They come on you almost by surprise as you’re driving along winding rural roads through the tidy cornfields and orchards of upstate New York. At the brow of a hill, there’s suddenly one right below you – a sliver of blue stretching north and south for miles, so narrow in places you almost feel you could reach out and, without stretching hard, touch the opposite bank.
Down the slopes to the water, bunches of Riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes soak up the sun, testimony to the region’s flourishing wine industry. Along the shoreline, cottagers barbecue lunch while keeping an eye on the flocks of ducks that call this region home in the summer. Out on the lake, sport fishermen try their luck catching the landlocked salmon, brown trout, rainbows and black bass that thrive in water that is hundreds of feet deep in places.
These are New York’s Finger Lakes, long, deep scars gouged out of the earth by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. They lie just south of the New York State Thruway between Syracuse and Rochester, just a few hours drive for the millions of Canadians who live in southern Ontario and Quebec. They might be tucked away in a remote corner of Europe for all the attention they get from us. In a recent trip to the area, I spotted very few Canadian licence plates but, of course, visitors from the U.S. eastern seaboard and mid-west were everywhere. Pat Charland, vice-president of marketing for Finger Lakes Visitor Connection in Canandaigua, estimates that despite our proximity, only about 10 per cent of the region’s visitors are from Canada.
Our loss. There are few areas in Canada that offer the range of vacation attractions you’ll discover just across the border. Like golfing? You’ll find some of New York’s finest courses here. The rustic Bristol Harbor Resort on the shores of Canandaigua Lake boasts a classic 18-hole course designed by Robert Trent Jones and a variety of two- or three-day golf schools and clinics. Afterwards, you can have a drink or dine on an outdoor terrace overlooking the lake. Rates are very reasonable for this level of quality, starting at $179 a night (all prices US) during high season.
If fishing is your sport, the region boasts there’s nowhere else in the world that consistently produces trophy-sized trout, king salmon, steelhead, bass, walleye and northern pike. You can charter a boat for a half-day of trout fishing on Seneca Lake for only $75 a person – very cheap by most charter standards – or simply fish from the shore. There are big pike lurking in the weed beds around Conesus Lake’s Cottonwood Point. Go on the last weekend of June, and you won’t even need a fishing licence – those two days are free fishing days throughout the state.
Art fancier? The Corning Museum of Glass in the small city of Corning is a must-see for you. No, you won’t find a lot of cookware on display but a remarkable collection of art and historical glassware, some dating back 3,500 years. There are hands-on exhibits, glass-blowing demonstrations, workshops and a marketplace where you can buy some of the most stunning pieces of glass art anywhere. While you’re in Corning, stroll the Crystal City’s Market Street, designated a National Historic District.
The region is also dotted with picturesque antique shops and craft stores. Especially interesting is the Windmill Farm and Craft Market on route 14A between Penn Yan and Dundee. You’ll find more than 200 shops offering everything from local produce to fine handmade Amish and Mennonite furniture.
But increasingly, people are coming to the Finger Lakes for the wine. Although I found the quality generally not as high as in Niagara on the Ontario side, the region does produce some excellent Rieslings, fine chardonnays, decadent dessert wines and a few serviceable reds.
The New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua is a good place to start for a general introduction to the wine delights of the area. Opened in June 2006, this $7.5 million venture is a showpiece for upper New York’s wine and food industry. Here you can take Wine Spectator-sponsored courses, taste a wide range of Finger Lakes wines, dine in the Taste of New York Lounge on local delicacies, such as cheeses, pâtés, duck and corn, and get tour maps to the many wine trails. Admission is free.
Just steps away is the deluxe Inn on the Lake, a modern hotel with a beautiful outlook over the water and a fine restaurant that features some of the region’s premium wines. However, if touring wineries is your primary interest, it is not the best place to stay since it is miles away from the heart of the wine region.
A better choice for visiting wineries is the sprawling 19th-century Belhurst Castle at the north end of Seneca Lake, just outside Geneva. It looks and feels like a grand English country home that inexplicably got plunked down in upstate New York, with beamed ceilings, rich woodwork, sweeping lawns and an elegant dining room with mosaic-tiled fireplaces, cathedral ceilings – and prices to match. Belhurst also doubles as a winery and its rich 2004 Legends Les Mange-Cailloux Chardonnay was the best wine of any I tasted during our visit to the region. It was available in the hotel’s wine shop for $28.95 a bottle.
Belhurst offers three types of accommodation. You can stay in one of 14 unique guest rooms in the old stone castle, complete with four-poster beds and names like The Butler’s Suite and The Billiard Room. High-season rates start at $145 a night (mid-week), while off-season rates are as low as $135 (that’s per room, not per person). There’s also White Springs Manor, a turn-of-the-century Georgian Revival farm mansion with a white-columned facade and rooms with antique furniture and fireplaces. Mid-week high-season rates run from $145 to $325 a night. Finally, there is the old-looking but recently constructed Vinifera Inn, which offers modern luxury at mid-week high-season prices from $225.
If you decide to stay at Belhurst but don’t want to pay the sky-high prices to dine there, head down the road a few miles to the Madderlake Café, a favourite of the locals. It may not have the grand panache of Edgar’s in Belhurst Castle but owner-chef Scott Snyder provides diners with an array of mouth-watering dishes at reasonable prices, such as roast breast and potted leg of duck with kumquat demi-glace and pumpkin spoonbread for $19.50.
Finally, for true wine buffs, a visit to the vineyards of Dr. Konstantin Frank, high above Keuka Lake is a must although, like any true pilgrimage, it’s not an easy trip. The winery is tucked away in a remote part of the region, well off the beaten track and reachable only by rough roads that at times seem like they will end in the middle of a farmer’s field. Be sure you get detailed directions before you set out; the maps you get at the tourism centre offer only a vague idea of how to get there.
It’s worth the journey, however. Fifty years ago, anyone who believed world-class wines could be produced in the Finger Lakes would have been labelled a fool or a dreamer – perhaps both. (The same would be true for those who had similar hopes for Niagara and the Okanagan.)
Dr. Frank, who came to the States from the Ukraine, believed it could be done and proved it by planting Riesling vines, among others, on the lake’s western slope and eventually producing award-winning vintages of stunning quality. He died in 1985, but the winery is still a going concern, offering the most informative tastings in the region, conducted by personable tour leaders who are among the most knowledgeable I have encountered anywhere in my wine-tasting travels.
So there it is. New York’s undiscovered gem right on Ontario’s doorstep. Go for a weekend; I guarantee you’ll return.
4069 Route 14 South, PO Box 609, Geneva, N.Y. 14456
Bristol Harbor Resort
5410 Seneca Point Rd., Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424
Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars
9749 Middle Road, Hammondsport, N.Y. 14840
The Inn on the Lake
770 South Main St.,
Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424
Photo ©iStockphoto.com/Brett Rabideau