If your heart is saying “Dom Perignon” but your wallet is saying “Busch Light,” the Seneca Lake wine region is the closest you’ll come to the Loire Valley without leaving the East Coast. Don’t expect Napa or Sonoma, but if you’re craving a weekend in wine country, Seneca Lake is a hidden gem with over 65 tasting rooms and 20 breweries, distilleries, and cideries. The Finger Lakes region has a rust-belt vibe with crumbling houses, rusting barns, and unintentionally cool vintage signage. Although it’s still a far cry from the trendy Hudson Valley, a weekend here is well spent.
What to Drink
Wine is the name of the game here, as you can tell by the vineyards lining the shores of the lake. If you think bitterly cold upstate New York is an odd place for a wine scene, you’re right. But since Seneca Lake is so deep, it creates a “lake effect,” meaning that this region is warmer than the surrounding areas—you won’t have to suffer the frigid temperatures of nearby places like Buffalo.
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There’s some very good wine in this region, but there’s also a lot of bad wine. Judging the winery from the outside doesn’t work so well since some of the best wine can be found in some of the most unassuming structures and some of the prettiest properties seem to miss the mark on the wine front. The best plan is to try and visit as many as possible. Pompous Ass Winery has a funny name. Barnstormers Winery is a huge brown barn, which is fun. Atwater Vineyards has an unrivaled wine selection—a sip of their Blanc de Blancs champagne will have you transported to France and at $30/bottle, it’s worth bringing a few home.
When you get sick of wine (and trust me, you will get sick of wine), there are still plenty of options for an afternoon of drinking. Two Goats Brewery is absolutely not-to-be-missed. It’s packed, but for good reason: this is possibly the best beer made in New York. The tiny little brewery is also the only place in the area that seems to have been hipsterfied, as you’ll see from the bearded bartenders, the ironic decor, and the superfluous “No Tasting” rule. (Just pick a beer randomly—I promise it will be delicious). There are other options for beer that are also worth checking out since you’re in the area: Grist Iron Brewery has a huge deck, a pub food menu, and even a hotel attached to it in case you pass out. Rooster Fish Brewing is located right in town with three attached restaurants: a cafe, a pub, and a brewery that hosts a grilled cheese food truck called Cheesy Rider.
If beer and wine aren’t enough for you, there are also a few distilleries in the area, including Finger Lakes Distilling, which makes whiskey, gin, and vodka. For the adventurous, there are also fruit wines and mead available for tasting at Earle Estates Meaderie. While both concoctions aren’t what a wine connoisseur might expect, it’s fun to try new things on vacation.
What to Do Besides Drink
Besides alcohol, Seneca Lake actually has quite a few things to fill a weekend, both for outdoorsy and artsy types. If you have escaped the city for a weekend in nature, you’ve come to the right place. You can explore the waterfalls and gorges at Watkins Glen State Park, go on a trail ride at Painted Bar Stables, go for a swim or a boat ride in the lake.
If you’re not really an outdoorsy type, don’t worry. Nearby, you can visit the Corning Museum of Glass, which showcases antique and modern glass art from all over the world. The building is a work of art, too, and it’s worth a short visit here to walk through historic and contemporary exhibits. If you’re really into glass art (or if you’re with kids), you can easily spend an afternoon here taking glassblowing workshops and watching demonstrations.
A drive around the area is also a fun way to explore, with roadside antique shops and old barns just waiting to be photographed.
Where to Eat
The Railroad Crossing Cafe is a blast from the past and one of those places where every single person in the restaurant will stare at you when you walk in the door. Have no fear, the locals are friendly! They’ve just been eating the same breakfast at the same table every Sunday since 1953. The decor is inspired by the railroad crossing right outside, with glued together puzzles of trains on every surface. Order an obscene amount of good-ole-fashioned breakfast food like biscuits and gravy, home fries, pancakes, eggs, and of course, bacon and sausage. If you’re on a diet, they might be able to rustle up some dry multigrain toast. If you’re not into the whole sit-down-breakfast thing, there’s also an amazing old-school donut shop in downtown Watkins Glen.
Grist Iron Brewery is worth a stop for lunch since the carb-heavy elevated comfort food will help you soak up all the booze. The menu is mostly made up of comfort food and pub food, but what could possibly go better with the Front Porch IPA than mac and cheese?
For dinner, the restaurant at Glenora is the most upscale meal you can find in Watkins Glen, and one of the only places in town that seems to take advantage of local ingredients. Vegans and vegetarians will rejoice at the menu options here, and one taste of the cashew brie will have you saying “I could totally be a vegan.” Don’t worry though—there’s something for everyone on this menu, including filet mignon, pasta, seafood, and salads. Do yourself a favor and order the local cheese plate (real cheese, not vegan cheese), which comes with an array of interesting and delicious house-made crackers. It’s a white tablecloth and leather-bound wine list kind of place, but don’t let that deter you; the vibe here is friendly and casual.
Graft Wine Bar is a cozy place for desert, serving local wine and cider.
In nearby Geneva, FLX Table is the quintessential farm-to-table restaurant, serving an artisanal tasting menu (and local wines, of course) in a tiny space. There are just 12 seats here, so book early.
Where to Stay
If you have an adventurous spirit, you could have a good time staying at the haunted Miles Wine Cellars. If you prefer a less spirited hotel, lovely Belhurst Castle will give you a taste of chateau life. Burdett House Bed & Breakfast is possibly the chicest option on Seneca Lake, perfectly blending traditional and modern design elements.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Fodor’s Finger Lakes Guide