For part I of the trip, click here. For pictures, watch below and click for closeups...
As you drive around Seneca, there's a bend in the lake east of Watkins Glen, which is on the southern tip. The southeastern side of Seneca Lake is known as the "Banana Belt" because of its shape. This stretch of the lake catches the most daily sun of anywhere on the lake. Since red wines tend to need more sunlight and heat, we found the better reds on Seneca come from there. To wit:
Shalestone Vineyards-- "Red Is All We Do" proclaims the sign at the entrance to this little winery on the east side of Seneca -- and they do it quite well. Tasting there is a wonderfully laid back experience. The tasting notes on their wines are fabulous, such as this from their luscious 2007 Pinot Noir: "Pinot Noir has a presence that is very seductive. Black cherry aromas and flavors are indeed there, but tune your senses… there is a whole lot more. Oh the fickle femme fatale! Some are like a cold shower and others give you multiple orgasms. They are always worth a try."
Their "Red Legend" blend was also a favorite of ours. They have an interesting setup -- they built their cellars into the side of the hill on which the tasting room rests. Natural a/c!
Red Newt Cellars -- One of the prettiest views that we found just about anywhere around either lake. Most of their wines were very solid offerings, but their "Sawmill Creek" 2007 Gewurztraminer was absolutely exceptional. Made in the Alsatian style -- so quite dry -- there were layers and layers of watermelon, kiwi, spice, and various other yumminess. One of the better representations of that varietal we'd ever tried, honestly. (It's a little pricey at $36 a bottle, though.) Red Newt also had a very good bistro where we had a thoroughly enjoyable late lunch and some flights of various wines.
Atwater Estate Vineyards -- Our last stop on Seneca Lake was a winner. Atwater's friendly folks gave us a thorough rundown of much of their current catalog in their gorgeous tasting facility. We were especially impressed with their 2007 Chardonnay. Many of the Chardonnays in the Finger Lakes were overoaked, in our opinion. This one had just a hint of oak, some tasty tart apple flavors, and a nice vanilla finish. Their 2005 "Celsius" ice wine, also made from chardonnay, was absolutely delicious, full of tangerines and honey.
Seneca Lake is much more heavily populated winery-wise than its neighbor to the East, Cayuga Lake. Most of Cayuga Lake's wineries are clustered about midway up the western shore of the lake. We'd heard more about the wineries on Seneca and Keuka, and after our first couple of stops on Cayuga, we thought we understood why. We stopped at a couple of the "more established" wineries on Cayuga and were roundly disappointed in both. Their wines were clearly "made for the tourists" -- lots of cheap, sweet plonk that they'd been selling to tour busses from NYC and bachelorette parties for years. We were filled with trepidation -- and then our luck changed:
Buttonwood Grove Winery -- We were a little nervous when we drove up to the place. When I see wineries that offer a lot of non-wine stuff, I start to wonder how much effort they actually put into crafting their wines. Signs at Buttonwood advertised "cabins for rent," grape pies, and goat cheese. By the parking area we met Melody, a long-haired Scottish Highland cow and her three friendly goat companions (which we unsuccessfully tried to feed on the way out -- they sold treats for them at the register). Despite possible appearances to the contrary, Buttonwood clearly takes the wine seriously. They poured the best tasting chardonnay (Their 2005 Reserve -- $16!) we had in the whole region -- a little oaky with a balanced creaminess and excellent, refreshing fruit. Also had a very nice 2004 Cabernet Franc which was exceptionally smooth.
Thirsty Owl Winery -- Another wonderful bit of scenery to back up some very tasty wines. Our favorites were their 2008 Pinot Gris, which was fresh and clean with some wonderful acidity and fruit that rivaled much more expensive Pinot Gris'; and their 2008 semi-dry Riesling, which was an absolute crowd-pleasing peach explosion. They also had a great little bistro where we enjoyed some appetizers for another late lunch and watched the lake for awhile.
Finally, our tour ended at Hosmer Winery -- which was, again, one of the real finds of our trip. They had a ton of excellent selections. Both their 2007 Pinot Gris and Dry Rosé were fresh, tastily acidic, and full of fruit. The rosé, at $6, was a steal. They did a wonderful methode champenoise brut made of a blend of chardonnay and Cayuga grapes that was bone dry and yet tasted of honey. Absolutely delicious. Friendly atmosphere as well. They also were one of the few wineries that shipped to Kentucky, so we took full advantage.
So, all in all, what did we think? For scenic beauty, the lake views were hard to beat. For white wines, while Riesling was certainly king, they're growing a number of other really solid varietals, including some of the hybrids. The whites also tend to be very consistent across vintages. The reds were a little more uneven, but considerably better than we expected. The quality of the reds tends to be inversely proportional to rainfall. 2007, for instance, was a very dry year in the area -- and the reds from that year were a slice better, on balance, than the 2006's. Also, with the exception of Hosmer, most of the wineries we liked best were the relatively new ones -- quite different from our experience in a number of other places. I wouldn't hesitate to suggest this area for a getaway. So, make your reservations to fly into Ithaca -- the only airport I've seen where the gates don't even open until 45 minutes before a flight. You'll find plenty to help you relax.