I guess every traveler has a motto. Sometimes the traveler’s motto is derived from a less than ideal experience. Or, the motto can convey a sense of delight, or the joy of discovery. In our case, it’s a simple case of thinking on our feet and adjusting, so the traveler’s motto for this issue is a straightforward “Be Flexible”.
A few months ago, we began planning our first trip to the Finger Lakes area in many years. We knew there’d be world class wine, magnificent scenery, and plenty to see and do. A visit to nearby Rochester, NY was on the agenda. The only aspect in question was which wine trails we’d visit.
Our first thought was to visit the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, followed by one of the region’s two larger trails, Cayuga or Seneca. And while we’ll cover the Keuka Lake Wine Trail in our next issue, we decided the Canandaigua Lake area was just too good to gloss over. So, flexibility ruled the day and Part One of our Finger Lakes feature focuses on the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail.
Finger Lakes and the Wine Trails
Situated in west central New York, the Finger Lakes region is an ideal destination for anyone. Families, couples, senior citizens, and college kids will all feel at home here. It’s a four season area with numerous outdoor activities and a natural bounty derived from a delightful mix of elements.
The Finger Lakes themselves are a phenomenon. They are actually glacial lakes, formed thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers which carved the earth. Looking at a map, the lakes look like fingers – long and narrow, stretching from north to south. There are 11 in the region by our count, with the two largest, Cayuga and Seneca, forming the centerpiece.
The region is filled with valleys, rolling hills, and spectacular scenery, especially in autumn. Charming small towns abound, and there’s a sense of artistry here, perhaps inspired by the surroundings. To pinch a phrase from the Finger Lakes Visitor’s Guide, it’s a scenic partnership of Napa Valley and Scotland here. I’ll take their word for it, but if Scotland is half as pretty as the Finger Lakes, I’d like to go tomorrow!
It’s easy to get to the Finger Lakes region, which is situated just south of the New York State Thruway (I-90). You’re about a 90 minute drive from either Rochester or Syracuse, two underrated cities that warrant a visit.
Let’s take a look at Rochester, our first stop on this trip.
Either Rochester or Syracuse is the perfect launching point for a Finger Lakes vacation. We chose Rochester, but either city offers interesting attractions for the first time or repeat visitor.
First order of business was the Park Avenue DistrictHogan’s Hideaway, a mainstay on the Park Avenue scene. Neither of us could remember if we’d visited before, but we felt at home upon entering. Hogan’s Hideaway is well known for their fresh, generous portions at reasonable prices. Right up our alley! We enjoyed our lunch outdoors on the back deck, while switching between Genesee Cream Ale and one of the house brews, Hogan’s Park Avenue Ale.
Order off the blackboard here and take advantage of the daily specials. We chose the Chicken Spinach salad, topped with a chipotle raspberry vinaigrette, and the Hogan’s Original Veggie Melt, stuffed with eggplant, spinach, and sharp cheddar. Oh, and don’t forget the bread — Hogan’s bakes it fresh.
Also in the Park Avenue District is the George Eastman House, well worth a visit to learn about this photography pioneer. Or, just stroll around the area for an afternoon to soak up the ambiance. Another recommended stop is Stevers Candy, a local confectionary operating since 1946. We were able to arrange a visit to the High Falls Brewing Company, formerly Genesee, a thriving regional brewery serving western New York for generations.
After a great dinner at Rochester’s famous brewpub, Rohrbach Brewing Company. In Rochester, we also recommend Zweigles for a great hot dog, Chester Cab Pizza and
Rochester Public Market, where you can shop here for local specialties. It’s also a great place for breakfast!
On to Finger Lakes Wine Country
It’s only an hour, at most, from Rochester to the town of Canandaigua, our home base for the next three days. With some time in the morning to spare, our first stop was Wild Wings, a rest home of sorts for birds of prey that aren’t able to survive in the wild.
This wonderful not-for-profit organization showcases a wide variety of birds, including raptors, owls, bald eagles, and more. Great time and care is devoted to educational programs, particularly to area schools so young people can experience these magnificent creatures up close. The facility is located in a beautiful 2500 acre park, Mendon Ponds Park, and there’s all sorts of activities to occupy a day. Even if you can’t make it for a personal visit, be sure to meet all the resident birds at the Wild Wings website. You can even “adopt” one if you wish!
From Wild Wings, it’s a short pleasant drive to Canandaigua, situated on the north end of Canandaigua Lake.
Canandaigua is a real slice of Americana, with an historic downtown and all sorts of unique places to visit. Our first eagerly anticipated stop was the New York Wine and Culinary Center, on Main Street in Canandaigua.
The NYWCC is a perfect place to get acquainted with New York wine and food. The emphasis here is to educate visitors about New York’s rich wine, food, and culinary traditions. You can take a class here, enjoy a wine dinner, learn what a sommelier does, and much more. There’s an educational theater and a hands on kitchen where you can create your own masterpiece. Also, don’t miss the New York Garden located outside the building. Depending on the season, you might find grapes ready to pick, apples, tomatoes, or any number of other native crops.
After a filling and delicious lunch at Macs Philly Steaks downtown, it was time to explore scenic Canandaigua.
This is a walking town, so just park the car and set out on foot. You’ll find numerous charming shops, such as Sweet Expressions for a sweet treat or Nadal Glass, a glassware manufacturer and retailer. The weather was perfect for our first afternoon and Canandaigua Lake beckoned, so took paddleboat tour of the lake on the Canandaigua Lady.
We learned that Canandaigua Lake is one of the smaller Finger Lakes, measuring 16 miles long and one mile wide, with a maximum depth of 280 feet. There are even a few shipwrecks to be seen on this relaxing 90 minute cruise.
Wilhelmus Estate Winery
Later in the afternoon, we had the chance to visit our first winery, Wilhelmus Estate Winery, just south of Canandaigua on East Lake Road.
Open since 2007, Wilhelmus Estate Winery is the pride of Buon and Karen Keunen, who named the winery after Buon’s father. We loved their Cayuga White, a light, fruity white offering. Even better in our estimation was the Free Run Traminette. “Free run” is a term used to describe the situation when the grape picking process ruptures the skin of some of the grapes. The juice from those grapes collects in the transport containers, resulting in a high concentration of sugars, fruit esters, and tannins. We particularly enjoyed the spiciness of this wine, and thought it would be a superb companion for a pork dish or a stir fry.
Just a general comment about these Finger Lakes wineries … each of them offers unbelieveable scenery. A better word is stunning. It’s like Mother Nature’s best here, with fresh clean air and valleys cascading down to the lakes. The soil is rich, the climate invigorating. You really need to experience this area to truly feel all it offers to your senses.
An Evening in Canandaigua
Time for happy hour and dinner, and a little pre-planning put two local restaurants on our radar. When in Canandaigua, make time to stop at both MacGregors Grill and Tap Room and the Lumber Yard Grille.
MacGregors Grill and Tap Room is filled with local color, the ample bar offers more than 70 beers on tap, with several New York specialty beers filling out the list. We chose a personal favorite, Yuengling Lager from Pennsylvania, a bargain at $7.50 a pitcher. Dinner consisted of a BBQ pork sandwich, Cobb salad, and wings. We stopped for a second visit while in town and enjoyed a Zweigle’s hot dog, a Rochester area tradition.
Lumber Yard Grille, also in downtown Canandaigua, is another great choice. Owned by 7th generation family members, the Lumber Yard Grille offers numerous Finger Lakes wines by the glass. Have fun, relax, and try a few! We enjoyed terrific steaks here, and were told the early bird specials are always a big hit. With two restaurants like these two in town, it’s easy to fall in love with Canandaigua! Other recommendations include: The Pickering Pub, Canandaigua’s oldest pub offers burgers, sandwiches, pizza cold beer and more; Macs Philly Steaks for real-deal cheesesteaks served on fresh Amaroso rolls and Max On The Lake, a magnificent setting for lakeside dining or drinks.
Also check out Bristol Mountain, the tallest mountain between the Catskills and the Rockies. A four-seasons resort offers 32 skiing and snowboard trails.
More Wineries on the Trail
The next morning’s agenda being ambitious, we started the day with a fresh and delicious breakfast at Patty’s Place in downtown Canandaigua before heading for the splendor of Sonnenberg Gardens and the Finger Lakes Wine Center.
The Finger Lakes Wine Center is located on the grounds of the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion, so visiting both is a breeze. Sonnenberg Gardens offers visitors a chance to stroll among eleven different themed gardens, a spectacular sight. The Finger Lakes Wine Center is your gateway to learn about (and taste) the wine culture of this region. There’s typically a rotating selection of about a dozen wines to try, for a nominal fee. We spent about 1/2 hour enjoying the gift shop, which features all sorts of handicrafts and food products from the Finger Lakes area.
Then, it was off to the southernmost point of Canandaigua Lake, to the delightful small village of Naples. Home to nearly 3,000 residents, Naples is wonderfully scenic, with hilly terrain and access to the lake. We stopped to shop at Artizans, a great discovery that offers numerous hand crafted Finger Lakes items. Also, don’t miss Josephs Wayside Market, an open air farm market in operation for over 50 years. Learn about other shopping opportunities in our Recommendations section.
A good place for lunch in Naples is The Grainery, a local’s place for breakfast or sandwiches. Their bagels are among the best we’ve tried, and the sandwiches are fresh, delicious, and easy on the wallet. We also recommend Naples Creek Soaps for organic soaps, and fresh honey produced by local honey bees and Naples Valley Mustards for gourmet mustards, spices, dip mixes, jams, and party sauces. Lastly, Naples is known as the “Grape Pie Capital of the World,” so stop in at Monica’s Pies. It’s located just a few miles south of town and they ship to your door. Also, try the grape bread, a bread with grapes, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Three Finger Lakes Wineries in Naples
You’ll find Arbor Hill Grapery and Winery located on Rt. 64. Arbor Hill is about an inviting a place as can be. The main building looks kind of like a country cottage, white clapboard with a big sign above the awning.
Once inside, it becomes even more inviting. There’s a beautiful gift shop where you can peruse all sorts of Finger Lakes specialty products, from grape pies to apparel to housewares. But the star here is the wine.
Our first taste was one of Arbor Hill’s newer wines, the Vergenne. We hadn’t heard of this style before, and it’s reminiscent of a Riesling in some ways, especially the crisp finish. We learned this wine is made with a grape that’s part Lambrusco, so essentially this is a white wine made with a red grape. A new one on us, but decidedly tasty! And at less than $11 a bottle, it’s a best buy.
Another variety we’d never tried before was Arbor Hill’s Sparkling Chardonnay. Dry like a Chardonnay but effervescent like a good sparkling wine, it’s a perfect match of two styles.
We absolutely loved Onnalinda White, a mix of Cayuga White, Traminette, and Vidal. We expected this to be sweet, but it’s only mildly so, an easy drinker that joined us for our trip home.
Imagine Moore and Widmer
With a unique name and a gorgeous setting, Imagine Moore Winery was next on our list. They are housed in a restored barn that dates back to Civil War times, with a panoramic view of Naples Valley from the wrap around deck. We even encountered a few olive trees just off the patio.
Here’s where you should come to buy a great dry Riesling. The name, Joy, fits perfectly. The mix of fruit flavors and aromas is everything a Riesling should be. Of all the wines at Imagine Moore, don’t miss this one.
Since we’re always searching for wisdom, we felt compelled to try Imagine Moore’s Cabernet Franc. Its name is really Wisdom. And it was a smart choice indeed, a tasty, complex, fruit forward wine that we felt would pair well with pasta dishes. P.S. – it does!
This was an ideal spot for a bit of afternoon relaxing. Words don’t do the setting justice. The air is fragrant and fresh, with a warm valley breeze. We immediately knew why so many things grow here, as it seems this area is blessed with all the natural resources required. Also of note, Imagine Moore partners with the for wine tasting dinners and events. We didn’t make one, but we can’t fathom how you’d go wrong.
We also visited Widmer Wine Cellars, one of the largest and most successful wineries in the United States. You may be aware of the Manischewitz brand – it’s produced here. We highly recommend a tour of this bustling, modern facility. It’s about 45 minutes in length, and you’ll see everything. Of course, you’ll end up in the tasting room and gift shop! When you’re here, try Widmer’s Lake Niagara Harvest Blush, an easy sipper you’ll want to take to your next picnic. The gift shop is equally appealing, with shelves stacked with wine gifts, jellies, juices, and gourmet treats.
Last but not least, Casa Larga Vineyards is located 15 miles southeast of Rochester in Fairport.
The Brown Hound
Finally, we can’t wrap this travelogue up without mention of a very special restaurant in the Canandaigua area. It’s the Brown Hound Bistro, where we enjoyed a wonderful Sunday brunch. There’s live mellow acoustic music, and you can hear a sample by visiting their website. The menu is created to showcase the best of the Finger Lakes, and everything is fresh and created with care. Be sure to try the German apple pancakes spiced with nutmeg, the seasonal house salad, or the tapas plate. Everything is extremely good here, and of course we’re partial to any place named after a brown hound. They’re open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. No matter where you are in the Finger Lakes area, the Brown Hound Bistro is well worth seeking out.