Ithaca is to climb the gray, jagged rock ledges at Buttermilk or Robert H. Treman Park (but only where marked; the gorges have claimed several lives). On this trip, we hiked 1.5 miles round-trip to Taughannock Falls in nearby Trumansburg, where water plunges 215 feet over sandstone and shale, one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rockies.
The best way to understand Ithaca’s free-loving character is to visit its central pedestrian-only Commons to take in its culinary scene or live music. At Starbucks, a man recited a weather haiku for me while my son reported seeing somebody walk past in white briefs and a helmet.
For a different view of the city, we took a sailing lesson through the Merrill Family Sailing Center at Cornell University. As our kids harnessed the wind, I gazed up at the two colleges — Cornell University and Ithaca College — that stand prominently on the steep hills. On another day, we climbed Cornell’s 161-step clock tower to hear the deafening sounds of a bell concert.
We couldn’t leave the region without paying homage to the godfather of the Finger Lakes wine region. After a quick swim at the public beach in the Victorian-style town of Hammondsport followed by a treat at Crooked Lake Ice Cream Co., we drove to the Dr. Konstantin Frank winery on the western side of Keuka Lake. I tasted the Margrit dry riesling but fell in love with a dry rosé ($10 fee for five tastings, refunded with a purchase of four bottles of wine). I walked away with a four-pack of canned 375-milliliter Salmon Run riesling. Back at my sister’s, we opened one and agreed that while canned beat boxed, it was not as good as wine served in a glass.
On another day, we stopped at the 160-year-old Corning Glassworks, where 50,000 translucent glass objects glowed. My kids took a 40-minute workshop at which they learned to fuse glass together to make a night light. Afterward, we watched a master glassblower blow out and shape sand he’d melted in an extremely hot furnace into a cake stand that was given to the most enthusiastic audience member. Not surprisingly, that was me.
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of “52 Fights.” Find her at unplannedcooking.com.