As the Finger Lakes wine industry continues to grow, so do all of the great things that come along with it. The region has become a world-class destination for wine-loving travelers over the past few decades. With over 100 wineries, breweries, and distilleries to visit during the day, there is plenty to keep you busy.
And when the tasting rooms close up for the day, the quaint villages along the lakes have happily spruced up accommodations for those that are hungry for more. The restaurant scene has exploded, enticing top chefs from all over the country to set up shop here. On the menu you will find an amazing array of cuisine styles and local specialties that are quickly making the Finger Lakes a culinary destination. Towns like Hammondsport, Seneca Falls, Ithaca, Geneva, and Watkins Glen have become meccas for food lovers.
One eatery in particular has become a favorite hangout for tourists and locals alike. Graft Wine + Cider Bar is located in downtown Watkins Glen. Owned by the Marks family of Atwater Vineyards (a winery on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake), Graft was formerly known as The Tasting Room when it opened in 2013. It featured not only the wines of Atwater, but a selection of wines and ciders from all over New York State. Their mission was to help promote the region as a whole. And it was an overnight success.
The best part about The Tasting Room was that it stayed open in the evening, after the wineries had closed for the day. So visitors could still continue to sample tasty beverages from the Finger Lakes in one easy-to-find spot. But proprietor Katie Marks soon realized that something very important was missing.
In the Fall of 2015, a brand new and expanded restaurant opened under the name Graft Wine + Cider Bar. Why Graft? The menu explains, “In horticulture, graft means to unite a shoot or bud with a growing plant to create something new; to join two varieties together to create one. At Graft, we look to connect community in the discovery of local-inspired, seasonal plates with New York Wine + Cider.”
And that connection is evident the minute you walk in the door. Small and cozy, the restaurant has several tables and pillow-stacked benches where guests can gather, and a long bar made of concrete, its edges lined with wells of small polished lake stones. You can almost hear the waves splashing along the lakeshore. The side wall is loaded with bottles of sparkling, white, rosé, and red New York wines for sale, along with some great choices in cider as well. Large chalkboards near the kitchen window announce the specials of the day, with mentions of Wednesday Music Nights and Thursday Industry Nights.
We happened by on a Thursday, and it was like a ticket backstage at the Grammys. But, in this case, the rock stars were the coolest assortment of winemakers, brewmasters, distillers, food writers, and chefs of the region. It was like a Who’s Who of the Finger Lakes. I was totally starstruck, of course, but somehow managed to restrain myself from begging for autographs.
And the decisions that had to be made on what to order! Thank goodness I was with a group of folks who liked to share, and that is exactly what we did to maximize our dining experience. I began with an excellent flight of dry rosé wines ($12 for “four ample samples, side-by-side”) from four different producers—Silver read, Atwater, Randolph O’Neill, and Wagner. It was hard to pull myself away from the beautiful array of pink hues and the brilliant reflections from each glass long enough to peruse the food menu.
That menu changes frequently to reflect the season and the availability of fresh ingredients, and the plates (ranging from $5 to $16 on this particular evening) make it possible to have a culinary experience ranging from a bite with a beverage to a multi-course meal. Katie explains that the concept is “Share and pair...or not!” Graft is blessed to have a local chef favorite at the helm: Christina McKeough is a talented Culinary Institute of America graduate and well known to many as the original founder of the Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg. She is dedicated to showcasing Finger Lakes ingredients, and her exciting approach and creative air are all over the page.
A special of the day was a plate of fresh Duxbury oysters that we could not resist. Accompanied by a tasteful mignonette sauce, they disappeared faster than a Nascar race at the Glen. A baba ganoush drizzled with local pumpkin seed oil and served with warm pita bread was perfectly delicious paired with my dry rosé wines, and a favorite of the table.
The regional cheese plate was a unanimous choice for all, and it consisted of three of the state’s best: Chaseholm Farm Camembert (soft and creamy cow’s milk cheese), Vulto Creamery Miranda (an absinthe-washed cow’s milk cheese), and Danascara (a sheep’s milk cheese rubbed in cocoa and olive oil). Beautifully plated with local honeycomb and accompanied by baguette toasts, it was pretty much heaven on earth.
Also high the list of must-trys is the chicken liver pâté tartine on Wide Awake Bakery garlic toast topped with house-made spicy mustard and pickled red onions. Seriously off the charts, and ideal for sharing. I am still dreaming of this dish, and am very happy to say that it is a mainstay on the ever-changing menu.
Other highlights included a yummy grilled cheese Panini on Village Bakery rye with Jake’s smoked gouda and apple chutney; a tasty shaved brussels sprout salad with apples (local, of course), parmesan cheese, and toasted walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette; and an addictive white navy bean dish with anchovy butter and braised escarole. I called it greens and beans on steroids, and it, too, has a near-permanent seat on the menu because of its popularity.
As full as we were, we just couldn’t justify passing on dessert. Before we knew it, a coconut-cardamom panna cotta made its way around an extremely appreciative table (although some were reluctant to pass it on). Thank goodness we also ordered the special house-made pie of the day—a bittersweet chocolate cream pie, which left us speechless and totally satiated.
If you do not imbibe, no problem. Graft has you covered by offering a cool list of “booze-free beverages” like Ginger Bear Ginger Beer (from the Finger Lakes Cider House), Pomegranate Hibiscus Ginger Ale (from Bruce Cost in Brooklyn), and Fuji Apple Juice (from Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva).
During a time when the Finger Lakes is getting so much international recognition for its wines, places like Graft are a welcome addition to the visitor experience. Kudos to Atwater Vineyards for raising the bar!
Graft Wine + Cider Bar is located at 204 North Franklin Street in Watkins Glen. They are open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., and are closed on Sunday and Monday.