The Cayuga Wine Trail
Cayuga Lake, located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, offers one of the best wine trails in the eastern United States. Along with some fantastic wines, you can also enjoy samples of beer, fruit wines, hard cider and brandy.
By Emily MacDowell
The Finger Lakes Region consists of six long, finger-shaped lakes: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco and Skaneateles Lake. Iroquois legend states that the lakes are impressions from the hand of the Great Spirit Manitou, whose fingers slipped when bringing the hunting grounds down from the heavens. Three of these lakes – Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka Lake – have some of the best growing grounds for grapes in the eastern United States. The soil is rich and the temperate climate produced by the lakes in the growing season has helped many of the vineyards in the area gain success. Each lake has its own wine trail, but the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, starting in the town of Ithaca, New York, offers some different tasting opportunities.
The Ithaca Beer Company, a microbrewery located at the beginning of the wine trail on 606 Elmira Road in Ithaca, is a unique place to start your sampling voyage. The owner, Dan Mitchell, came up with the idea for the brewery in 1995 when customers at the bar he worked at kept asking why there wasn’t a locally produced beer. Three years later the Ithaca Beer Company was up and running.
Many types of Ithaca Beer can be found on draft in the local restaurants of Ithaca, but the company’s distribution encompasses the whole state of New York, parts of Connecticut and New Jersey. At the Ithaca Beer Company, seven different drafts are offered. Some types to try include the Apricot Wheat – a flavorful, fruity beer intended for the younger crowd; the Nut Brown – a dark, smooth ale that has a nutty taste with a subtle chocolate and coffee finish; and a seasonal brew – the Gorges Smoked Porter, with its unique smoky flavor that brings the taste of autumn straight to your senses. And if you’re in the mood for something sweet, the Ithaca Beer Company also has a delicious homebrewed root beer on tap.
Another interesting stop along the trail is Bellwether Hard Cider, the only hard cider producer on the trail. The idea for a “cidery” began when owner Bill Barton was drinking hard cider in France. The drink is still popular throughout Europe and at one point, he says, “was the most common drink in the U.S. up until World War One.” He wondered why there weren’t any cider producers in the states. Barton and his wife decided to go for the idea and have now been in the business for six years.
The apples grow well in the area and allow for an easy harvest. “Basically we’re making wine but we’re using apples,” says Barton. The only reason they can’t call it apple wine is because of the alcohol percentage. “The government drew the line at seven percent. If it’s under, it’s hard cider, if it’s above, it’s apple wine.” All Bellwether cider is under seven percent alcohol.
Bellwether Hard Cider offers at least five different samples of hard cider. For a different taste, Barton recommends a blend called Spyglass, a semi-dry cider at 6.9 percent alcohol that is “still,” meaning it has no bubbles or carbonation. It’s a blend of two apples – the Northern Spy, typically used in baking, and the Liberty, an apple breed developed by Cornell University researchers. The most popular variety is the Liberty Spy, made from the same two apples. It has a full, sparkling taste that can be paired easily with meals. In the colder seasons, Bellwether also offers tastes of their Original hard cider, served heated and mulled with a spice mix that leaves you feeling warmed and ready for the next stop on the tour.
As you head farther north along the Cayuga Wine Trail, a winery not to be missed is The Thirsty Owl, created by Jonathan Cupp in 2002. The Thirsty Owl offers samplings from five white wines and five red wines. The most popular wine for the area is the Riesling. “All wineries in the Finger Lakes produce Rieslings,” says Thirsty Owl wine connoisseur Matt Bonacci. The climatic area actually recreates the same environment in which Rieslings originate – along the banks of the Rhine River in Germany. The latitudes are almost identical. The winery offers a delicious dry Riesling that carries hints of lemon and pineapple.
Also offered is Vidal Blanc, a hybrid that has been genetically developed as a cross between Native American and European crops of grapes. The taste is light and crisp with a dry citrus tang. Another wine produced there is called Blushing Moon and is the Thirsty Owl’s version of a white zinfandel. It is made with 90 percent Cayuga White (a dry white wine developed by Cornell researchers), and 10 percent Dechancelor hybrid red wine. When combined, the wine equals a blush similar in taste and appearance to a white zinfandel.
Many wineries along Cayuga Lake not only use locally grown grapes for their wine, but also add other local fruits to the mix for some interesting flavors. Hosmer Winery, located 30 minutes north of Ithaca along the Cayuga Wine Trail, offers the only Sangria in the Finger Lakes region. Sangria is a famous Spanish drink that blends sweet red wine with lime, lemon and orange flavors. Hosmer Winery, which has been around for twenty years, has won numerous awards, including the 2002 Governor’s Cup award. Another notable flavor there is a sweet raspberry wine called Raspberry Rhapsody. It is made from a semi-sweet white wine blended with native red raspberries, and is delicious when served with chocolate.
Knapp Winery, located near the Hosmer Winery, has some mouth-watering strawberry and peach wines. According to the Ithaca Times Fall Guide, Knapp also makes “brandy and grappa, a traditional Italian high-alcohol beverage made by fermenting pressed grape skins and seeds.” Knapp Winery has beautiful gardens to explore in the summer months, and has an outdoor patio where you can view the grapes growing under the sun as you sip their finished product.
As you make your way along the trail, don’t forget to stop and get something to eat. Many wineries also have bistros or cafes within where you can order a bottle or glass of wine with meals. A few places to eat along the route include the Knapp Winery and Restaurant, the Thirsty Owl Wine Company, Sheldrake Point Vineyard and Café, or for a special treat, the Cayuga Lake Creamery, which also serves finger food and coffee in addition to their delicious homemade ice cream.
Don’t feel like driving? Many escort services offer limos and sedans that will take you to all the wineries you desire. Special tour packages are also available and include accommodations at a bed and breakfast, transportation on a six-hour tour, and bottles of wine or champagne in special gift baskets. Finger Lakes Winery Tours & Transportation (http://www.flwtinfo.com/) provides customized tours for any size group in luxury vehicles for Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka Lake. Executive Limousine and Sedan (http://www.elslimo.com/) has tours for Cayuga and Seneca Lake for up to 12 people. A World About Us – Tours and Travel (http://www.worldaboutus.com/) features group, individual, and family tours that can be customized to suit your needs and include much more than wineries. It offers a great tour of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, lodging, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a full-time guide to take you to five of the most popular wineries along the way.
The most important part of wine tasting is having fun – so gather a group of your friends, find a designated driver, and enjoy a sampling adventure along the beautiful shores of Cayuga Lake!