Because our first pandemic vacation in the Finger Lakes worked out so well, we decided to revisit the region over the summer for another Finger Lakes wine tour. We visited new wineries as well as some favorites from last time to see how things have changed. To our surprise, this time we discovered some wines that rivaled West Coast wines, particularly those from Washington State and Oregon. And, of course, the rieslings and gewurtztraminers from the Finger Lakes are some of the best produced in the United States.
Because the region’s wineries don’t command the same attention as those in California, Oregon, and Washington, tastings are downright cheap in comparison and far less formal. Expectedly, the quality of wines can vary immensely, so it pays to research in advance.
Whenever possible, we selected cheese or charcuterie boards to accompany our tasting since food often brings out different characteristics in wine. We also avoided wineries that advertised “wine slushies” or other non-serious wines. Most of those we visited had at least one award-winning wine.
Geography of the Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes occupy a lightly populated region of upstate New York. The best wineries cluster around Seneca Lake, although Keuka Lake also sports some top-notch riesling producers. The best lodging bases for your wine tour are Geneva to the north and Watkins Glen to the south. I prefer the town of Geneva over Watkins Glen, although if you plan to hike or do water sports in addition to your wine tour, Watkins Glen might be the better option. Wherever you stay, opt for a B&B like the Idlwilde Inn in Watkins Glen or The William Smith Inn in Geneva.
Because of the enormous depth of Seneca Lake, one of the deepest in the United States, the microclimates surrounding it produce more temperate areas than elsewhere in upstate New York. The “Banana Belt” on the southeast shore of Seneca Lake produces the best reds, while riesling and gewürztraminer grapes rule elsewhere. And everywhere. But sample even the lesser-known varietals to determine your own favorites.
Reservations are essential at this tiny, serious winery in Pen Yan, halfway up the western side of Seneca Lake. The tasting room looks like a newly-built shack from the outside, but inside you’ll find an intimate, rustic, and airy space. The German-born winemaker and owner, Johannes Reinhardt, led our tasting in a lively and knowledgeable fashion. His passion for winemaking was infectious. With only four of us in the tasting room, we found this to be the most personal and instructive of all our visits. Plus, Kemmeter Wines makes some of the best dry rieslings in the region.
Although Reinhardt would disagree with any recommendations — he prefers guests to make their own judgments — I especially loved his 2019 SanSan Riesling and the 2019 Kemmeter Estate Vineyard Riesling.
We never would have found Forge Cellars if not for the inclusion of one of its wines in The Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 Wines of 2020. Believe it or not, that ranked riesling was not even the best among those we tried. The other Forge Cellars wines weren’t judged because their small production limits their distribution, therefore making them ineligible for the list. The wines we sampled here were the first in the region to blow us away.
Located down a long, unpaved driveway and marked only by a small sign, the winery can be easily overlooked. We even drove by the entrance earlier in the day without realizing it. Only knowledgeable wine lovers who do their research will know about this first-rate winery. You’ve done your research now, so book it.
Even though you’ll have to reserve your tasting well in advance, the main building offers wines by the glass for drop-in visitors. I highly recommend the formal tasting instead of an impromptu stop since Forge Cellars’ wine experts offer comprehensive discussions of wine making and philosophy.
Forge Cellars makes not only great dry rieslings but also good pinot noir and cabernet franc.
Recommendations: Caywood Dry Riesling 2019; Navone Dry Riesling 2019; Pinot Noir Classique 2019.
The French owners of Domaine LeSeurre, Céline and Sébastien LeSeurre, pride themselves on producing French-style wines, particularly reds. The tasting room has a modern but rustic ambience. In addition, they have a patio where you can enjoy a cheese/charcuterie board and a glass of wine.
The winery still needs to perfect their tasting protocol. Everything was more complicated and confusing than it needed to be. When I tried to make a reservation, the owner told I could reserve a cheese/charcuterie board, but not in conjunction with a wine tasting. Instead, I should buy a glass of wine to take outside with the food. Because we frequently visit Napa Valley, where on-site wine tastings run smoothly, I figured we could sort it out when we arrived.
It wasn’t as easy as I expected. The staff seemed confused by our desire to eat with our tasting. Cheese-and-charcuterie boards were supposed to be eaten outside, on the patio, while wine tastings took place inside at the bar. Eventually, I convinced the staff to bring the cheese/charcuterie board to the bar where we would also pay for a tasting. Still, they relegated us to a space at a second bar, even though the wine expert remained at the first.
Eventually, a second wine expert, Kevin, appeared. He not only poured our wines but stayed with us to talk about Domaine LeSeurre and the wines we sampled. If it hadn’t been for Kevin, I never would have known about the winery’s specialization in reds. He steered us toward the best wines to try. Once we sorted out the glitches, we thoroughly enjoyed our time at Domaine LeSeurre.
Recommended: Unoaked Chardonnay 2018; Cabernet Franc Barrel Select 2017.
Anthony Road Wine Company
Anthony Road Wine Company knows how to stage a proper wine tasting. When we arrived, our place at the tasting table, complete with menus for tasting flight options and food pairings, had been already set up. We opted for two different flights to maximize the number of wines we tasted — The Crisp & Cool Flight and The Family Flight. From a menu of several New York cheeses, we chose the Jakes Farmhouse aged gouda, thanks to the recommendation of our server.
I found it telling that Johannes Reinhardt of Kemmeter Wines got his Finger Lakes start at Anthony Road. Both wineries take their viniculture seriously. Anthony Road is the larger and more established of the two, and they can accommodate more guests at a given time.
Even though we didn’t have a wine tasting expert with us the whole time, the staff answered any questions we had. Not surprisingly, given their location on the western side of Seneca Lake, I preferred their whites to their reds.
Recommended: Dry Riesling 2016; Pinot Gris 2019.
Located on a hill overlooking sloping vineyards and the eastern shore of Keuka Lake, McGregor Vineyard offers great views. If weather permits, you can take wine on the deck to enjoy. As is our custom, we chose ten samples, five each, to share. Because you pay by the wine, you can construct your own tasting or stick with a category such as Aromatic Whites.
As do most wineries in the Finger Lakes (see Anthony Road above as an exception), McGregor pours samples into small plastic cups that you then pour into a single wine glass.
Recommended: Estate Grown Vignoles 2019.
Hermann J. Weimer
We first visited Hermann J. Weimer during the first summer of the pandemic, and we wanted to see if its tasting had changed. The answer? Not much, except that they seem to be accepting more reservations than previously.
If you love sparkling wine, Hermann J. Weimer should be part of your itinerary. I haven’t found another winery in the region that competes, even if others, such as Ravines, come close.
Recommended: Cuvée Brut NV, Reserve Dry Riesling 2019
We used some wineries as itinerary-fillers to bridge the time and distance gap between one winery reservation and the next. Atwater Vineyards became one of those wineries, between Forge Cellars and Boundary Breaks. Perhaps if Atwater hadn’t followed Forge, we would have appreciated it more. Here, we discovered average wines — not bad, but not memorable, either. To the credit of our wine expert, she stayed with us for the entire tasting, leading us through Atwater’s wines. The servers at some other wineries just poured and left.
When you arrive, you receive a menu of their wines, and a paid tasting allows you to choose five. You can pay an upcharge for a wine from the Limited Production section. Our pre-ordered cheese board arrived almost immediately upon our seating.
Even though the wines didn’t match some of the best in the region, we enjoyed our time at Atwater. The Senecan Plate cheese-and-accompaniments board went well with the wines, and the property offers fantastic views of Seneca Lake.
Recommended: Rosé of Pinot Noir 2020, Celsius 2014 (dessert wine)
We always find our time in the Finger Lakes wine region relaxing and enjoyable. Tastings are reasonably priced, and, depending on the vineyard, you can learn a lot about viniculture and the characteristics of specific grapes.
Reservations, particularly at peak times, are essential at the best wineries. I advise first reserving the high-demand wineries, such as Forge Cellars and Kemmeter, before reserving others around those times and locations. I use Google maps when planning so that I know exact travel times between wineries. Most places will tell you how long to allot for their tastings. If you expect to try wines not in your specific flight, allow an extra 15-30 minutes.
Don’t forget to check out my Finger Lakes Wine Tour, Part One since the above describes only some of the options available to you.