Wine for me is a very personal thing. There are always new and different varieties, colors, scents and tastes that can be attributed to wine. For my spring break last year, my fiancé, Eric, and I traveled to upstate New York in search of new and remarkable wines. Our hosts, Cindy and Casey Kowalski, who used to own the Finger Lakes Bed and Breakfast, were wonderful. They had plenty of recommendations for restaurants, vineyards to visit, and their bed and breakfast was the most beautiful house on the lake.
A little history about the house. It is almost two hundred years old and has a wrap-around porch perfect for opening a bottle of vino and watching the sun set. Every room in the house has a theme which I loved because it made you feel comfortable, especially the Sculpture Room. Cindy and Casey are also the two best cooks in the region with a breakfast selection that changed every day. I sincerely want to thank them both for a wonderful stay.
There are three restaurants in the Penn Yan area that are out of this world! The first is Ports Cafe on Seneca Lake. We went for dinner the first night we arrived and it was wonderful. Beautiful woodwork, fantastic service and a menu that changes every week. The specials menu was longer than the actual menu itself! Our server was incredibly nice, and if there was a question that he couldn’t answer, he made sure that he brought over someone who did. Dinner for me was a wonderful soup and filet mignon wrapped in bacon and cooked to a wonderful medium rare. Wine selections were top-notch and everyone that was there were as friendly as can be. I would definitely recommend Ports Cafe for anyone that loves home cooking with flair.
The next restaurant we went to was La Cocina in the town of Penn Yan. This is a little Mexican restaurant that has the best margaritas on the face of the earth, even if there is no Steven Starr restaurant nearby. In addition, the tacos I ordered were awesome! Soaked in sauce, fresh and light in regards to the salsa, La Cocina was a wonderful and tasteful break from drinking wine all day.
The last restaurant that we visited was Belhurst Castle on the shores of Seneca Lake. This was one of the most well-prepared dinners that we have ever tasted. We started off with spicy calamari paired with a wonderful red wine that was local to area. Next up was my filet mignon perfectly paired with an au poivre sauce and the tastiest grilled vegetables that were fresh and crispy all on their own. Eric ordered the duck breast that melted in your mouth with a beautiful saffron sauce. Finally for dessert, two cakes that were perfect in how they complimented each entree.
We ended up visiting six local vineyards and couldn’t wait to sample all the goodies, starting with Keuka Spring Vineyards. It was a cold morning with fresh snow that had fallen the night before and a view that was spectacular. The wine by comparison was the lightest and crispest that I have ever had. The Riesling was light and buttery with a hint of fruit that at the start of the morning was awesome. I want to thank Keuka Spring Vineyards for a wonderful and informative tasting. We wound up getting half a dozen bottles. This is a good place to visit because in the summer they have wine festivals that include a live band along with wonderful appetizers for people to munch on if feeling peckish.
Keuka Spring Vineyards:
Next on the list was Rooster Hill Vineyard. Now Rooster Hill is known for their white wines. I however would like to highlight their red selections and the cider that we picked up as well as their wine club membership. One thing that I absolutely loved about Rooster Hill’s selection is how drinkable they were. Their Estate Cab Franc was a solid wine packed with flavor. Sweet berry notes balanced with a smokey bacon flavor made this was wonderful wine. The cabernet was also very enjoyable to drink. It had a very earthy aroma with an earthy finish. Lovely hints of coffee, nuts and berries with a nice dry finish was more than enough for us to purchase a couple of bottles. We loved the cider because it had nice blend of several apples. It was light and crisp. We’re not big cider drinkers but we ended up buying a couple bottles of this as well. Rooster Hill was a wonderful winery with a wonderful staff to match.
Rooster Hill Vineyard:
On to the next vineyard, McGregor Vineyards. We remember this vineyard fondly because of one particular wine, the Black Russian Red! A deep, dark color when poured, is had aromas of coconut, berries and tea, followed by a wonderful long-lasting finish. They are famous in the area for this wine and we saw why. It was outstanding! We also picked up a bottle of their Cab Franc. It was smooth with hints of berries, oak and cedar. All the wines we tasted here were amazing. The tasting room was bright yet rustic. Hats off to McGregor and their wonderful wines.
Only half way done our wine excursion, we next headed to Ravines Wine Cellars. Like all the other wineries that we visited so far, this one was in a beautiful setting. Up on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake. When you go inside, you walk into a large room, wines to purchase on one side and a tasting area on the other. Taste we did and wine we bought. Five bottles to be exact. From their white selection, we purchased their Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay. Both were fantastic. The Gewürztraminer was bright and acidic, the Chardonnay was a nice balance of fruit, acidity and oak. Both are perfect on a warm spring or summer day. From their red selection, we purchased their Meritage Magnum, Pinot Noir and Maximilien. The Meritage was a nice mix of berries, spice and earthy aromas. The Pinot Noir was smooth and silky with hints of plum and cherry. The Maximilien was a wonderful deep color with hints of plum, cherry and clove. All were outstanding but the Maximilien was probably our favorite.
Ravines Wine Cellars:
On to vineyard number five, Heron Hill Winery. When you drive up to this winery, your breath is taken away by the beautiful scenery and incredible building that houses the winery. Once inside, you are greeted by high, vaulted ceilings and endless views of Keuka Lake and the surrounding area. The wines here were outstanding. We tried quite a few and purchased quite a few! We got their Unoaked Chardonnay, Classic Dry Riesling, Gruner Veltliner Reserve and the Eclipse Red. We are normally red wine drinkers but the whites here were delicious. The Unoaked Chardonnay was light, crisp with a wonderful aftertaste. The Riesling was also crisp with hints of citrus and minerals. The Gruner was earthy but had hints of lemon and grapefruit. And finally, the Eclipse Red was soft and silky with a wonderful aftertaste. If you want great white wines and a great view of the area to go with it, head to Heron Hill.
Heron Hill Winery:
We had originally planned to visit eight vineyards but after Heron Hill, our pallet could only take one more winery. There is only so many wine tastings you can do in one day! We headed to the winery credited for bringing upstate New York wines to the forefront, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vineyards. Established in 1962, Dr. Frank with his tireless dedication to viniculture, he was successful in establishing European vines in the cold northeast climate. There is no shortage of wines to taste and try here. Situated high above Keuka Lake, the scenery here, like most vineyards in this region, is stunning.
We ended up purchasing quite a few bottles from here. We got their Margrit Dry Riesling, Dry Riesling, 2013 Late Harvest Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, Saperavi, Meritage and Cuvee d’Amour. The Margrit Dry Riesling was amazing. It was tart and citrus, with hints of apple and earthy notes to balance it out. The Dry Riesling had a nice apple, lemon and floral balance. The Late Harvest Riesling has hints of orange, peach, honey and lemon, all perfectly balanced with a wonderful finish. We haven’t opened this one yet as we’re waiting for a special occasion! The Sauvignon Blanc has a wonderful grapefruit, floral and earthy notes to balance it all out. The Cab Franc was outstanding. Seemingly complex yet perfectly balanced with hints of blackcurrant, herbs and chocolate. The aroma of pepper, prune and spice just added to the wonderful scent and taste of this amazing wine. The Pinot Noir was special in that it is made with the oldest vines on the estate! A beautiful balance of fruit and earthy notes made this pinot one of our favorites. The Saperavi is also a special wine because of its European origins . It’s one of the oldest wine grapes known in the world with it’s origins in the country of Georgia and is one of the only grape varieties in the world with red pulp and red skin. The wine itself is complex, heavy, with hints of berries, earth and spice. Simply outstanding. The Meritage is a nice bold wine with hints of plum, fig, fennel and tobacco leaf. The Cuvee d’Amour has a wonderful balance of fruit and earthy notes. If you go to the Keuka Lake wine region, make sure you put Dr. Frank on your list. You won’t be disappointed!
Dr. Konstantin Frank Vineyard:
When you visit the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York, there is one thing you have to make time for…Niagara Falls and Canada! Ok, two things. From Penn Yan, Niagara Falls is only a little over two hours away and definitely worth the trip. It was our first time to the falls and it was nothing short of spectacular. Remember to bring your passports. Being this close to Canada, it would be a shame not to visit our neighbors to the north. I was so excited as we drove across the border. It was the first time I was in another country! After taking dozens of pictures at the falls, we went inside to warm up and grab a bite at Elements on the Falls Restaurant. They were doing a swift business even in mid-March. The food was delicious and we each ordered a wine flight. Here’s where it gets better my fellow wine lovers. Our wonderful waitress, seeing how much we love wine, suggested to us that we drive up to Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s only a 30 minute drive from the falls. She told us if you love wine, you’ll love this town. It’s nothing but vineyards and wineries as far as the eye can see. So of course we went!
Niagara Falls and Elements on the Lake Restaurant:
The drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake was visually stunning. You drive along the Niagara River and the scenery is just beautiful. As you approach the town, the homes on either side of the road are just beautiful. Seriously, every house! Words do not do justice as to how beautiful this area is. I can only imagine how beautiful it is during the spring, summer and fall months. As our waitress told us, there are wineries all over the place. Dozens and dozens of them. Since we only had a few hours before we had to head back to Seneca Lake, we chose two really good wineries to visit, Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate Winery. Very good choices indeed!
Inniskillin is one of the larger wineries of this region and it showed as we drove in. There are several buildings that surround a large courtyard area and you can sit outside when the weather is warmer. The tasting room was spacious and inviting. You could purchase all their wines plus wine accessories, clothing, scarves, books, you name it. We tried several of their wines and purchased their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gold Vidal Ice Wine. Niagara wines are really known for their ice wines and Inniskillin has one of the best. It has aromas of mango, lychee and has great acidity.
The other vineyard we visited was another famous winery in the region, Jackson-Triggs. The tasting room here was smaller but tastefully decorated complete with all their wines available for purchase. Again, we tried several of their wines and all of them were outstanding. They don’t make it easy when the time comes to decide which one’s you want to purchase! We did get their Red Meritage, Sauvignon Blanc and their Grand Reserve Cab Franc Ice Wine. The ice wine was smooth and soft. Not overpowering with an aroma of raspberry, plum and hints of fig. It was absolutely delicious!
Before we left Niagara-on-the-Lake, we decided to drive through the center of town to see what it was like before heading back to the United States. Let me tell you. This was one of the prettiest, quaint, gorgeous towns I have ever seen! Tree lined streets, beautifully maintained homes, quaint shops and restaurants, I loved it. We hated to leave but vowed that we would come back next time for at least a week!
We arrived back at the bed and breakfast in New York a few hours later. We had planned to stay another couple of nights but had to cut the trip short because of a major snow storm headed up the east coast that was promising to bring significant snowfall to the area. So we grudgingly left the next morning after another fabulous breakfast and make our way back to Philadelphia. It was a good thing we did leave a day early. While Philadelphia didn’t get too much snow from the storm, we found out from our hosts that upstate New York got hammered with snow! All in all, it was a great trip. We got to visit and stay with our good friends at their bed and breakfast before they sold it. We visited many good wineries in the Seneca Lake region, finally got to see Niagara Falls and Canada. Cheers!