The steep slopes and glacial soil of the Finger Lakes region of New York State create a perfect environment for growing grapes. Today the area has more than 200 wineries: small, local vineyards, many of them owned by the same families for several generations. I took a tour with Experience! The Finger Lakes to find out more.
Discovering Wine with Experience! The Finger Lakes
Our guide was Laura Winter Falk, co-founder of Experience! The Finger Lakes. She is a trained sommelier and nutritionist with an immense wealth of knowledge about the area, its wines and its food. She explained that her company’s aim is to provide an immersive experience. We weren’t just going to be sampling the wine, we were going to experience the story…
According to TripAdvisor, Laura’s tours are the number one wine tours in the area. Ours was called “From Genesis to Next Generation”, taking in several wineries around Hammondsport and Keuka Lake. And, as the name suggests, we learnt about the history of Finger Lakes wine along the way.
The Origins of Finger Lakes Wine
The first part of the story was the pre-Prohibition era. We heard that wine making in the Finger Lakes began in 1829, when the Rev William Borthwick planted grapes in his Hammondsport rectory garden so that he could make communion wine. The industry took off, with many wealthy individuals planting their own vineyards, and it flourished until the introduction of Prohibition in 1919. Although a small number of licenses were granted to produce wine for religious or medicinal purposes, only six wineries survived.
Our first stop was at the Pleasant Valley Wine Company. Established in 1860, this has had a varied history, surviving through Prohibition and a later takeover by Coca Cola in 1977. It returned to local ownership and production in the 1990s. We toured the historic buildings and tasted the wines, including the vineyard’s signature Great Western Champagne (this was the first time I had tried pink champagne).
We went on to the Bully Hill Vineyard, another long established winery. We were met by Greg Taylor, whose family have run the vineyard for several generations. He showed us round a small museum devoted to the history of Finger Lakes wine, and told us lots of stories about his father, Walter Taylor, an interesting and colourful character who had numerous run-ins with Coca Cola over licensing issues. We had lunch in the restaurant, with wine tastings (of course!) and wonderful views over the surrounding countryside.
The Next Generation of Wine in the Finger Lakes
The second era of Finger Lakes winemaking was post-Prohibition. New vineyards were established, and companies such as Coca Cola moved into mass production. This all changed when the big companies turned their attention to Napa Valley in California, and moved out of the region. The current era of small local businesses had begun: in the 1980s there were only 15 wineries, whereas there are now more than 200.
One of the newer vineyards is that of Dr Konstantin Frank, founded in 1962. Dr Frank was a refugee from Ukraine with considerable experience of winemaking, and he set about introducing European grapes to the Finger Lakes. We were shown round by Dr Frank’s great-granddaugher Meaghan, who is now the general manager.
There was a special treat waiting for us here: a wine and food pairing. This is something that Dr Frank’s does regularly (twice a week in May, and six times a week June-October), using a local chef to create small (but delicious) bites to complement the wines. Laura talked us through each pairing, explaining how the wine and the food complemented one another.
Up to the Present Day
We came right up to date with our last visit, to the Weis Vineyard. This was established in 2016 by Peter Weis, who came from Germany to work at Dr Frank’s. The vineyard is so new that Peter’s own grapes are not yet ready for production, but he already has an impressive range of German style wines using grapes from other vineyards. We had a tasting – in an old schoolhouse – and I particularly enjoyed the ice wine (another first for me, as I hadn’t tried ice wine before).
We had now “travelled” through the history of Finger Lakes winemaking and I had learnt an incredible amount about the region. If you want to know more you can take the tour and find out for yourself. Or buy a copy of Laura’s fascinating and informative book: Culinary History of the Finger Lakes, which covers the history of food and wine in the region, and has lots of yummy recipes with wine pairings.
I went on the tour “From Genesis to Next Generation” as a guest of Experience! The Finger Lakes. Thanks to them and to Laura Winter Falk for a most enjoyable trip.