New York’s Finger Lakes: So many wineries, museums, and so much Fun!
By Tab Hauser
Both the wine and waterfalls are two things that flow well together in New York’s Finger Lakes. Combining these with other attractions makes this region a relaxing week-long vacation.
Located in central New York, the Finger Lakes consist of 11 large narrow lakes that were carved out by the passing glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. Surrounding some of these lakes are over 120 wineries and dozens of waterfalls.
I have selected some of the best waterfalls to view and several wineries to taste based on personal taste, wine review as well as recommendations.
We kept our visit to the three largest lakes because they offer the most for visitors.
Finger Lakes Wine
The first winery in the Finger Lakes was started in 1829. The success of the region is a result of few factors happening well together.
This includes good soil, good drainage, and a warmer microclimate caused by the deep lakes.
This means the hillside vineyards by the lakes can be 10 to 15 degrees warmer than just a few miles away in the winter.
In the fall, the lake’s summer heat helps extend the ripening season. The eastern shore of Lake Seneca is humorously called “the banana belt” because the fruit grows best there.
Wine Varieties of the Lakes
The Finger Lakes’ most popular grapes for whites are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, chardonnay, pinot gris and Gruner veltliner. The popular reds include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot and Saperavi.
Most wineries produce a Riesling. This grape is from Germany and the Alsace region of France. This white wine can be produced from dry (my preference), semi-dry (a perfect afternoon sipping wine) and sweet.
It goes well with chicken, turkey, fish, many Asian foods, cheese and makes a nice brunch wine.
When tasting wines, pace yourself. We visited no more than two wineries a day to avoid “taste fatigue”. Also if you are with someone, consider sharing the taste flights.
This way you can sample more wines saving on the cost and lessening the chance of getting buzzed.
Before visiting, see which wineries serve food. We enjoyed some of the best local meat and cheese platters for lunch or as an afternoon snack.
A good way to start your vineyard touring is at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery on the western banks.
This is where the Finger Lakes went through a “vinifera revolution” as they call it. In 1957 that Dr. Frank, a Ph.D. in plant sciences, planted the European varieties (Vitis vinifera) against nearly everyone’s advice.
His first wines, a Riesling and Pinot Noir, was a game-changer on the way things were done in the Finger Lakes.
Dr. Frank’s produces 30,000 cases of wine on 140 acres. They have a stunning tasting patio with views of the vineyards and lake. It was fun and tasty to compare five different dry Rieslings from three different vintages.
Don’t miss their sparkling brut rose aged in the historical farmhouse. Their charcuterie board made for the perfect lunch.
On Lake Keuka’s eastern bank are two boutique wineries directly across from each other worth a look. The first one has a German background and the other French.
Weis Vineyards is a small winery producing 4,000 cases per year of 16 types. Their rustic-looking tasting room has a few photos of Peter Weis as a little boy with his grandfather in the vineyards in Germany.
Many of their wines are produced in a German style. Of their wines, we liked their dry and semi-dry Riesling and both rose.
We especially enjoyed their Winzer Select Riesling as very smooth with a good fruit-forward taste.
Domaine LeSeurre is owned by a charming French couple, Celine and Sebastien LeSeurre who comes from a long line of winemakers. Many of their wines are in the French tradition.
Directly behind their tasting room, you can see their aging barrels stacked up. LeSeurre produces over a dozen wines.
We liked their dry Riesling and a well-balanced Riesling Barrel Select. The Barrel Oak 02 was our favorite chardonnay for the region. website
Boats, Planes, and Motorcycles
The town of Hammondsport on the bottom of Lake Keuka is a good place to take a break between wineries. Here you will find two good regional museums taking between two and three hours to visit both.
The Finger Lakes Boating Museum shows the rich history of boating here. It is also a working restoration center.
On display are a few dozen beautiful and rare wooden motor, sail, and rowing boats made in the region. Start your visit with their well-done historical 10-minute video.
The museum offers rides on their 39-foot restored 1924 tour boat. (Fun fact: On Lake Keuka in 1908, Alexander Graham Bell is credited with the first very crude aircraft carrier.) website
The Glen H Curtiss Museum has an impressive collection of restored Curtis motorcycles and Curtis aircraft, engines along with some old cars.
On display is a reproduction of the 1907 V-8 engine motorcycle that made Mr. Curtis the fastest man in the world, achieving a speed of 136 mph.
Their new exhibit, Art at War, is a rare collection of aircraft insignias. These were painted on warplanes with some being over 100 years old.
Seneca Lake Wines
To continue our quest for the Finger Lakes best wineries and dry Rieslings we spent a few days circling Seneca Lake.
Seneca Lake is 38 miles long, three miles wide and is over 600 feet deep. It is ringed with dozens of wineries, breweries, and distilleries. Two wineries of distinction on the western shores are Hermann J. Wiemer and Ravine Wine Cellars.
Ravines produces about 25,000 cases from their 130 acres of vineyards. They have been cited by Wine Spectator and N.Y. Times as a top pick for their dry Rieslings.
We were happy to sample four different ones with labels showing the different vineyards they came from, each having a unique taste.
They also have another dozen wines that will please anyone’s palate. Ravine’s tasting room serves up delicious snacks and platters.
Herman J Weimer Vineyard was an early promoter of European grape varietals in the Finger Lakes.
Wine critics and publications call Weimer a top Riesling producer in the country.
We sampled their different dry and semi-dry Rieslings and found them outstanding. We were blown away by their sparkling Riesling made in the methode champenoise. (True Champaign style)
Watkins Glen for Speed and Water
Watkins Glen is a small city on the bottom of Lake Seneca. It is famous for its race history and its one-of-kind gorge waterfall park.
Here you can take a lake boat ride, kayak, shop at the local stores and dine.
Watkins Glen International is an exciting 3.77 mile, 11 turn race track built in 1956.
Fans can experience the course twice a day in their own car by paying $30 to drive three laps following a pace truck.
While you cannot drive flat out, you do go quick enough to appreciate the layout of this legendary track.
Watkins Glen State Park is located in the southern part of the village. It has been rated one of America’s top state parks.
The best way to view the park is to walk the two-mile 800 step gorge trail downhill. In a leisurely hour you will pass 19 waterfalls in the tall gorge.
The trail has pretty stone bridges that cross the river and a path that goes behind a fall.
Every step on this trail is beautiful. Park at the main entrance and take the shuttle up for a few dollars.
Seneca Lake Kayak
offers both lake and marsh tours. We chose the early season Catherine Creek Marsh tour to be close to eagles, cranes, turtles and large carp.
The owner Paul is a wonderful guide who enjoyed being on the water as much as we did. Besides tours, they rent kayaks and stand-up boards.
The southern region of the Finger Lakes has the largest concentration of waterfalls in New York. Near Watkins Glen, there are few easy ones to visit
HECTOR FALLS is two miles north of Watkins Glen on the eastern shore. It is 165 feet tall and impressive looking. It a large look due to several steep drops.
When approaching the bridge put your flashers on and pull off as far to the right as possible for an “in your face view”.
Children should view it in the car as Route 414 is a busy road.
SHEQUAGA FALLS, popularized in the Hallmark Mystery Series, is an imposing 165 feet high.
It is located on the street in the historic section of Montour Falls. Louis Philippe, before becoming King of France, made a sketch of it that hangs in the Louvre
EAGLE CLIFF FALLS is located in Havana Glen Park in the Village of Montour Falls.
To see it, you take a quick stroll along the river through a pretty gorge. At the end is an impressive 41-foot wall of water coming down into a pool. During the summer swimming is allowed at the base.
Seneca East Vineyards
To conclude our wine tasting in the Finger Lakes, we finished up with three very good ones on Seneca Lake’s east side.
This area is reported to have the best microclimate in the Finger Lakes. We sampled more reds amongst the below vineyards.
Atwater Estate Vineyards sits on 80 acres of what they call a micro-climate sitting on a macroclimate. This allows them to produce some very good reds.
We liked their Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and their “Big Blend”. For good dessert wine, try their Celsius 2014 which is produced from viognier and Gewürztraminer grapes.
Red Newt Cellars is a place for both good food and wine. I recommend the flight of four Rieslings in different styles and vintages.
They also have a very good merlot along with a dry rose named after the winemaker Kelby. This winery does an old fashion foot stomp for some red wines.
A cool feature about Red Newt Wines is that their bottles come with a short video from the winemakers describing what you are about to drink via their QR stamp.
This is also a good place to visit around lunchtime as we enjoyed local cheeses, candied nuts and a sliced warm baguette drizzled with olive oil.
Standing Stone Vineyards sits on 46 acres. Our tasting started with their Brut Rose made from saperavi grapes and a classic Blanc de Blanc that had the perfect amount of fizz, body and fruit.
Their Timeline Dry Riesling, picked from 1972 vines, had a rich off-dry taste that lingered well after sipped.
For reds, I liked their cabernet sauvignon. The petit Verdot, normally a blending grape, was the best in the region.
Ithaca Is Gorges
Ithaca is a small city on the bottom of Lake Cayuga, home to Cornell University.
The city and the nearby area have a few gorges with waterfalls worth viewing. Also in the city is the Cornel Botanical Gardens and the Commons which is a good place for lunch.
The Cascadilla Gorge Trail is one of two places in the city with pretty waterfalls. This gorge ascends 400 feet and takes you past six waterfalls on the adjacent trail.
Ithaca Falls has an impressive 150-foot drop and a width of 175 feet. It is one of the region’s more powerful waterfalls.
Access is easy via a flat five-minute walk where you can view it rushing down into the gorge.
The Cornell Botanic Gardens is next to the university. It has 25 acres of botanical gardens with another 150 acres of arboretum.
In the middle is a large wildflowers section fenced in to keep the deer away. Keeping the deer out allows the young trees and plants to grow to bring in more birds.
Taughannock Falls State Park, just 15 minutes north of Ithaca, has the tallest waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains at 215 feet.
It is a flat 20-minute walk to the base of the falls. There is also a good view down to the falls from their overlook. This park also has a beach located on Cayuga Lake.
Buttermilk Falls State Park is 2.2 miles south of the center of Ithaca, yet visiting it you would never think it is part of the city. This gorge drops 600 feet creating 10 waterfalls with Buttermilk being the largest near the parking lot.
During the summer this turns into a fun swimming hole. If you are in good shape, take the gorge trail up to the bridge and hike down the easy wooded path on the way down.
Robert H Treman State Park is just south of Buttermilk Falls. The gorge here has 12 waterfalls with the 115 foot Lucifer Falls the highest.
You can see this by taking the 4.5-mile round trip hike. For those a little lazy for the hike, there is a beautiful round-shaped tiered waterfall near the parking to enjoy. In the summer this area turns into a large swimming hole. website
The Finger Lakes is a large region. We broke up our stay with two nights on Seneca Lake north and four nights on Seneca Lake’s southeast.
The Belhurst Castle near Geneva was built in 1885 as a private home. This is a grand structure made from regional Medina red stone built in the Romanesque Revival.
It is complete with a gabled roof and turret and has 11 charming and themed suites that you would expect for a place like this. Attached is a hotel with spacious rooms with large spa tubs. The restaurant and bar have good views and good food. Walk down to their dock with a bottle of Belhurst Wine for some quiet time.
The Magnolia Place is ten minutes north of Watkins Glen on the eastern shore. Originally a farmhouse, it was built in 1838 and was later expanded as a first-class inn. Our four nights here meant
we were no more than a 40-minute drive from anything listed in the above places we visited.
We enjoyed sitting on its large wrap-around porch watching the sunset over Seneca Lake.
The owners here take pride in wonderfully plated breakfasts always describing what was on our plate like a Top Chef TV show.
A nice touch being in wine country was getting grape juice for breakfast!
Recommended Dining in the Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes Cider House was our favorite place for lunch in the Finger Lakes.
They get a double prize for their large selection of tasty house-made hard ciders and for having good food. Rather than get a pint, try a flight or two of four ciders on tap.
My favorite included a Northern Spy varietal and another cider aged in barrels. Their delicious casual menu is food sourced from nearby farms or grown by them.
Nickel’s BBQ in Watkins Glen checked all the boxes. Portions are tasty and large. Ordering their smoked wings and one platter will feed two average diners. There are plenty of regional beers on tap.
Stone Cat Cafe on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake is a little upscale. Diners have the option to eat outside overlooking the lake at sunset. The menu has several entrees in what I would call American fare with a few good salad starters.