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In the Spirit: Take a Drive Through New York Wine Country!

The history of the Finger Lakes wine region dates back to the 1860’s.

There is nothing like taking a weekend drive through wine country in the fall. Virginia may be the closest we have to Greenbrier County for a drive through vineyards, however, there is another wine region on the east coast that lies only eight hours north, in the Finger Lakes of New York.

Around the Keuka, Cayuga, Canandaigua, and Seneca lakes are rolling farmlands sprinkled with fields of grapes. There are currently between 120 and 150 wineries in the area concentrated around the lakes. Upstate New York tends to be a very extreme area in terms of temperature which would normally get too hot and humid for the vines to grow suitable grapes for winemaking. The lakes offer a cooling effect for the summer months regulating the humidity with a nice southerly breeze blowing across them.

The history of the Finger Lakes wine region dates back to the 1860s at the base of Keuka Lake. The first vinifera vineyards of this region were at the southernmost location on the 20-mile-long lake in Hammondsport, NY. Most of the grapes grown in the area were of the labrusca family which are always better for juice and jams rather than wine due to thick skins, large seeds and high natural sugar content. Dr. Konstantin Frank worked for Gold Seal Vineyards, the second oldest winery license of New York State.

The lakes offer a cooling effect for the summer months.

Dr. Frank studied plant science in Ukraine and thoroughly believed that it was the rootstock, not the climate that made the Finger Lakes produce wines that were less than stellar. He met with the president of Gold Seal Vineyards who allowed him a small section of their vineyards to experiment with. In this experimental planting, he used vinifera varietals on rootstock more suited to the soil.

Grafting, as the process is called, is fusing together tissues of two plants making them grow as one. The base of the vine was of the labrusca family, more suited to the weather; the scion (the part that will continue to grow) were of the vinifera family giving life to more complex wines suited to grow in the extreme climate. Eventually Dr Frank took this experience to open his own winery in 1962.

Dr. Frank’s winery is still family-owned.

Dr. Frank’s winery is still family-owned and currently operated by his grandchildren and great-granddaughter along with assistance from many other family members. A visit to this winery in Hammondsport allows you to learn about the rich history of Dr. Frank as well as the entire region in a tasting format. The riesling and a few other limited selections can be found in West Virginia however there are nearly two dozen other offerings of the winery ranging from playful and sweet to dry and complex.

Thanks to that dedication, the wines are now celebrated.

Across the river from Dr Frank is one of the two tasting rooms of Ravines Wine Cellars. The history of Ravines is much briefer than that of Dr. Frank’s however is just as interesting. It was founded in 2001 by Morten & Lisa Hallgren. In the early years of the winery Morten also was the chief winemaker for Dr. Frank and at the time, the only winemaker with formal European education in Oenology.

The wines made by Ravines were not the typical sweeter rieslings that were found at the time in the area. They were drier and had more complexity than most giving them award-winning wines but less public admiration. Instead of conforming to what the public was looking for they took a different route and educated the public on the classic European styles they produced and slowly won the hearts of their critics. Thanks to that dedication the wines are now celebrated with many awards and by wine lovers around the world.

If you combine the European style of Ravines and the experience in grafting of Dr. Frank is Hermann J Wiemer Vineyard. Wiemer grew up in the Mosel region of Germany, one which arguably has the best soils for riesling in the world. When Wiemer immigrated to New York in the 1960s he found a plot of land in Dundee, NY with soils and climate similar to his home vineyards of the Mosel. After Wiemer retired in 2007 his legacy continues with his long-time apprentice taking the helm. When tasted you can see the passion and care put into the bottles with the lingering complexity of the wine.

The wines of the Finger Lakes are accessible, delicious, and should not be dismissed.

If you are unable to or cannot wait to get to Upstate New York all the aforementioned wineries have products available in West Virginia. If you do find yourself driving through the Finger Lakes, the best way to experience the wines to the fullest is to hop on one of the four wine trails. These wine trails were established around the lakes in the 80s to allow visitors a map to taste the local wines with a little direction. The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail was established first and is known as “America’s First Wine Trail.” If you have never followed a wine trail, they are best described as a choose your own adventure in wine tasting. You are even able to purchase a passport for a nominal fee for two of the four trails which allow a complimentary tasting at participating wineries. But trust me, you do not want to try to complete the passport in one day, there are as many as 14 on one trail! Enjoyed at home or 500 miles north where they are produced, the wines of the Finger Lakes are accessible, delicious and should not be dismissed.

Related article: In the Spirit: Harvest Season in the Wine World

– Ginger LaSalle, Hashtag Lewisburg City Paper #127. October 2020. Ginger is formerly a wine sommelier at The Greenbrier Resort. She is a beverage consultant and trainer and shaping beverage programs across Western Massachusetts. Follow Ginger on facebook @winescapeswmass.

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