Wining Your Way Around Seneca
On a day when either sunshine and warm breezes or the gloom of cabin fever make it absolutely necessary to refresh the spirit with a quick vacation from the ordinary, the wineries around Seneca Lake await discovery. Whether you’ve been many times before or are having your first visit, there’s going to be something new to experience. Of course, it’s always possible to do this in a serendipitous, meandering journey of exploration, but, in order to make the most of your time, a little research can make a big difference.
Enter Brittany Gibson. She took the helm as executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail at the end of November, 2018, and says she’s returned to her roots at this new position. Having experienced the wine industry from both sides as a winery worker as well as a consumer, one of her first efforts has been the upgrading and re-configuration of the trail’s website—senecalakewine.com—to make it far more user-friendly. For instance, web visitors will now be able to plan their visit based on individual needs, including the wish to find particular amenities. Is Fido riding shotgun? Look for pet-friendly tasting rooms. Is this visit mostly to find your new favorite Rieslings or would you like to try varietals you’ve never tasted before? Would you like to eat lunch at a winery restaurant where wine and food pairings have been pre-selected? Does the winery host art exhibits? Is there a night they stay open late and offer music?
There are currently thirty-one member wineries (plus additional non-member wineries around the lake), so hard choices need to made.
If you’re a Finger Lakes wine newbie, you might want to visit at least one winery offering a tour. Or you might choose to visit during the less-frequented seasons when tasting room staff are less rushed and have more time to talk about each wine. Generally late summer and fall see the most visitors to the area; weekdays are quieter times than weekends. Vineyards and wineries follow an agricultural calendar, so there’s always something interesting going on in the fields as well as in the wine cellars.
If you like the buzz and special-occasion atmosphere of a party, there are more than half a dozen trail events each year. On these weekends, visitors purchase tickets enabling them to taste a number of wines and sample complementary foods at each winery they visit. Designated drivers get deep-discounted tickets and a warm welcome, with coffee, soft drinks, and snacks at most wineries, as well as the gift that goes with ticket purchases. Because most visitors try to experience more than the usual number of wineries during these event weekends, a driver is highly recommended.
For smaller, non-event getaways, Brittany recommends always packing a cooler with snacks and bottles of water. “Visiting three to five wineries in a day is plenty,” she says. “The more wine you taste, the more work your palate is getting. In order to get the best experience, you don’t want to over-taste.” And you’ll also want to budget for tasting fees—most wineries charge three to seven dollars per person for a selection of tastes.
The ideal wine-trail visit begins with a hearty breakfast. “I generally enjoy two wineries and then a lunch stop, and then maybe a couple more wineries,” Brittany says. “And make sure you leave time for pictures.” If you remembered the water but forgot the snack, many wineries offer cheeseboards or charcuterie, and a few scenic seating areas so you can enjoy them, or the lunch you packed, and the view. Taking that break refreshes your taste buds, enhancing your experience.
“One of the benefits of having so many tasting rooms is that it’s really about tasting—not just about varietals,” notes Brittany. “Use this as an opportunity to enlist the help of your server. They’re generally well-trained people who are eager to share what they know. I’ll taste a few things I want, then ask them to pick a wild card for me. What should I really try? The tasting room staff is generally excited to get that opportunity and you never know what you’re going to find.”
Reacquainting herself with wineries she’s previously known from her early work experiences, then as a wine enthusiast with a particular appreciation for Seneca Lake terroir, Brittany made it a point during her first months on the job to visit every member winery.
“Because I grew up here and was raised here, I know how great the people are,” she says. “What impresses me the most is they don’t ever seem to have a ceiling! They’re always looking for ways to do better and do more. That speaks to who they are as people. In some industries, people rest on their laurels. Here they’re really passionate about what they do. It doesn’t surprise me, but it continues to impress me that the level of energy and dedication they have is unmatched. They’re all modest people and they wouldn’t tell you that—but I will.”
The striving spirit includes bringing new tastes to the region using lesser-known varietals that find new expression in our micro-climate, particularly with red wines.
“Seeing how they continue to develop their dry red portfolios is really exciting,” she notes. “What our growers and winemakers are proving is that we make some really incredible dry wine. The sky’s the limit at this point.”
The trail’s by-words are “Grown here. Made here.” Those phrases sum up two requirements of member wineries as well as the experience of tasting the flavors unique to the region.
“You’re not just supporting the local vineyards and tasting rooms,” Brittany says, “but also the agricultural tradition that runs deep in the Finger Lakes. It’s about wine—but it’s also about so much more than wine.”