Thomas Pastuszak first became enchanted with New York’s Finger Lakes region while studying medicine at Cornell University in Ithaca. Although his career path turned toward wine, the wine director at The NoMad, which has locations in New York City and Los Angeles, still regularly returns to this upstate region for his wine projects—Empire Estate and Terrassen, produced in conjunction with the winemaker Kelby Russell of Red Newt Cellars. Pastuszak recently launched VINNY (the name is a portmanteau of vin and NY), a canned sparkling wine, which gives him another reason to frequently visit this bucolic part of New York. Pastuszak shared with SevenFifty Daily his favorite places to drink, dine, and of course, taste wine in the Finger Lakes.
The Finger Lakes area is located about five hours from New York City; Pastuszak recommends a road trip so you have a car at your disposal (the best way to get around the region). Greyhound and other bus lines provide service to Ithaca, Syracuse, Watkins Glen, and many other locations in the Finger Lakes. Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR) and Greater Rochester International Airport (ROC) serve the region with daily flights. Both are about an hour’s drive from the heart of wine country.
The Lay of the Land
The Finger Lakes, 11 long and narrow lakes carved out during the Ice Age, run north to south through shale and clay soils. Pastuszak recommends focusing your visit on Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka Lakes, which “will offer you access to more than 100 wineries that show the beauty of New York’s premier cool-climate wine region.” Hiking trails, lakeside beaches, and gorgeous waterfalls also attract outdoorsy travelers.
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Where to Stay
The Finger Lakes’ reputation as a vacation retreat means “there are many opportunities to find beautiful homes in the countryside through Airbnb,” says Pastuszak. Elegant hotels and inns also abound, such as the Argos Inn (408 East State Street, Ithaca) and The William Henry Miller Inn (303 North Aurora Street, Ithaca), both located at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. On Cayuga Lake’s east side, “you’ll find a beautiful lakeside spot” at the Inns of Aurora (391 Main Street, Aurora), says Pastuszak. On Seneca Lake’s north side, visit the historic Belhurst Castle (4069 West Lake Road, Geneva) “for a dramatic view of Geneva and Seneca Lake.”
Where to Eat
From the casual Red Dove Tavern (30 Castle Street, Geneva), with its “hearty pub fare and great beer,” to The Krebs (53 West Genesee Street, Skaneateles), which according to Pastuszak “has some of the most ambitious food and a wine list that beats many of the best in New York City,” a visitor will never go hungry. “In Ithaca, my home for more than a decade,” says Pastuszak, “grab a terrific coffee and pastry at Carriage House Café” (305 Stewart Avenue). On Seneca Lake’s west side, “don’t miss F.L.X. Wienery [owned by Master Sommelier Christopher Bates] for one of the most ambitious roadside joints, where you can eat an enlightened hot dog, drink back-vintage wine, and enjoy some cornhole outside” (5090 State Route 14, Dundee). Dano’s Heuriger (9564 Route 414, Lodi) models itself after a traditional Austrian tavern, with cuisine that “pairs beautifully with the local wines—schnitzel and dry Riesling, anyone?”—and overlooks some of the area’s oldest Riesling vines.
Where to Drink Something That’s Not Wine
Although your trip may be wine-centric, the Finger Lakes are also home to a number of breweries. After a long day of tasting, says Pastuszak, refresh your palate with a beer at Two Goats Brewing (5027 State Route 414, Hector), a venue renowned for its “amazing patio view.” Back in Pastuszak’s adopted hometown, a visit to Ithaca Beer Co. (122 Ithaca Beer Drive), one of the region’s oldest and most iconic breweries, is in order.
Craft distilleries are also establishing roots in the region. Pastuszak recommends Finger Lakes Distilling (4676 State Route 414, Burdett), on the east side of Seneca Lake, for “terrific gin and whiskeys,” and Myer Farm Distillers (7350 State Route 89, Ovid), located on the west side of Cayuga Lake.
Additionally, you can check out the burgeoning cider scene at Eve’s Cidery (308 Beckhorn Hollow Road, Van Etten). While South Hill Cider doesn’t have a tasting room, Pastuszak recommends grabbing a pint at one of the local bars.
Where to Drink Wine
For a post–wine trail tipple after the tasting rooms close, Pastuszak suggests Microclimate wine bar (38 Linden Street, Geneva), Just a Taste tapas bar (116 North Aurora Street, Ithaca), and the neighboring Mercato Bar and Kitchen (108 North Aurora Street, Ithaca).
Visiting the Wineries
“What makes the Finger Lakes so special are the amazing soils, microclimates, and incredible aspects that give the vineyards their unique character,” says Pastuszak. “Shale, clay, limestone, and gravel are just a few of the millennia-old terroir components you’ll find.” Riesling and Cabernet Franc are emerging as the signature varieties, but don’t miss the sparkling wines and what Pastuszak calls some of America’s best rosé.
For a sampling of the region’s offerings, here’s a brief itinerary, featuring wineries around the region’s three top grape-growing lakes.
Seneca Lake—East Side
Pastuszak says Red Newt Cellars has been “one of the region’s top Riesling estates for nearly two decades, focusing on single-vineyard wines from Seneca Lake’s most compelling sites.” (3675 Tichenor Road, Hector)
Seneca Lake—West Side
One of the region’s seminal producers, Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, focuses on “sustainable farming,” says Pastuszak, and features “Rieslings from some of the area’s oldest vineyards and amazing sparkling wines that will make you think you’re in Champagne.” The winery also boasts a nursery that supplies vines to other producers, both in the Finger Lakes and California. (3962 Route 14, Dundee)
Keuka Lake—West Side
Pastuszak points out that another winery specializing in Riesling, Keuka Lake Vineyards, produces mineral-driven Rieslings that are sourced from some of the steepest vineyards in the region. (8882 County Route 76, Hammondsport)
Cayuga Lake—East Side
Pastuszak thinks of the owners of Heart & Hands Wine Co., Tom and Susan Higgins, as “Pinot Noir savants.” The couple takes a serious approach to matching clonal selections with the soil types and microclimates in their vineyards, says Pastuszak. They create wines that are “unmatched anywhere else in the area.” The wine company is also, he says, one of the “most serene, boutique settings” you’ll find in the Finger Lakes. (4162 State Route 90, Union Springs)
Cayuga Lake—West Side
Lying just north of Ithaca is Sheldrake Point Winery. “This beautiful vineyard site is hugged by forest land and overlooks Cayuga Lake,” says Pastuszak. He especially recommends its notable Rieslings, which he says run the gamut in style and showcase the versatility of the grape. (7448 County Road 153, Ovid)
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Shana Clarke is a wine, sake, and travel writer, and the author of 150 Vineyards You Need To Visit Before You Die. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Fortune, NPR, Wine Enthusiast, and Hemispheres. She was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer 2020 International Wine Writers’ Awards and ranked one of the “Top 20 U.S. Wine Writers That Wineries Can Work With” by Beverage Trade Network in 2021. She holds a Level 3 Advanced Certificate from Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Sake Sommelier. She will always say yes to a glass of Champagne. Learn more at www.shanaspeakswine.com and follow her @shanaspeakswine.