Planning a wine tour of New York’s Finger Lakes region? Here’s a review of several of the most popular Finger Lakes wineries!
All About Finger Lakes Wine
Just hours away from the East Coast’s bustling metropolitan areas is New York’s idyllic, bucolic Finger Lakes Region. Known for its picturesque farmland, quaint towns and villages, countless waterfalls, and namesake lakes, the region feels like a different planet from nearby NYC, Boston, and Washington, DC. If you’re looking for an escape from city life, there’s nothing quite like going to a place with more Amish buggies than cars, or where you can lay out on a lake all day.
But most importantly for this article, it also happens to be one of the largest and most historic wine regions in the United States.
A *Very* Brief History Lesson
So how did the Finger Lakes region, so far north and so famous for its miserable winters, become such an important wine destination?
During North America’s last ice age, the Finger Lakes area was carved by vast glaciers and icefields. When the ice receded, eleven glacial lakes (a.k.a the Finger Lakes) were left behind, along with mineral and sediment deposits that made the land extremely fertile.
The first vineyard was planted here in 1829 and the first commercial wine company was founded in 1862. The region became famous for its sparkling wine and gained popularity as a tourist destination for those looking to escape the city. But in the earlier 20th century, a combination of Prohibition (the US’s very brief ban on alcohol) and phylloxera (a disease native to North America that is fatal to all European grape varietals) caused a massive decline in the wine industry, not just in New York, but nationwide.
Prohibition was repealed just a few years after it was implemented, but it wasn’t until 1962 that the phylloxera issue was solved by Finger Lakes grape-grower Dr. Frank Konstantin (more on that hero later – but for now, know that he saved the entire East Coast’s wine industry). Since then, the Finger Lakes region has become one of the premier places for North American rieslings and sparkling wines, with over 140 wineries currently operating.
With so many wineries, it can feel overwhelming to pick which ones to visit. And I am not going to even attempt to review all of them, considering my recent trip to the Finger Lakes was only for a few days (as much as I want to help you out, I can only drink so much wine before I forget which wineries I’ve even been too….). But, I CAN review the seven I visited, many of which happen to be the most popular and most well-known in the area.
*Disclaimer:* Finger Lakes wineries predominantly produce rieslings and sweet wines. Because of the northern climate, these are simply the grapes that grow best here. They are trying to increase the number of reds and drier whites that they produce, but that’s not what they excel at. That being said, I do not particularly like Riesling (dry or sweet) or sweet wines generally. A lot of the wineries are experimenting with unique varietals or different methods of winemaking, so it was fun to test out those wines.
But I did not *love* any of these wineries for their wine. That doesn’t mean they necessarily make bad wine. If you are a white or fruit wine lover, the Finger Lakes will be paradise for you. If you are like me, know the Finger Lakes is absolutely worth visiting, just don’t be disappointed if the wine doesn’t blow you away.
Finger Lakes Wineries
Heron Hill Winery
Heron Hill Winery was the Finger Lakes winery I was most excited about, for several reasons.
1) I used to work at a winery in Virginia, Tarara (which is no longer open, sadly). Our winemaker, Jordan Harris, one of the most acclaimed winemakers on the east coast, left Tarara for the head winemaker position at Heron Hill. He hasn’t been there long enough to have bottled any of the wines under his supervision, but I wanted to see his new digs, so to speak.
2) Heron Hill is touted as having one of the “top ten tasting rooms in the world.” That’s a pretty big title to live up to, so color me curious.
Heron Hill did end up being lovely. The world is a big place and I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some pretty amazing tasting rooms, and I would certainly not say this one ranks in the top 10 of the United States, much less the world. But it is lovely. It’s perched on top of a hillside with an incredible view of Keuka Lake.
The tasting room itself is very elegant, sort of renovated-Amish-barn-meets-Greek-revivalist (I know that makes no sense but I’m going with it). The inside has a high arched ceiling with exposed wooden beams and large windows that take advantage of the view. There’s also a stone patio area outside under an arbor.
The wine was decent. Nothing amazing, but also nothing terrible. Their port-style Velvet is amazing (and dangerous). A sip of that puppy with some dark chocolate = heaven. They also had some decent reds (a rarity among Finger Lakes wineries). We took a bottle of their Chosen Spot, a red blend, home with us.
Heron Hill did not fully live up to my expectations, but they are worth visiting: they have one of the best views of the Finger Lakes wineries on this list and have some very drinkable wines (but I’d like to go back one day once Jordan Harris has taken over the reins).
- Location: 9301 County Road, Hammondsport, NY
- Hours: Open 7 days a week. Mon-Sat: 10 AM-5 PM, Sundays: Noon-5PM
- Reservations: Prepaid reservations ARE required for all tastings. Go here to make them.
- Important note: They have two tasting rooms. The famous one is the one on Keuka Lake, not Canandaigua Lake.
Red Tail Ridge Winery
Here we have the tiniest tasting room on this list. It’s basically a shed, with some counters and stools for wine tastings. It’s comfortable and modern, but small. This isn’t one of the Finger Lakes wineries you can hang out at for hours on end – they simply don’t have the space. But Red Tail Ridge offers some of the most unique varietals in the area, which sets them apart from other wineries. They are also the only LEED-gold certified green winery in New York state.
Red Tail Ridge Winery was opened in 2011, making it one of the newer wineries in the area. But in that short period, they’ve won a number of accolades, including a semifinalist spot in the Outstanding Food, Wine, and Beer Producer category for the coveted James Beard award.
Prior to coming to New York, the owners had been doing experimental projects in the California wine industry for 18 years. When they moved across the country, they brought that innovative experience with them. While Red Tail Ridge does grow the typical spate of Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer, they also grow a number of very unusual grapes. For example, they are the only winery in New York (and possibly in the United States) that grows Lagrein and Teroldego, two red grape varietals from northern Italy.
What they really excel at though are sparkling wines. Their keystone wine is Sekt, a champagne-style Riesling. My favorite (and the bottle we went home with) was their Petillant Naturel Riesling. (Quick wine lesson: Pet Nat is known as the quick and dirty way to make a sparkling wine. Whereas champagnes have to age and ferment for several years, pet nats only take 1-3. The result is a more natural wine with completely different notes. There are usually less bubbles than in a champagne but still enough to make the wine fun).
- Location: 846 State Route 14, Penn Yann, NY
- Hours: Open 7 days a week. Mon-Sat: 10AM-5PM, Sun: 11AM-5PM
- Tasting price: $10 a person
- Reservations: The website says that reservations are required, but when we arrived they had a sign saying “walk-ins welcome.” So maybe at least make a reservation for the weekends and busy times because it is such a small tasting room.
Glenora Wine Cellars
Glenora Wine Cellars is one of the oldest and most well-known of all Finger Lakes wineries. It appears on practically every list of must-visit wineries in the area. And yet if there’s one place that I recommend you not waste your time and money at, it’s this one.
Glenora opened in 1977, making it the oldest winery on Seneca Lake. First, the good things. It does have a beautiful, expansive view of said lake. It has an excellent deck to sit out on with a bottle of wine and lots of friends. It’s one of the few wineries that has an inn onsite, along with an award-winning resturant. And their wine labels are stunning…. And that right there is how you know I’m out of compliments – I’m remarking on their wine bottle labels.
When we arrived for our tasting, the tasting room was a complete disaster. Behind the tasting bar, there were piles of dirty dishes, used cleaning rags, pallets of wine glasses waiting to be cleaned. I’m no germaphobe, but you’d think in a time when the entire world is freaking out over a disease that the winery would be more conscious of keeping up appearances of cleanliness. But apparently not.
The tasting bar itself was an assortment of rolling bars smushed together. In front of them, tasters had to sit in cheap folding chairs instead of bar stools, which provided no legroom up against the bar. The room felt chaotic and unorganized, with merchandise and wine bottles scattered everywhere. This was not the relaxing atmosphere one expects from a highly regarded winery.
And then there was the wine itself. As I said, I don’t go in for sweet wine, but sweet wine is the only thing of quality that Glenora produces. They did offer a few chardonnays and rieslings, but they were truly dreadful – I don’t dump out tasting wine much, but those got dumped immediately. If you like the idea of blueberry, apple, or pineapple (yes, PINEAPPLE) wine, you might love this place (admittedly my dad loves this type of wine, so I think he was in heaven).
Suffice it to say, I was underwhelmed. Maybe it was a fluke; maybe they’d had a really busy day and that explains the general disaster of the tasting room – I’ve worked in the industry and I get that things happen. But you only get to make a first impression once, and they failed at making a good one with me. My overall impression of Glenora was that they’ve been around for so long and are always so busy that they don’t feel like they need to work hard to win guests over or maintain a certain high-quality standard.
Visitor info (in case you ignore my advice and want to go here anyway):
- Location: 5435 State Route 14, Dundee, NY
- Hours: Open 7 days a week, 10 AM-5 PM
- Tasting price: $10
- Reservations: They do not accept reservations for basic tastings.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery
If you only visit one of the many Finger Lakes wineries, it should be Dr. Konstantin Frank’s. Not only is it the most historically important winery in the area, but it also has the most fun and unique tasting experience.
Dr. Konstantin received his Ph.D. in viticulture from the University of Odessa, Ukraine, in 1930. But after surviving the Russian Revolution and two World Wars, he finally decided it was time to seek greener pastures, so to speak, and moved his family to New York in 1952. When he emigrated, he had no money in his pockets and spoke almost no English.
But what he did have was a knack for agricultural engineering. Up until this point, no one had successfully grown any European vinifera vines in North America – partly because of the native North American disease that almost always killed them, and partly because of New York’s cold climate. But Dr. Konstantin figured out that if you graft vinifera vines onto older, more resistant rootstocks, you could grow a plant that could survive both disease and harsh winters. So in 1958, he planted the first successful batch of vinifera vines in the United States, revolutionizing the US wine industry. Today, it’s hard to find an American winery that doesn’t grow vinifera grapes.
The winery is still run by the Frank family – Dr. Konstantin’s great-granddaughter is the current CEO. His innovative spirit lives on in the way the winery does business, produces wines, and conducts its tastings.
Unlike most wineries, which conduct the entire tasting from a single tasting bar, visitors to Dr. Konstantin Frank’s rotate through stations that focus on different aspects of the winery’s winemaking. At the first station, you learn all about their sparkling wines. Another talks about the wines made from those original 1958 plantings of riesling and Gewurztraminer. Yet another station focuses on the more experimental wines – for example, Dr. Konstantin’s was the first winery to grow Rkasiteli in the country, a grape native to the country of Georgia. Each station has a different tasting guide, and all were extremely friendly and knowledgeable.
- Location: 9749 Middle Road, Hammondsport, NY
- Hours: Open 7 days a week, 10 AM-5 PM
- Tasting price: $10 per person for the Progressive Wine Tasting (which is the basic one we did)
- Reservations: Reservations are required and should be made several days in advance. Go here to make them.
Unlike most Finger Lakes wineries, Hosmer Winery is not situated next to one of the lakes. It’s a couple of miles away, nestled in between several farms. But despite that, it’s one of my favorite wineries on this list. Location is clearly not everything.
Hosmer’s vineyard dates back to 1930, and the winery itself opened in 1972. The tasting room is located inside of a 100+ year barn that still has the original wooden beams exposed. It’s both quaint and charming as well as elegant. It’s homey without being simple. And although there’s no view of a lake here, the farmland that the region is known for is idyllic and peaceful and because of this winery’s relative isolation, it felt like a retreat from the more popular spots in the area.
As far as the wines, their whites were some of the best we tried on this trip. We took home a couple of bottles of their Sauvignon Blanc. They also have several drinkable reds that would be perfect for enjoying out on the winery’s patio.
- Location: 7020 State Rt. 89, Ovid, NY
- Hours: Open 7 days a week. Mon-Sat: 10AM-5PM, Sun: 11AM-5PM
- Tasting price: $12 per person
- Reservations: Not required but are recommended for weekends and other busy times. Go here to make them.
We ended up at Boundary Breaks on a whim while trying to kill time before our reservation at a different winery, but it ended up being a really great whim! I would not have minded spending more time here.
At the time we visited, they were conducting all of their tastings outdoors. Which, considering the winery’s gorgeous view of Seneca Lake and the beautiful August weather in New York, was not a problem. If we had had more time, I would have loved hanging out at one of their many, many picnic tables overlooking that gorgeous view.
Like most Finger Lakes wineries, Boundary Breaks focuses on white wines, and particularly Rieslings. But they really go all out – they make, depending on the year, between 6-10 different bottles of riesling, from the super dry to the super sweet. This means that anyone, including myself, can find a riesling they enjoy. But they also grow Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and even offer an ice wine to try during a tasting (many Finger Lakes wineries do make an ice wine but ice wine is expensive and labor-intensive, so this was the only winery we visited that actually let you taste it without buying a bottle).
- Location: 1568 Porter Covert Rd., Lodi, NY
- Hours: Open 7 days a week, 11 AM-5 PM
- Tasting price: $10 per person
- Reservations: Reservations are not needed
Standing Stone Vineyards
Standing Stone Vineyards wins (in my opinion) for having the best tasting room. While most of the wineries pay tribute to the area’s historic agriculture roots with a charming farm-chic aesthetic, Standing Stone is very modern, sophisticated, and complimentary to its fantastic view (I know, I know, I say they all have great views – except you, Hosmer – but it’s REALLY true for Standing Stone!).
The oldest vines on this site date back to 1970. But in 2017, the owners of Hermann J. Wiemer vineyard (which we didn’t visit, but is one of the most famous of the Finger Lakes wineries) bought Standing Stone and built the current tasting room. So the winery is a fantastic mix of the new and innovative alongside a long history of New York winemaking.
The tasting operates very differently than other wineries. There is no set list of 1 oz. pours that you get to try. You can pick a flight, you can pick a variety of half-glasses, or you can do what we did and just ask your host to bring you whatever they think you should try. It’s a bit of a confusing system if you’ve never been to the winery and have no idea what you want, but fortunately, the staff are very friendly and helpful.
The wines were all very decent. They have a smaller selection than other local wineries, but we didn’t try any that we didn’t like. They grow an unusual red grape called Saperavi that hails from northern Italy. Their rosés and Gerwurztraminers were also very pleasant.
- Location: 9934 Route 414, Hector, NY
- Hours: Open 7 days a week. Mon-Sat: 10AM-5PM, Sun: 11AM-5PM
- Tasting price: There is no fixed tasting price. It depends on what you get.
- Reservations: Reservations are required. Go here to make them.
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