With the coronavirus still raging, my husband and I decided to plan a Finger Lakes Wine Tour in upstate New York. We did not live in a banned state, and we could drive there in a few hours. Besides, we liked the bookend to our last out-of-state trip before the shutdown, to Napa Valley. With social distancing and mask-wearing in effect, the trip provided a low-key, relatively safe, and fun deviation from our routine.
Although the region focuses on white wines made from riesling and gewurtztraminer grapes, other varieties and styles tasted quite good. We tasted a few reds, but while they were perfectly enjoyable, they didn’t meet our admittedly high standards for red wine.
Best Overall Experience: Boundary Breaks Vineyard
Worst Overall Experience: Dr. Konstantin Frank
Tasting Room Most Closely Connected to Wine Making: Hermann J. Wiemer
Most Knowledgeable Service: Wagner Vineyards
Most Intimate Tasting: Tower Tasting at Heron Hill
Biggest Surprise: Keuka Spring Vineyards
Because tastings cost less and are less formal (also less informative) than those in California, we were able to visit many wineries a day. Below, you’ll find reviews of some of the best wineries in the Finger Lakes.
As of this writing, pandemic restrictions remain in place. Wineries have altered their tasting protocols and shut down some tours to accommodate state regulations. You must wear a mask until you are served food or drink. Although the law requires food to be served with wine, all wineries handled it differently. Some tossed a small bag of crackers on the table while others required us to order food — say, a charcuterie board. We did most, not all, tasting in the wineries’ outdoor seating areas.
Please note that many wineries require advance reservations, especially since occupancy is limited during the pandemic.
Seneca Lake: East
Our first stop on our Finger Lakes wine tour, before we even checked in to our B&B in Watkins Glen, was Wagner Vineyards. The property includes the vineyards, the Wagner Valley Brewing Co., and Ginny Lee Café, where we ate lunch prior to heading to the tasting room. Tastings must be reserved and paid for in advance.
Wagner’s tasting room combines a rustic New York lodge décor with a traditional tasting room. You sit at a bar (socially distanced), select five wines, and begin your tasting. To satisfy the food requirement, the bartender served popcorn that cleaned our palates between wines. We each ordered different wines to taste, sharing between us. The Fathom 107 surprised both of us with its unusual and delicious blending of riesling and gewurtztraminer.
Our server was one of the best and more knowledgeable of those we encountered on our trip.
Recommended wines: Fathom 107 2018, Riesling Dry 2018, Riesling Semi Dry 2018, and Dry Rosé of Cabernet Franc 2019.
Boundary Breaks Vineyard
We loved our visit at Boundary Breaks, and we both rated it as our favorite stop on our Finger Lakes wine tour. Located up the road from Wagner Vineyards, Boundary Breaks Vineyard pairs its excellent wines with a spectacular view. We sat outside in Adironack chairs facing Seneca Lake. This out-of-the-way vineyard delivered a relaxing tasting in a rural setting. No reservations required.
We ordered excellent Muranda aged cheddar and Carr’s crackers to go with our wines. My only disappointment was that the “rosé” was more of a light red.
Recommended wines: 2018 Gewurtztraminer; 2018 Riesling Ovid Line North, Riesling Extra Dry #90.
Winery We Wished We Had Visited
Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards is also located at the eastern side of Lake Seneca. Although we planned to visit it, we ran out of time.
Seneca Lake: West
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard
I loved Hermann J. Wiemer for its wines and semi-outdoor tasting area. Out of all of our stops, Hermann J. Wiemer felt most like a tasting at a working winery instead of a picnic or sales room. Reservations are required, so plan accordingly.
Also unlike some of the other wineries, Hermann J. Wiemer does not have a tasting menu but rather an à la carte menu where you can choose a 2.5-ounce pour, a full glass, or a bottle, each individually priced. With our order of four small pours, our server delivered popcorn and nuts, attractively placed on a slate board. I especially loved the winery’s Cuvée Brut 2014 sparkling wine.
Kudos to the winery for serving its wines in small glass carafes instead of plastic cups to pour into the supplied wine glass. They also get points for class by using a slate board and marking each sample with an erasable wine marker.
Recommended wines: Cuvée Brut 2014, Riesling Dry Reserve 2018, Riesling Late Harvest 2018.
Glenora Wine Cellars
Although you cannot tell it from the above photo, Glenora Wine Cellars was a bit of a madhouse when we arrived. We waited in line both to be seated and then later to pay for a bottle. And even though our seating at the bar fulfilled social distancing rules, a group was seated directly behind us at a table just a few feet away, despite room for them at the far end of the table. We didn’t like that at all.
Instead of selecting your own wines for a tasting, you choose either Dry/Semi-Dry or Sweet/Semi-Sweet. We went for the Dry/Semi-Dry flight. Our bartender seemed knowledgeable about the wines, although not attentive since he had several other customers.
I’m not sure we will return to Glenora Wine Cellars on our next trip, mostly because it struck us as too commercialized. That said, it’s extremely popular, and its Veraisons restaurant is highly-rated. The winery has perhaps the best view of Lake Seneca.
Reservations for tastings are not required.
Recommended wine: FLX Riesling NV
The outdoor atmosphere at Billsboro Winery could best be described as socially-distanced café. With yellow umbrellas and black metal tables dotting the paved patio, you sit next to a flowering perennial garden and, beyond, woods. The cheese-and-charcuterie board for $20 was one of the best – and you can keep the board and knife if you want. This winery was the northernmost winery we visited, located at the end of a steep, narrow driveway.
My husband found Billsboro too busy. Despite the distance between tables, visitors had to stream past the tables to get to the hostess. I, on the other hand, loved the vibe. Our big disappointment was that we explicitly chose Billsboro because of their syrah; however, it had sold out for the season earlier that day. Still, we enjoyed the wines we chose. My husband, who tends to like sweeter wines more than I do, loved the Après Late Harvest dessert wine.
Recommended wines: Saluti (sparkling), Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Riesling, Rosé of Cabernet/Syrah, and Après Late Harvest Riesling.
Fox Run Vineyards
Like Glenora, Fox Run Vineyards struck us more commercialized than other, smaller spots. I liked the wines better at Fox Run than at Glenora, though. The impressive iron gate at the entrances to the winery by artist Sam Castner lends flair to the property.
The tasting room closes later than many other vineyards, at 6 pm, allowing us to get in one more tasting for the day. In addition to an indoor tasting room, Fox Run has a café, store, and picnic area. Because it operates on a first-come/first-serve basis, getting in during prime times might be difficult, although at the end of the day we had no trouble.
Also like Glenora, we had to choose from a Dry, Sweet, or Red flight. In addition, we were served a “welcome wine” and asked to choose a fifth wine from a two-page list. I went for the dry flight, then for a rosé, while my husband chose the red flight, ending with a ruby port. The welcome wine of 2018 Kaiser Vineyard Chardonnay was one of the better chardonnays we tasted in the Finger Lakes.
Our server had just three days on the job, but she already seemed to know a lot about the wines. If she didn’t know an answer, she asked a co-worker. Even at the end of the day, we didn’t feel rushed.
Recommended wines: 2018 Kaiser Vineyard Chardonnay, 2018 Cabernet Franc/Lemberger, 2018 Silvan Riesling, Ruby Port.
Ravines Wine Cellars
Because we had read that Ravines Wine Cellars excelled at reds, I chose the chocolate and wine pairing, knowing that red wines go well with chocolate. Unfortunately, I ended up unimpressed with the winery’s reds. Still, we thoroughly enjoyed our patio experience here. The staff was welcoming and attentive. And the chocolates were excellent, so nothing lost there. You can also order food off a supplied menu. Even though Ravines is not located directly on Keuka Lake, the hillside located offers spectacular views. (See introductory photo.)
For an extra fee, I tasted the Sparkling Brut, 2012 — and was blown away by how good it was. As with all of the better sparkling wines in the Finger Lakes region, it was pricey, comparable to the better Napa sparkling wines.
Recommended wines: Dry Riesling 2017, Sparkling Brut 2012, Dry Rosé 2019
Keuka Spring Vineyards
We almost skipped Keuka Spring Vineyards despite its high ratings. We had lingered a bit long at Ravines and had a reservation on the other side of the lake for Heron Hills. At the last moment, we decided we could squeeze it in. Since time was tight, we asked the worker who greeted us to recommend the two best wine-by-the-glass options. She suggested the 2019 Humphrey’s Vineyard Riesling and the 2018 Gewurtztraminer. Those two ended up as some of the best wine we had in the Finger Lakes. And we almost missed it.
Although Keuka Springs’s traditional tasting room and store were open, we carried our wines outside to enjoy the views of the lake. Reservations not required. They supplied bags of oyster crackers to consume with the wines.
Keuka Spring is the one vineyard we wished we had spent more time at. The wines we tasted were excellent. We plan to come back to it on our next visit.
Recommended wines: 2019 Humphrey’s Vineyard Riesling and 2018 Gewurtztraminer
Heron Hill Winery
Among the wineries we visited, Heron Hill Winery most looked like something you’d see in the Napa Valley. The sizable Mission-style building rises above the road and overlooks Keuka Lake. We booked the small group Tower Tour, plus “local cheeses.” It ended up being just the two of us with a guide who supplied a bag of cheddar cheese curds and a container of sliced pepperoni.
My husband rated Heron Hill as one of his favorite stops, while I put it lower on my list. We both loved the private tasting (there can be up to six people) and the view from the Tower. Our guide was friendly, although not particularly informative. Reservations are required. Note that Heron Hill has two tasting rooms, far apart, one on Keuka Lake and the other on Canandaigua Lake. Be sure to reserve the correct one.
Reccommended wines: 2017 Reserve Chardonnay
Dr. Konstantin Frank
Because we had heard such excellent reports of Dr. Konstantin Frank, we fought to get a reservation here. The online reservation form only allowed an 11 am time slot for all our days there, and we had already booked other wineries. A simple call to the winery easily secured one. Now we know why: Dr. Konstantin Frank’s “Progressive Tasting” operates like an assembly line, with people rushed from one station to the next. Theyy clearly aim to get as many people as possible through their tastings. We had little time to ask servers for recommendations or even to savor our wines. The bartenders supplied snippets about the winery and the wines in front of us, then hurried us to the next station, sometimes before we had finished our samples.
When you arrive, you check off the five wines you want to sample, one at each station. We understood that New York state required food with wine, but Dr. Konstantin Frank provided nothing, not even crackers. Maybe it had something to do with the mechanics of a progressive tasting. In any case, with no time to seriously contemplate the wine, I cannot make any recommendations.
On our next visit, we will skip Dr. Konstantin Frank. They may make excellent wines; however, I hated how they rushed us through.
Pleasant Valley Wine Company
When we needed to add one more stop before our dinner reservation at the Pleasant Valley Inn, we decided to visit the Pleasant Valley Wine Company. Once owned by a variety of companies, including Taylor and Seagrams, its best known product outside of the Finger Lakes is Great Western Champagne. As we stepped into the tasting room, we felt as though we had time-traveled back to the 1950s. The winery has a small museum of memorabilia that you can peruse provided the room isn’t full. We had heard that the tour here is excellent, but unfortunately we arrived too late.
Our tasting included a plate of cubed New York state cheese and seedless red grapes, one of the better food pairings we encountered. (Don’t expect Napa-like food pairings on your Finger Lakes wine tour.) You are given a laminated menu on which you mark your tasting choices.
Oddly, the winery still uses the “Champagne” label despite laws against it due to a trade agreement. Most wineries in the United State designate theirs as “sparkling wine,” “Champagne method,” or “méthode champenoise.” I researched it, and it seems that only American labels created before 2006 can call their wines “Champagne.”
Recommended wines: Millennium Brut Champagne, Pleasant Valley Brut Champagne, Pleasant Valley New York State Port
If it hadn’t been for the coronavirus, we never would have planned a Finger Lakes wine tour. We are glad we did. Although the Finger Lakes wineries don’t have the finesse and varietal strengths of their California cousins, they still offer an enjoyable experience for those willing to embrace it.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann