In early July, I did something crazy: I lined-up for Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel on a summer Friday afternoon. Why? To traverse a 250-mile swath of highway across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and back across New York, in order to visit America’s preeminent East Coast wine region—the Finger Lakes. A rural land of surprisingly fine wines, its Rieslings much vaunted by critics, the region offers abundant scenery of rolling hills, shimmering lakes, and neat rows of vineyards stretching from shore to sky.
It’s easy to plan a trip to Finger Lakes Wine Country—the region’s tourism website offers ample information. Plus, the wine trail is superbly marked, as it follows the shorelines of the three main lakes: Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka. But this isn’t the Sonoma of the East. The overwhelming number of wineries, underwhelming number of sophisticated dining and lodging options, and lengthy driving distances between wineries make a well-organized, efficient itinerary a necessity.
So, with expectations in check, here’s a guide to seeing and tasting the best of the region over four nights and five days. Keep in mind: this winery itinerary is for marathon tasters. Feel free to stop for photos, food, or to just breathe, and drop a winery when you need to.
Pump caffeine through your system for an early start on the drive there. Arrive early afternoon at the most beautiful and expensive of your lodging, the Aurora Inn, on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. Take time to enjoy this special property and local activities. Stroll through the quaint town, visit Mackenzie Childs, and take a kayak out on the lake. Sip on a sundowner before dinner in the fantastic Aurora Inn dining room.
Breakfast at the inn, pack-up, and head 8 minutes north on Highway 90 to visit Heart and Hands Winery, a "winery to watch" run by a husband-and-wife team focusing on estate Pinot Noir and Riesling (once the vines mature on their limestone-rich soil). For now, they buy their grapes. Next, you’ve got a 50-minute drive along highway 89 to Sheldrake Point Winery. Enjoy racy Rieslings, aromatic Gewürztraminer, and luscious dessert wine. For lunch, backtrack 7 minutes north up 89 to catch a wood-fired pizza (skip the wines) at The Copper Oven. Back on the road, you’ve less than a 30-minute drive from Cayuga down highway 414 to the east side of Seneca. First stop is Bloomer Creek—do not skip this visit. Winemaker Kim Engle makes small-batches of honest, terroir-driven wines with unique character. Practically next door, Atwater Vineyard offers a nice view overlooking the lake on its deck, from which you’ll try well-priced wines, including an interesting Riewürz and Blaüfrankisch. Head three minutes back north up 414 to Red Newt for an early dinner and to sample their wines while dining on local, seasonal cuisine. Overnight down in Watkins at the south end of Seneca Lake in the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.
Breakfast at the hotel, pack-up, and head out on a 20-minute drive north along 414 to Lamoreaux Landing Winery. Enjoy expansive lake views, vineyard-designated Rieslings, and a méthode champenoise sparkler. Nearby, visit Hector Wine Company—winemaker Justin Boyette does wonders with grapes. They also produce a higher-end label called Forge, known for its controversial (due to some oak contact) but lovely, textural Riesling. Time for lunch just five minutes away at Danoâ€™s, a modern, Viennese-inspired restaurant with outdoor tables. Post-meal, start your 30-minute drive to the western shore of Seneca Lake. First stop along highway 14 is Hermann J. Weimer, a justifiably famous producer of premium Riesling. Overnight at Glenora Inn, and seek finer dining back 30 minutes away on the east side of the lake at Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine or locally beloved Stonecat CafÃ©. If you’re desperately tired, eat at the hotel’s Veraisons.
Breakfast at the hotel, pack-up, and head north along highway 14 for about 15 minutes to Anthony Road for their exceptional Art Series Riesling. A very short drive from there is Red Tail Ridge, run by husband and wife team Mike Schnelle and Nancy Irelan. Ask for the Teroldego and Blaufrankisch. Next door, Fox Run Vineyards offers a fantastic line-up, including the Lake Dana Geology Series Rieslings, which can be enjoyed over a lunch of charcuterie and cheese from their café. Before departing, track down the electric Tierce Riesling (a collaboration between Red Newt, Anthony Road, and Fox Run, and sold at all three). If you aren’t wined-out, continue north for another seven minutes to Billsboro winery, owned by winemaker Vinny Aliperti (also of Atwater). If you can only handle one more winery, however, make it Ravines, which is twice as far north, for their superb dry Riesling and Cerise red-blend. You’re now at the north end of the Seneca Lake, so stay at Geneva on the Lake or Bragdon House B&B, and dine in Geneva town at the Red Dove Tavern.
Breakfast at the hotel, pack-up, and head over to Lake Keuka, the prettiest of the lakes, for a tasting at Dr. Konstantin Frank. This fourth-generation family winery laid the foundation for the Finger Lakes wine industry. On your way back to Hammondsport, pop in to Keuka Lake Vineyards for a comparison tasting of small batch, single-site Rieslings. Catch a quick lunch in town at the Village Tavern. If you’ve got one more winery in your system, visit McGregor on the opposite shore of Keuka Lake. It’s almost 30 minutes away along gently curving back roads and over rolling country, but you’ll be rewarded for the effort.