Every landscape, every picture, seems bound for postcard-dom. The clouds look happy. Even when it rains in the Finger Lakes it doesn’t rain the same because some photographer has figured a way to make the descending water a prop in the grand drama that is Wedding Day.
The trees let down their long limbs like wedding trains sweeping along the grass. Way out atop the hill, the vineyards give way to the trees, which give way to the shores slapped by the cold, glacial water running fathoms deep.
Across the lake, the view runs on to infinity, so it’s fitting that when the music cues and Father walks Daughter down the aisle that nobody, not for a second, sees the lake, feels the wind’s gentle brushstrokes, or catches the botanical fragrances perfuming from the freshly cut grass. All eyes fix on the kinetic beauty growing ever closer to her partner in what we can only hope is their own infinity, however long that may be, to the end of their days.
Therese and Ryan Fessenden met at Cornell University, both in the ROTC program, he a junior, she a sophomore. He had family from King Ferry, New York; hers hailed from Jersey City, New Jersey.
Therese loved how good a listener Ryan was, how considerate he was, not to mention he was “just really cute,” she says. In her words, she thinks that he thinks she’s funny and “I guess he finds me cute,” a wink in her voice.
Soon after college, Ryan’s military career took him to Georgia and Therese’s took hers to Washington, as in Washington, a diagonal rope across the country. “Skype was our best friend,” Therese says. We made trips as much as we could, maybe once a month or every other month. A lot of money went to plane tickets.”
Soon Ryan would be stationed in Hawaii at the Schofield Barracks, about the same distance as a Boeing 747 flies from Washington. More distance.
It became apparent, though not a guarantee, that they would be spending
a life together, but these are never certain until they are certain. Therese would move to Hawaii, but it would cause some upheaval. Honolulu to her hometown of Jersey City crosses, like, six hundred time zones. “I would really have to make some serious life changes to go there,” she told Ryan. The writing, as it were, was spray painted on the wall.
Ryan and Therese, both on Hawaii, took a short flight to the island of Kauai for the day, since flights were cheap. They toured the island and found one of those can-this-scenery-be-even-more-stunning? locations on the rim of the Waimea Canyon. Ryan had the ring in his pocket. They had been dating for three years. It was time. He felt for it, but...what the hell is that sound?
Dirt bikers flew over the ridge, un-muffled engines belching exhaust, spitting on this moment, this perfect moment at the Waimea Canyon. The ring, for a time, stayed in Ryan’s pocket.
Later that night, the moon was out, laying down a carpet of white light along the Pacific Ocean. The moon, the water, the beach, no dirt bikes. This was it. “I was little off guard,” says Therese. “I knew it would happen, but not then.”
While filling out the multiple choice of where to get married, one would think they would take their No. 2 pencils and bubble in either A) Hawaii B) Hawaii C) Hawaii or D) Hawaii.
Maybe E) None of the Above.
Maybe the Finger Lakes, where they went to school, where their family could have better access to them. Maybe that. Ryan always loved wine, harbors dreams of one day owning his own vineyard. Maybe flying from Honolulu and from the region that spawns countless dream weddings to a place of greater sentiment would be “More about us and where we came from,” as Therese puts it.
So while others would always fly west for their solemn vows, Ryan and Therese flew east, to where they met. “I thought it was fun and exciting,” says Therese. “Usually couples are going the other way. We were coming into the arms of family.”
And on September 6, 2015, more stunning than the grape-hewn vistas, more calming than the water, more pretty than the coming autumn, was Therese looking out her window at all the chairs that would soon be full, all those people symbolizing, “support and happiness coming out for us,” Therese says.
Closer to home.
It’s easy to imagine why this time of
year, this window from Thanksgiving-ish to the Ball Drop drama into the New Year, is Engagement Season. WeddingWire.com notes that forty-three percent of all couples give the affirmative to a life together at this time.
Many drop to a knee at the standing- room-only dining table with a captive audience. The suspense could break the gravy into its component parts, dry out the dark meat, unspiral the ham, re-cant the wine.
S/he says “yes,”—pardon—YES! And then the Wedding Planning (WP) starts. That last week of December and the weeks of January are hot ones. Soon the phases shift from bright-eyed dreams of rainbows and dewdrops to the you-can’t-invite-them-if-you-don’t-them phase. Then the eye-roll-to-mom chapter comes.
At least there’s the workweek.
Sixty-three percent of brides do their planning from Monday to Thursday, WP mainly at noon or when new episodes of Modern Family air, which is to say, nine o’clock post meridiem.
Looking at the calendar, looking at all those days to stick a pin, thirty-three percent opt for spring while twenty-eight percent choose summer. Fall, with all its deciduous-ness, earns the bronze with 20 percent of wedding dates. Over two-thirds of all weddings fall on Saturday.
But where? Where will couples choose to host their wedding? Where will they inevitably disappoint picky relatives who are apt to say, “Well, that was different,” and not mean it in a good way?
If said couple, in the midst of WP, lives in Washington D.C., NYC, or even Hawaii (as in Hawaii), they put a pin right in the heart of the Finger Lakes, one of the hottest sites for a destination this side of, well, a certain dreamy Pacific archipelago.
“It’s something exclusive. They like that it’s unique, beautiful, and private.” That’s Jeff Hall, who handles the marketing for the Estate at Glenora Falls.
The year 2015 marked the first year where his family’s estate offered weddings to the public. Hall, as well as other family members, had been married on the site in prior years, but with the demand so high for people looking for that perfect backdrop, something they can call their own, something a little different, it made sense to open their doors.
“We’ve heard people call the Finger Lakes the eighth wonder of the world,” says Hall.
Their waterfall cuts a perfect swath through the shale. It looks like one of those calming water fountains only on a 100x scale. The water running down and through provides a superior soundtrack, but it’s also visually stunning.
Hall and the people involved at the estate recently booked a couple from California. “They have some family in the area from what I’ve heard,” says Hall. “Having the beautiful backdrop of the falls and the isolation are reasons for choosing Glenora Falls.”
Just up the hill, Glenora Wine Cellars, a resort, has been perfectly positioned for this recent wedding boom.
Kathy Marchenese, the event manager at The Inn at Glenora (aka Glenora Winery, aka Glenora Wine Cellars) since 2011, has been in the game for twelve years.
At her previous gig (c. 2003), she hosted sixteen weddings in the first year. In 2004 it jumped to twenty-five, then thirty-five the following season. By the fourth year, she hosted sixty-five weddings.
When she accepted the job at Glenora, she noticed a similar rise in popularity for the down-home nature of the outdoor weddings set among the sweeping panorama of the vineyards and the lakes.
“Millennial couples are opting for more casual weddings, more than half of them want their weddings to be more semiformal,” Marchenese says. “That’s why your religious institutions and banquet halls aren’t as popular. Historical buildings, vineyards, unique barns, and farms are on the rise from when I was married. They want a more down-to-earth experience, more organic and natural.”
Marchenese sees the calendar fill up with couples from Pennsylvania and New York City (about half of all bookings come from PA and NYC), Virginia, Connecticut, Washington D.C. and even Hawaii and London.
The latter brought Agi Letkiewicz and Marines Piney across the Atlantic with about thirty people in tow (far more showed up on the domestic front).
Letkiewicz grew up in Syracuse, but she and her wife settled on England because they love travel and saw London as a great hub to explore the whole of Europe. But when it came to their wedding, they shipped west to the Finger Lakes, specifically Glenora Winery.
Letkiewicz writes via email, “When we decided we wanted to get married at a vineyard we researched many places. What we found is that the Finger Lakes offers the same stunning scenery, summer sunshine, daytime excursions, great food and delicious wine as say France or Connecticut, but at a much more affordable price. It was also nice to be close to the comforts of home. Our UK guests were a little surprised by the long drive from the city, but once they arrived they were absolutely blown away by all the area had to offer and thanked us for showing them this part of the world. On Thursday we took about forty people on a hike of Watkins Glen State Park to see the falls and on Friday we had dinner on the lake. Everyone loved it!”
With France, the United Kingdom, heck, all of Europe at their finger tips, they instead chose to experience their wedding—dressed in gowns, each holding bouquets, the two overlooking columns of vineyards and one long stretch of water—smack in the middle of the FLs.
The Glenora Winery hosts no more than forty-five weddings a year, though it could, in theory, take on a number in the sixties. Marchenese prefers to focus on a smaller amount that she and her team can handle with greater attention to detail instead of mass producing weddings at an impersonal, industrial clip.
Just five years ago, Glenora Winery hosted about thirty-one to thirty-two weddings. That grew to the mid-forties, which doesn’t jump off the page, but that is still a growth of a little over thirty percent.
And yet it’s not the sheer numbers, but the pace at which Marchenese’s calendar fills up that speaks to the popularity of the Finger Lakes as a premier destination. By mid-December 2015, Marchenese had already booked thirty-four, a rate that’s six to eight weddings faster over the same period in previous years.
Imagine, for an instant, waking up the morning of your wedding and swimming across a lake and then running a 5K. Rick Bacmanski, an Elmira-based wedding photographer, someone who has done this for sixteen years, some six hundred fifty weddings, has shot a couple at the White House, as in the White House, fielded one of the more memorable requests in 2012.
Ann Evangelista and David Bowers, an Atlanta-based couple in their forties with those cruelly athletic bodies vined in hemoglobin-dense Type II muscle, woke on their wedding morning, slipped into their sleeveless Orca wetsuits with the Team in Training logo stamped on the front, and plunged into the lake. They swam the crawl all the way across the lake and when they reached the other side, the sun doing its sun thing in the early morning, their smiles wrapping around their heads, like, so happy, took a few chugs from flutes of champagne.
Bacmanski has seen a lot, but this! It’s part of what makes his work un-job-ish. Evangelista and Bowers weren’t through. Not yet. They laced up their running shoes and ran 5,000 kilometers, 3.2 miles, metric or English, it’s all the same. Bacmanski sat in the back of a Blazer and let his Nikon D3S single-lens reflex rip through pixels, capturing the couple holding hands, running at a conversational clip, gastrocs, like, ripped as they ran past a banner saying “Wine a Bit, You’ll Feel Better.”
Once done, Evangelista and Bowers parted, her to this key-lime gown, he to a double-vented tan linen suit. She rode not down the aisle, but upon the Emerald Cut, a beautifully lacquered boat just trying to steal the spotlight from Evangelista, but, you know, failing because she looked that perfect.
The property they got married on was close to Evangelista’s aunt’s house on the lake. Evangelista always loved the views, how those clouds look painted up there up over the mountains. “It had a pretty side of a hill, trees, it would have Martha Stewart’s stamp of approval. This is the place,” Bacmanski says.
Evangelista asked the couple who owned the property if, one day, she could get married there. Michael and Elaine Jackubowski obliged. For Evangelista it was, in a way, a piece of her childhood. “[Elaine] was just like Martha Stewart,” Bacmanski says. “She made it so perfect, so nice. The bride was delivered by that boat. The groom was at the end of the dock.”
Bowers and Evangelista sat at the end of the dock, the sun casting all kinds of psychedelics across the sky. Evangelista sat back in Bowers’ arms, a conspiratorial grin on her face. There was still more to the show, something different, a grand finale of sorts. She had made arrangements with the folks from a few docks down, made some important phone calls.
Bowers sat in a white wicker chair. Evangelista slouched down to his left and put her arm around him. He reached across his chest with his right hand and held hers, or her arm, either way, they held each other. Both looked over the water and...UP. Fireworks burst in the sky, these giant asterisks of flame burning magnesium-bright high above the trees.
Brittany Gibbs, tourism and marketing manager for the Watkins-Glen Chamber of Commerce, says, “There’s definitely been an explosion for people wanting to come here to get married. For so many people, they come here on trips as couples, with groups of friends, family, and it becomes such a little paradise, get-away for people that they love to come back and experience that again on a momentous day like their wedding.”
Gibbs once worked in the wine industry and knows how special the vineyards can be to visiting couples. “I can’t tell you how many engagements I witnessed,” she says. “So I think when people get engaged in a romantic get-away destination like the Finger Lakes their natural desire is to follow up with a wedding.”
The Knot, a much-perused nuptial website, has noted how popular the Finger Lakes are in drawing ever more people to the region.
“So many people are learning about the Finger Lakes as a destination wine region,” Gibbs adds. “As more and more people are looking for affordable wedding options, even on the high end in the Finger Lakes, they’re still affordable relative to what your dollar gets you in other areas.”
The Finger Lakes are this choose-your-own-adventure region. Part Middle Earth, part Napa Valley.
“Weddings are funny,” says Gibbs. “You can get married on the pier here for free. Will it necessarily be private? No, it’s a public area. Or you could go somewhere like the Harbor Hotel. You could have a $100,000 wedding here in the Finger Lakes. Is it necessary? Probably not, but the options are there.”
The locals that Gibbs comes across don’t get it sometimes. Why would people come here? Why would they fly in from Hawaii (like Therese and Ryan Fessenden)? From London (like Letkiewicz and Piney)? To, of all places, this region?
“It’s easy for us to take it for granted and look around and say, ‘What is the big deal?’” Gibbs says. “I hear from people all the time, locals, saying, ‘Why do people come here?’ I have to reverse the question back to them and say, ‘Why not? Look around you. It’s gorgeous here.’”
For some it’s as simple as nostalgia. Tambi Schweizer, the tasting hall and wine club manager at Heron Hill Winery, knew a bride and groom who had their first date at Heron Hill, got engaged a year later at Heron Hill, and were then married a year after that at Heron Hill. She also knew a couple from Hawaii (not the Fessenden’s) who had roots in the Finger Lakes and booked their wedding along Keuka Lake.
“We’ve had many engagements here that turn into weddings,” Schweizer says.
Mike Countryman, wine maker and general manager at the Point of the Bluff Vineyards, will break ground in April 2016 on two new facilities along Keuka Lake, both over 4,000 square feet, one for wine production and events and the other solely for events.
Since 2012, after having his wines “out there,” people called him unsolicited asking if they could host their weddings there. It only made sense to start the process of building the facilities to have weddings year-round. “We’re getting the ball rolling now,” Countryman says. As they say, strike while the iron’s hot.
And even Katharine Lemos Brown, owner and designing planner of Lovewell Celebration Design, got into the business of wedding planning five and a half years ago. Her eye is ever important since the venues, these vineyards, wineries, historical buildings, barns, don’t fit into the same mold as the classic banquet hall. “It’s really about how can we have a pretty celebration that reflects them as a couple,” she says.
That, at its core, is why the Finger Lakes has grabbed ahold of so many. The connection is strong and people continue to come in droves, wine in hand, toasting to new lives.
New York City has its share of émigrés who seek marital refuge off the island. The Finger Lakes provide the destination without a Hannibal-ian trek to get there. Katie and Stefan Artz made the trip, but wrestled with the recent passing of Katie’s mother due to cancer shortly before the wedding.
They did the next best thing to honor her at the wedding by putting out placards for American Cancer Society donations instead of party favors. Still, it was grim to look out over Seneca Lake and see the gray skies and the rain it implied. Rain. Ugh. Why?
Valerie Romig, catering manager of the Harbor Hotel, and her team saw a break in the clouds and quickly ran out to wipe off the chairs. In a few moment’s time a friend of the soon-to-be Artz’ would sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in tribute to Katie’s mother.
The singer began and the rain stopped, as if the words somehow had the power to turn off the faucet. You could picture Judy Garland, the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City when out there, out over the lake, a rainbow beamed across the sky. For real, like, a serious multi-colored laser shot out of the clouds.
Stefan saw it before Katie. He practically dropped Katie’s hands before he faced down the aisle with a smile as much in awe of the refracted light through the sky’s moisture as what it would mean to his bride. Say what you will, but Katie’s mother was there, with all of them, around them, above them, in stunning clarity, high-def color.
“I’m not a big baby,” says Romig. “I do weddings all the time. I’ve never cried at a wedding before, and rightfully so, I do so many of them. That’s one I actually cried for.”