Wine & SpiritsOct 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane
The boat crashed through the chop heading north toward Miles Wine Cellars. It was taking a lot longer than I’d anticipated, but there was no way to speed through these conditions without capsizing. Water whipped in over the sides and beaded off my sunglasses. I didn’t know why Mountain Home was entrusting a sommelier to go on a ghost hunt around the Finger Lakes. I’m an expert on wines, not spirits. But I was intrigued by the idea of haunted wineries. Miles is also one of only two wineries on Seneca Lake accessible by boat and I love being on the water. When it’s calm.
Even though the day was sunny with tattered clouds imprinted on the pale arc of the sky, there was something ominous about being out there alone on the deepest lake in the region. The dark green swells hinted at the implacable depths below, a grand sink more haunted than anything ever built by human hands. The lake churned and spat. Unease set in. The threatening waves felt like a harbinger of something to come, reminding me of a scene from the novel The Shining when Dick Halloran incurs the wrath of the Overlook Hotel while driving up the mountain to rescue Danny and Wendy. The Overlook violently shines down at him, warning him to mind his own business and to keep away, a genuinely terrifying scene. Maybe that’s what was happening here. Maybe the spirits were unhappy about my arrival and had stirred up the water to keep me from kicking over stones that shouldn’t be moved. True or not, a certain amount of trepidation had settled in about meeting Evan Miles to discuss a young couple who’d died at his family’s estate more than a century ago and didn’t exactly go away.
My buddy Eduardo’s eighteen-foot bowrider pulled up to the dock at Miles a few minutes before five, nearly one hour late. Eduardo seemed completely unphased by the journey. He’s an extremely pensive individual who always looks like he’s writing a poem in his mind. There’s almost nothing that can throw off his mood. I’m a bit more mercurial and my annoyance showed as we tied onto the dock. Being late always irritates me and my stomach was off from the ride. As I headed up the property, the stately white columns of the front porch appeared between the greenery. I scanned the tree shade around the main entrance on the off chance that something would be staring back. Something watchful and deceased.
I’m not sure if I believe in ghosts, but that’s only because my belief has never been challenged. Ghosts can spook me in movies but would never stop me from walking in the woods at night. What does scare me is poking around something I don’t understand. I wouldn’t pretend to know anything about, let’s say, recurrent footsteps in a sealed tavern attic, but I also wouldn’t be the one to run a putty knife around the edges of the door and pop it open. Ghosts may very well exist; I just don’t go around meddling with them. Not until now, anyway.
A tasting room employee informed me that Evan had been there earlier but had left. Hearing this did nothing for my mood. One final call to Evan went unanswered. That was it. The day was shot. Heading back down the dock, I noticed that Eduardo had settled in at a table and had begun to prepare a classic Argentine long drink: Fernet-Branca and Coke. My mood improved instantly. Fernet is a powerful amaro (bittersweet liqueur) from Italy renowned for its mentholated and herbal flavors, something like minty root beer with a bitter finish that sneaks up on you. When mixed with Coca-Cola and served over ice, it makes an addictively refreshing cocktail. I can attest to how compulsively drinkable it is because I rarely drink anything sugary, and I’m totally sold. The flavor profile is beguiling and delicious, at once sweet, minty, spicy, and bitter. Fernet and Coke had become a staple in my summer drinking rotation and was probably the culprit behind the mysterious seven pounds I’d tacked on in July. I’d only taken two sips, feeling the gentle chill trickling through me, when my ringing phone made me jump. A marriage proposal in the Miles family was about to take place and Evan could only talk briefly about the freak accident that had left an indelible stain on the family-owned institution.
“In addition to our fine wines, we also have a haunted history that begins back in 1850,” explained Evan, winemaker and distiller at Miles Wine Cellars. He gazed from the dock back up to the winery, as if to confirm we were alone. “A newlywed couple was tasked with the renovation of the structure from a farmhouse to the Greek Revival we see today. While working in the attic, the gentleman fell to his death from where you see the old whale oil lantern. His widow wasn’t able to survive his passing and allegedly died from sadness. About a year later, people started reporting strange activity at the house.”
Evan’s parents have experienced doors closing by themselves and flying mist. Others have taken photographs that came back littered with floating orbs. Steve Bolger from Main Street Drivers has heard multiple stories from clients over the years regarding unexplained occurrences while visiting iconic sites in the Finger Lakes, especially Miles.
“Every time I’m at Miles I always ask the people on staff if there’s any new ghost stories,” said Steve, an excitable and friendly person with a real passion for the spookier side of things. “The last time I asked, a woman said that something had just happened a couple of days earlier. She and another woman were in the tasting room when one of them started having a sneezing attack. When it finally stopped, her coworker asked if she had any allergies, to which she answered no. Within a minute they heard two more sneezes in the other room—but they were the only people in the building.”
Over the years, Evan has had many supernatural encounters, mostly noises. “I’ve only seen the gentleman twice and the woman once, though I’ve never seen them together.” He paused, staring thoughtfully at the house. “One time there was a little girl.” The details of the little girl are unclear and likely rooted to a different history. It is the newlyweds that appear to hold sway over the estate, presenting as orbs, apparitions, disembodied sounds, and flying mist. To this day, both man and wife can be seen roaming the lakefront property, still separated in death as they were in life.
The Miles family have lived in peaceful coexistence with the ghosts since acquiring the property in the seventies and have politely asked that visitors refrain from ghost hunting and seances so as not to arouse any negative energy. Far from shying away from the haunted history, the winery has actually built it into their brand. Evan gifted me a bottle of Miles Wine Cellars Ghost wine to keep the spirits close at hand. The wine has a special label that reveals the spectral shape of a woman when backlit. Ghost is a white blend of Cayuga white and chardonnay. It’s made in a deceptively easy drinking style–medium acidity, medium body–with lots of melon and peach notes, the kind of wine we industry folk refer to as a “patio pounder.” The next day I enjoyed it with an heirloom tomato sandwich and slices of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. On my patio.
A week later I was off to Lakeview Cemetery in Penn Yan to view the “Lady in Granite” tomb of the late Matilda Gillette. Not much is known about her. Matilda was born in 1856. She was married to Francis Gillette, a local dance teacher in Penn Yan, for forty-five years until her death in 1936. Not long after Matilda’s passing, a white patch began to appear on the mirrored granite of her headstone located in the Purchase East 3 section of Lakeview. Even with repeated polishing of the stone nothing has been able to remove it.
The glaring defect resembles the profile of Matilda Gillette, as if she’s reclined. Her eyes stare blankly toward the heavens, her lips slightly ajar. At first glance it seemed campy, exactly what I was expecting, but she changes your opinion. There’s just some inane panache about her in this pose. An air of frivolity that makes her disturbing. Even though it was broad daylight, I felt troubled looking at it.
Years ago, two boys arrived at Matilda’s headstone. One boy spit on her face. The other kicked the granite base. Days later the one who spit on the stone broke his arm. The one who kicked it broke his leg. There’s a rumor that says a bottle hurled at the face will cause her to jump out of the granite and chase the offender away from the cemetery. But why has Matilda elected to appear on the stone? A prevailing theory is that she swore to haunt her husband from beyond the grave for his extramarital transgressions. Another legend goes that Matilda and Francis had a deeply loving marriage, so much so that they vowed never to remarry should something ever happen to other. But Francis wasn’t true to his word. Shortly after Matilda’s death, he remarried, prompting Matilda to appear on the stone as a way of getting back at her husband.
The main problem with these claims is that Francis Gillette died seven years before she did. Whatever discontent has kept Matilda from fully making the trip to the other side remains unknown. What is known is that her influence continues to be felt by those who gaze upon her bleary image. Some believe that the face is only the first phase of her return, and that when her entire figure appears on the granite, Matilda will leave the stone and walk among the living.
The chipped and gouged surface of the granite around the face is what finally broke the spell for me. The idea that people have been coming here for years to pelt a gravestone with bottles and rocks is more telling of the sinister nature of the living than of any malevolent preconceptions of the dead. If nothing else, the Lady in Granite has showed us that fear lives right next door to violence, and the proof is set in stone.
From Penn Yan, I traveled through fields of thirsty corn, past Mennonite farms rife with succulents, honey, onions, and peaches, toward Belhurst Castle in Geneva. Framed against a blue sky, the dark sandstone castle soaked up the sunlight. The main floor of the castle is cozy with decorative moldings and ornate wood carvings. The tilework around the fireplace contains the face of a green man gazing solemnly from a mosaic of forest. A pair of China dolls dressed in festive attire perch merrily atop the mantlepiece. One clutches a small mandolin, fingers poised and ready to strike up a tune.
Construction of the castle began in 1885 under the ownership of Carrie Harron. At least one man died during the construction as a result of a scaffolding accident. Another went insane while building the roof. A young employee at Belhurst’s wine bar said that sometimes people hear the rattling of construction materials with no apparent source. One time a wall of merchandise in the gift shop suddenly toppled to the ground. One of the more famous castle legends concerns an opera singer named Isabella, from whom the resort’s spa takes its name. Isabella and her forbidden lover stayed at the castle, hiding from Isabella’s husband. When the couple’s location was discovered, they attempted to escape through an underground tunnel to a waiting boat on the lake. The plan failed when the tunnel collapsed, killing Isabella. Sightings of Isabella, the lady in white, have been made on numerous occasions at Belhurst Castle.
Steve shared something that happened to one of his clients who’d been visiting Belhurst. On the second floor of the Escherlike interior is a wine spigot in the wall. The spigot is locked behind a small cast-iron gate. Grape vines swirl in the ironwork. Guests of the castle are provided with a gate key to enjoy the house wine at their leisure. It was while standing at the gate that Steve’s client encountered a specter.
“She wanted to take a selfie with the cabinet because she thought it was cool,” said Steve. “When she looked at the picture there was a face over her shoulder. It was a tan face. You could see the eye sockets but it didn’t have eyeballs. There was a little bit of a nose and chin. They showed me the picture and the hair stood right up on my neck and arms.”
Could that have been Isabella in the picture? Carrie Harron? Or maybe the tan thing in the photograph predates the castle by a long time, an unknown little homebody deeply attached to the land along the lake.
If you look online at the guest reviews, you’ll find the usual rants and raves but no mention of paranormal activity. Ghosts might be like lost possessions. The more you need them, the less likely they are to appear. Sometimes I have the feeling that lost possessions sort of like being lost and gently adjust their position to remain unfound. I wonder if ghosts are similar, adjusting toward and away from the living as they see fit.
As an amateur ghost hunter, I felt the prickle of dissatisfaction with my work that perhaps even veteran ghost hunters occasionally feel and was slipping into a dreary mood. There wasn’t anything new to say about the legends that hadn’t already been said, not unless I experienced something firsthand. To settle my own spirits, I visited the resort’s wine tasting bar and bellied up for a flight. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, prime white wine drinking conditions, but for some reason my palate was craving the bright, sanguine tang of a red. The pinot noir and cabernet franc in the flight were taut and lean and fruity. The Belhurst merlot was a little brawnier with some really nice red and blue fruit characteristics. Merlot classically hails from the right-bank of the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux, France, but I often forget how good it can be from the Finger Lakes, with some great examples coming from the Sawmill Vineyard on Seneca. The moderate alcohol and medium body of New York merlot make it a versatile wine suited for smoked meats and spooky evenings telling stories around a campfire.
Autumn is the perfect time of year to experience the bewitching effect of red wines from the Finger Lakes. Lakewood Vineyard’s 2020 cabernet franc is soulful with a boatload of crunchy red berry fruit and balanced acidity, a smart choice with charcuterie or fall grilling. Another stand-out red is Hector Wine Company’s 2020 syrah. In my other life selling wines at a French wine bar, I lived (and still live) to taste Rhone syrah, and so I was naturally drawn to this fantastic Finger Lakes iteration. Syrah taught me that wine isn’t always fruity, but also savory, like dried meat and smoke and olives. The HWC syrah is made from Sawmill Vineyard fruit and delivers a full-bodied experience laden with smoky notes reminiscent of the softer reds from Collines Rhodaniennes in the northern Rhone Valley. A good syrah is a standalone sipper but pairs beautifully with game and hot stews like cassoulet or chicken cacciatore.
Red wines like merlot, lemberger, and syrah are a great place to start for any red wine novice and a perfect match for heartier fare as we move into winter. If you decide to do any ghost hunting of your own this Halloween, these robust reds will provide the perfect dose of liquid courage. For my part, I just hope they keep me off the Fernet and Coke for a while. And out of that pesky jack-o-lantern full of candy.