A Weekend in the Wine-Soaked Finger Lakes Wonderland

For oenophiles, it is an upstate eden.

Wine 1

On the shores of the Finger Lakes—those slender slivers of deep water south of Syracuse—innovative vintners have mastered the craft of drawing bold, award-winning bottles out of their cool climate: complex Chardonnay; crisp, palate-pleasing Riesling—honored with a month-long fest each May; and Gewürztraminer that would rival any German label on your list.

The community here did not need to be told about the merits of local food: It’s just how they’ve always eaten.

The rural region, four hours north of the city, is home to amenities and sensibilities that feel more Brooklyn than bumpkin: free-trade bean roasters (Ithaca-based Gimme! in fact now has outposts in Manhattan and Brooklyn); PhDs aplenty (whose students tend campus gardens); sold-out CSAs; eco-gastro eateries (including the illustrious Moosewood); and a farmers market whose strict foodshed (all 150 vendors come from within just 30 miles) and awe-inspiring offerings (including multi-culti picnic fare, all under a wooden pavilion overlooking Cayuga Lake) are enough to make Greenmarket shoppers green with envy.

This wine-soaked wonderland welcomes visitors, so we hereby present our getaway guide. Call it a table-to-farm trip, with a healthy dose of swirling and sipping.

Day 1, Cayuga Lake

To fortify yourself for the wine trails ahead, sit down to brunch at Café Dewitt located in the old brick building of the former Ithaca High School, which has been converted into antiques shops (also home to the famous Moosewood, but we’ll get to that later). Order a shot of Gimme Coffee! espresso with anything from a farmhouse breakfast (eggs, ham, rosemary-roasted potatoes, house jam) to baguette French toast with vanilla rum batter.

This lake’s oldest winery, Lucas Vineyards turns 31 this year. Toast them with their dry whites, reds, blushes and ice wines. Of note: their Cabernet Franc Reserve, which got a nod from Wine Spectator.

A visit to Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery would be worth it for their wines alone—spicy Gewürztraminer, dry Chardonnay, Riesling with a hint of honey—but last year, the family-owned outfit added their daughter’s wood-fired pizza business. It’s aptly called The Copper Oven, as the addition is literally a 6,000-pound copper oven on the vineyard’s back deck. Order a pie topped with Lively Run goat cheese, pepperoni from the Piggery (see below) and Stony Brook squash seed oil, all made nearby. Add a glass of Cayuga wine for $5.

If you prefer cocktails—wine cocktails, even—the place to get them and some great micro brews is Felicia’s Atomic Lounge. Drinks rotate with the seasons, naturally, but past offerings include a Sage Riesling Cocktail and a Manhattan riff made with house-infused fig bourbon and a brandied cherry. Graze on house-made flatbreads, or skip a block down to Fine Line Bistro for a full meal from the guys who rarely lose the town’s annual chili cook-off.

Chef Samantha Izzo of Simply Red Bistro is the April Bloomfield of the area, taking on goat brains and devising a pairing menu made all the better by the on-site, oft-awarded Sheldrake Point Winery. The menu is comfort food with a kick—think chamomile consommé, “Honey Stung” chicken, Moroccan lentil stew, goat curry, and “Slow Ass Ginger Spice Apple Cake” with dark rum and caramel cider sauce, to name a few of last season’s offerings. Then there’s wine sorbet whipped up with Sheldrake’s Apricot Riesling and Raspberry Blush by neighboring mom-and-pop Cayuga Lake Creamery. For a tour of the winery itself—New York State’s Winery of the Year for two years running—head to the tasting room for pours of their top-notch Dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay.

Put up those wine-trail-weary feet at Simply Red Bistro’s sister La Tourelle Resort & Spa, where Izzo is at the helm.

Day 2, Seneca Lake

At Fox Run Vineyard, owner Scott Osborn pushed aside New York’s native grapes and the American-French hybrids typically harvested in the area in favor of European vinifera and turned a Civil War-era dairy barn into a winery in 1993. Today he produces a Pinot Noir that smells of baking spices and a Chardonnay that tastes like pear and citrus, as well as Cabernet, Riesling, Merlot and a ruby-style Port aged 35 months in oak. Free tours begin every hour till 4pm, or sign up as a VIP ($50) for the complete grape-to-bottle walk-through.

Next visit Hermann J. Wiemer, a name that holds weight here, as he’s the man who planted Riesling, the varietal for which the region is best known. A German native, Wiemer was born of a 300-year-old winemaking family; his father restored vines after the first World War. The wines here are so good they made last year’s Wine & Spirits Top 100.

At Red Newt Cellars you can tour the cellars ($2 for standard wines, $5 for the reserves), plus the on-site bistro pairs their Pinot Noir with the likes of house-made ravioli or duck breast with currant demi-glace.

Stop for a sip at Heron Hill, whose Riesling Reserve 2007 will put you in the Austrian hillsides. It quenches like ice water, smells like a blend of orange zest and white peach and finishes clean like steel. Wonderful ice wines are on offer too.

At Ravines Wine Cellars owner Morten Hallgreen hails from Provence, where his family ran a 170-acre vineyard. Here he found a temperature-moderating slope-y spot at the widest part of Keuka Lake, where he grows 17 acres of reds and whites—most notably Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Both Chardonnay and Riesling from Lamoureaux Landing (9224 Route 414, Lodi; 607.582.6011) received high ratings last year. Even better, its cellar staff will be happy to describe the vineyard’s eco-friendly practices while you sample their whites, reds, dessert and sparkling wines.

Hungry? The Viennese menu at Dano’s (9564 Route 414, Lodi; 607.582.7555) blends traditional Heuriger-style (Eastern Austrian “wine tavern”) fare with the agricultural bounty of Central New York. And the similar cool-weather varietals work in chef Dano Hutnik’s favor. The match is made with charcuterie, goulash, roast pork shank and pork schnitzel paired with an extensive local wine list, featuring most everyone you’ll taste on the weekend trail.

Stop for snacks and sips at The Cellar (21 W. Market St., Corning; 607.377.5552) a tapas bar featuring house-made focaccia, roasted garlic bulbs with chèvre, and the Cellar pretzel with Riesling mustard. The seats are red velvet and the walls bear oak barrel lids, while the wine list includes 40 rotating by-the-glass options.

For an unpretentiously good, affordable meal made with humanely raised meats and heirloom grains all sourced within 100 miles, make a reservation at Hazelnut Kitchen. They turn out fare like a grass-fed beef burger made with local Lively Run goat cheese and oyster chowder with cornmeal-dill hush puppies, and a hazelnut butter cake with sea-salt caramel and hazelnut ice cream. That was last month’s menu, though; spring specials are a seasonal surprise.

Seasonal menus are also on tap at the John Joseph Inn, where Culinary Institute of America graduates John and Elizabeth Hamilton have renovated an 1825 barn with hand-hewn chestnut beams. Guest rooms feature fine organic linens and oversized bathtubs, while the restaurant stars Finger Lakes bounty in a $50 five-course farm-centric prix fixe.

Day 3, Ithaca

Ithaca is home to fair-trade coffee roasters Gimme Coffee! (430 N. Cayuga St.; 506 W. State St.; 131 E. Green St.), the Moosewood Restaurant and perhaps even the ice cream sundae, which local lore insists originated here in 1892. If you want to see a community that eats local even in long winters, head to the GreenStar Co-op (701 W. Buffalo St.; 607-273-9392) and count up the farmstead products sourced from just outside this central city: Cayuga Pure Organics flours and heirloom dry beans, Kingbird Farm eggs, Hillcrest Dairy, Remembrance Farm garlic and many more.

Mollie Katzen devotees will want to make a pilgrimage to the Moosewood Restaurant, one of the country’s original organic eateries. Founded in 1973 by a cooperative that has since published 11 cookbooks, the mostly vegetarian establishment still serves up tried-and-true natural foods. The small menu rotates often but you can usually count on a house salad with basil-spinach dressing and locally made ice cream to bookend entrees like squash lasagna.

At the Ithaca Farmers Market (545 Third St., off Route 13, Ithaca; 607.273.7109) take a pour from Bloomer Creek Vineyard’s stand—sometime between sampling the locally crafted breads, cheeses, meats; Cambodian, Thai and Cuban food; wood-fired pizzas, samosas, pastries and Macro Mamas’ addictive peanut-lime noodles. The produce, flowers and crafts are all grown or made within 30 miles, as are the jewelry, soaps, leatherwork and carpentry.

Across the street from the market The Piggery Deli (423 Franklin St., off Route 13, Ithaca; 607.272.2276) offers farmstead charcuterie made from the owners’ own pasture-raised heritage pigs, if you care for some smoky, easy-pairing meat—pâté, mortadella, terrine, deli ham, sausages—or a pork carnitas taco to go.

Before you leave, stop in to Red Feet Wine Market (435 Franklin St., Ithaca; 607.330.1056) right across from the Ithaca Farmers Market, to load up on local bottles. We can’t really think of a better souvenir.

Cayuga Ridge Winery was worth the trip for great Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Riesling—even before the owner’s daughter added a wood-fired copper pizza oven on the vineyard’s back deck. Savor a pie topped with Lively Run goat cheese, pepperoni from the Piggery and Stony Brook squash seed oil, all made nearby.

Photo credit:  Jessie Cacciola.

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Jessie Cacciola is a freelance food writer in New York with roots as an intern at Gourmet, Edible Finger Lakes and Time Out New York. Her work has appeared in the latter two as well as on Salon.com and The Atlantic Food Channel.