The Finger Lakes is the largest and most acclaimed winemaking region in the Eastern United States, and it owes much of its success to the lakes themselves. Steep slopes surrounding the lakes provide a natural means for rainwater and air drainage during the spring and summer growing seasons, and the plunging depth of the lakes moderates the region’s cool autumns with gentle, warming fog, thereby extending the growing season. Local wineries produce many wines, but the cool climate grape, Riesling, has become the signature Finger Lakes varietal wine known the world over.
Still, Finger Lakes wine didn’t make it to the top of the class overnight. That feat took innovative people and hard work, which began a long time ago. Read on below.
Americans sought to establish a domestic wine industry as far back as Britain’s settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, but it did not succeed, because European grapevines did not survive here. Still, luminaries like Thomas Jefferson and his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush kept the dream alive. In the early 19th century, the dream became a reality with the discovery of hybrid grapes, such as Catawba and Isabella, a cross between transplanted European and Native American vines.
Catawba vineyards came to the 5,000 square mile Finger Lakes region with the arrival in 1829 of Reverend William Bostwick in Hammondsport, at the southern end of the unusually Y-shaped Keuka Lake. The reverend planted grapes both for eating and for sacramental wine. By 1836, Samuel Warren established the first Finger Lakes commercial winery located about 80 miles northwest of Hammondsport in the town of York, at the western edge of the region. The winery lasted a few decades but was done in by the eminent domain of the railroad.
Meanwhile, from Bostwick’s plantings, Keuka Lake wine makers developed a successful table grape industry. Then, in 1858, Hammondsport’s Wheeler family established the first Keuka winery, followed by the Pleasant Valley Wine Company in 1860. Between 1860 and 1880, dozens of wineries came and went around Keuka Lake, and by 1880, when the Taylor family established what would become the wildly successful Taylor Wine Company, the lake had become the center of the New York State wine industry, holding that position for more than 100 years, with Catawba among the most successful grape varieties.
In the 1960s, two immigrants—Charles Fournier (France) and Konstantin Frank (USSR)—collaborated at Keuka Lake to produce the first commercially successful wines produced from European grape varieties and started a revolution. Soon, many more wineries began to join the two-dozen or so existing wineries in the region. By the 1990s, the venerable large Keuka Lake wineries—Taylor, Pleasant Valley, and Gold Seal—had folded up shop, swallowed by a revolution of small, family-run wineries mainly clustered around Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes.
Today, with more than 100 wineries in the region, no fewer than seven of the eleven Finger Lakes host wineries. While Riesling remains the signature wine of the region, tireless experimentation has led to success with a number of other grape varieties including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer, to name a few. The Finger Lakes region is also home to some of the most spectacular sparkling wine productions outside of France’s Champagne region.
Finger Lakes wineries attract travelers from all over the world, to taste wines and to sample rural hospitality. In addition, some wineries offer fine dining in their own restaurants and one winery operates a premium inn at its location. As an added bonus, the Finger Lakes region is among the most dynamically beautiful scenic spots on the globe.
FingerLakes.com is your complete guide to the entire Finger Lakes region of New York State--from wine trails to hiking trails and fishing to skiing.
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