Happy birthday Seneca Lake Wine Trail! It’s been a great thirty years of sipping and sightseeing. And the most exciting part is that the best is yet to come.
A “wine trail” is defined as a group of wineries within close proximity to each other that have joined together in an organization to help develop and support themselves collectively. The Finger Lakes region is a land of many different “microclimates,” meaning each lake has unique growing conditions and a distinct geological make-up that set them apart from one another. The individual wine trails help to identify those characteristics when it comes to the wines they produce and the experiences they offer.
For travelers, wine trails offer much-welcomed guidance when planning trips. Plus, they put together great trail events like wine and food pairings throughout the year. Cheese, barbecue, chocolate, holiday—you name it. You might say that the wine trail is the ultimate party planner!
The Seneca Lake Wine Trail was established in 1986. Perfect timing, because the wine industry was just starting to boom. Here’s a little background.
Seneca Lake is the longest of the Finger Lakes, coming in at thirty-eight miles from the northern tip (Geneva) to the southern tip (Watkins Glen). The lake was born just like the others in the area, from glaciers carving their way through the region millions of years ago. The resulting soil deposits were composed of limestone and slate that would eventually make ideal planting grounds for vineyards.
The lake was named after the Native American tribe who settled there—the Seneca. The earliest record of a winery on the lake was in 1866, when the Seneca Lake Wine Company planted about 100 acres of vines on the western shore. Things must have gone well, because in 1882 the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station was founded in Geneva. That opened the doors, and by 1900 the wine industry was rockin’ with more than fifty wineries in the Finger Lakes region.
Everything came to a sudden halt in 1920 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, though some wineries continued to grow grapes for “sacramental wine” only. But by 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, we were practically back to square one.
Then, in 1970, a man by the name of Charles Fournier planted about twenty acres of European vinifera vines on the east side of Seneca Lake for a company called Gold Seal. Charles was also working with Dr. Konstantin Frank on Keuka Lake, and they both were champions of the European vines such as Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. These vines were not indigenous to America and had to be replanted on new root stock to survive. They took to the Finger Lakes quite well. Around that same time, Hermann Wiemer, a German immigrant, had begun propagating some vinifera vineyards on the west side of Seneca Lake.
The big breakthrough came in 1976 when the New York Farm Winery Act was passed, and grape growers were finally able to sell their wine to the public. Yahoo! Wineries started popping up like daisies, with Glenora Wine Cellars, Wagner Vineyards, and Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards being some of the first on Seneca Lake. The trend has continued to this day, with every month bringing news of a new venture.
Enter the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Today, as it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, it is the largest trail in the Finger Lakes, with members including thirty-five wineries, a distillery, two breweries, and a meadery (which makes delicious wines from honey).
Paul Thomas, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the Trail’s mission. “We are a non-profit organization that is here to help all of our members prosper in every sense of the word—bringing in more visitors, helping the wineries to grow their businesses, and also supporting the wineries in educational advancement.”
Sometimes, the phrase “wine trail” can be a bit misleading. “I get a lot of phone calls asking me how long the hike is!” Paul says. It would definitely be a long walk because one thing they are not is a hiking trail. The best way to visit is by car, and even better with a designated driver who can keep you safe and on track. Better still, take a few days and stay in one of the region’s charming bed and breakfast spots. Then you can take your time and savor all of the different Seneca Lake offerings at your own pace.
The wines of Seneca Lake are outstanding, consistently receiving top kudos world-wide. Of course, the Rieslings are the rock stars and have truly been responsible for putting the region on the map. But even though we are best known for our crisp and refreshing whites, don’t count out the amazing reds that have come into their own. The annual New York Wine & Food Classic awards a “Governor’s Cup” to a wine that stands out amongst all in a blind tasting. In most years, you can count on it being a white. But for the past two years in a row, it has been a red from Seneca Lake. Ventosa Vineyards Lemberger won in 2015, and Billsboro Syrah claimed it in 2016.
Paul tells us that “the current administration has happily acknowledged the Finger Lakes wine industry and has been extremely supportive. Wineries are opening at an amazing rate.”
Winemakers from all over the world have their eyes on the Finger Lakes. Paul Hobbs from California has partnered with Johannes Selbach of Germany to start a vineyard on the southeastern shores of the lake. Louis Barruol, owner of Chateau Saint Cosme in the Rhone Valley of France, has partnered with the folks at Hector Wine Company to produce Forge Cellars wines. And it is just the beginning.
History is being made right here and right now. If you have not yet had a chance to visit Seneca Lake, make a promise to yourself to do so. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has a host of fun events planned for 2017. Some new ones include “Halftime Pairings” that will run the weekend of January 13-15, and “Savor the World of Seneca” which runs from February 17-19. For information on all of the Seneca Trail events and a listing of participating wineries, visit www.senecalakewine.com.
Nicely done, Seneca Lake Wine Trail—here’s to many more celebrations in the future!