A Very Finger Lakes Wine Tour — PART II

I still haven’t really settled on the “best” way to recap our Finger Lakes Vacation. But time is ticking, and I just want to get something out there to the blogosphere.


For me, the trip started on September 21, the day after my 25th birthday. At 11:13 am, I boarded a train here in Charlottesville, headed to NYC. I arrived at 5:46 pm, and settled in to Penn Station to wait until 7pm, when my next train was scheduled to depart. Unfortunately, it was running late, so I watched the minutes tick by until about 7:15, when it finally arrived. P was in New London, Connecticut for work (a football game against the Coast Guard Academy), so the plan was for him to pick up a rental car, grab me in New Haven, and we’d officially be on vacation!

One thing I realized during my research of Watkins Glen is that it’s not the easiest place to get to. There’s no airport and no train station, so we couldn’t easily just meet there. I figured that with the race track at Watkins Glen, it would be more accessible by means other than driving, but it’s not. So I settled for an all-day train ride and then 5 additional hours of driving. (To be clear, we chose this route because P was already in New Haven, not because it was the most direct or simplest way to get to the Finger Lakes from Virginia.)

P was at the New Haven train station, ready and waiting when I arrived. Since my train was about 20 minutes late leaving NYC, I didn’t arrive at 8:36 pm as planned — it was closer to 9 pm. So we hopped in the car and started the first leg of our journey. That first night, I had booked us a hotel room in Liberty, NY, about halfway between New Haven and Watkins Glen.

screenshot courtesy of Uncle Google

screenshot courtesy of Uncle Google

We made the trek from point A to point B on the map above, which was a 2.5-hour drive. I fell asleep toward the end, so I’m lucky that I had a driver who was so dedicated to our safe arrival! But we arrived at the hotel around 11:30pm and crashed into bed. (The bed, by the way, was king-sized and incredibly comfortable, as far as hotel beds go. I still think about the wonderful pillows.)


On the first official day of our vacation (Sunday, September 22), we started the morning with continental breakfast before checking out and getting back on the road. After all, we still had another 2.5-hour leg to drive!

Since it was still September and the weather had just barely started to cool off here in Virginia, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the leaves would have already started changing up north. But they had! We enjoyed the drive this day, as we got to experience all the fall foliage we had missed in the dark the night before. (We spent a good deal of the drive saying things like “look at that tree!,” “look at that river!,” “look at that mountain!”) It was interesting that the highway paralleled the Susquehanna River for nearly our entire drive.

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We didn’t have any real itinerary for most of our vacation, which is surprising for me — a compulsive, Type-A list-maker. Our goal was just to get to Seneca Lake, go wine tasting, and enjoy our time together. So when we started seeing signs for Tioga Downs Casino and P wanted to stop, I was initially paralyzed with that “we-didn’t-plan-for-this-OMG-what-do-we-do” feeling I’m prone to, but after several minutes of driving and several additional signs, he convinced me that we should stop and check it out. (Actually, he wanted to stop and gamble, the thought of which set off all the warning bells in my head that accompany the thought of doing something new for the first time.)

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In the end, I’m super glad we stopped, because it was a really funny experience. To start, we were the youngest people there (aside from employees) by a good 30 years. P convinced me that we should at least try the slot machines, so I nervously watched as he gave one a spin. We never really got the hang of that first machine, but then we moved on to a pair of machines called Joker Poker, which we both played! I preferred to keep my bets low ($1 a hand), but P got adventurous and started changing up his bets. When I decided I wanted to be braver with mine, he accidentally pushed the “Max Bet” button on my machine, which resulted in me losing all my money on one play. What a punk. But at least he felt bad about it for a few days! As for our total winnings, we spent $4 ($1 in a slot machine, plus $3 on Joker Poker) and walked away with $20. A $16 profit! At least it was enough to pay for lunch.

So we left Tioga Downs and continued our journey. We arrived in Watkins Glen just before 4 pm and decided to drive around a bit before hitting up our first wineries (see more on that in my previous post). It was pretty cloudy that first day, but the view of the lake was still pretty breathtaking – and everything I had hoped for.

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Castel Grisch was our first stop, although I can’t remember now how we wound up there. I don’t know if we had stopped somewhere and picked up a map, or if we used my GPS to locate it. (Actually, it must have been by GPS, because now I remember picking up the two maps that served us for the rest of the trip while we were there.) The wines were a huge surprise, as this was our first-ever experience with such a huge variety of sweet grapes. We were the only two people in the tasting room, and there were only about two tables of people in the attached restaurant, which led to me kicking off a trend that continued for the next three days: feeling pressured to buy a bottle if there were no other customers in sight. We exited to their porch to take the first of many photos of the impressive combination of vineyard + lake view that we’d continue to encounter:

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Since we wanted to maximize our time, we referenced our newly-acquired map and headed off to our next stop: Lakewood Vineyards. It was at about this point in the trip that we realized how incredibly densely packed the wineries are at the Finger Lakes. We’re used to having to drive a good 20-30 minutes just to get from one vineyard to the next here in Charlottesville, so we were shocked by the fact that you can drive 1,000 yards down State Route 14 up there and pass no less than 5 wineries. We started exchanging “this is awesome!” sentiments that still haven’t really faded.

At Lakewood, there was a very helpful wine pourer who took it upon himself to chat with us about where we were from and what kind of wines we like, and he circled several wineries on our map that he thought we would enjoy–across several of the lakes. Bonus cool-person points for him; I thought this was a really nice thing to do. He explained a lot to us about the different grape varietals they’re able to grow in that region, and he also told us a lot about other surrounding wineries. Another thing that stuck out as a major difference between Virginia wineries and those in the Finger Lakes is the complete lack of competition. Everywhere we went, they referenced each other and praised each other, and encouraged customers to “make sure to visit so-and-so and try their x, y, or z!” Very different than what we’re used to, and I really liked it.

Since we realized that our time was short (as most wineries close at 5 on Sundays), we hopped back into the car and consulted our new guide book and map. The guide book contained the operating hours and descriptions of the wineries, so we relied on it heavily for the duration of our trip. We arrived next at Magnus Ridge Winery, which offered artisan cheeses paired with each of their wines. There was one cheese that was infused with strawberry, and it was delicious!! I don’t remember really loving any of their wines, and I think that’s because they leaned more toward the dry side. The one thing I did love, though, was this amazing wine glass chandelier, and the shadows it cast on the walls:

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We left there and knew we had to move fast, because it was probably about 5:15 at this point. We hopped back in the car for what was likely less than a 2-minute drive before arriving at Rock Stream Vineyards, where we were once again the only people in the place. Here’s where I’ll sheepishly admit that the wine from the previous three tastings had already started to catch up to me, and my memory isn’t all that perfect. I don’t remember particularly loving any of their wines, either, but P coughed up an extra dollar to taste one of the vintner’s beers, so I felt less pressure to purchase a bottle.

Our last winery stop on Day 1 was at Glenora Wine Cellars, where we arrived no less than 5 minutes prior to their 6 pm closing time, after doubling back to Rock Stream because P was convinced that he had left his cell phone there. (We actually found it under his seat in the car.) Thankfully, there were a few other people still milling around, so they let us in for a tasting. I remember this as being one of the places where they handed you the full list of all their wines, and let you choose any 6. This was my favorite way to offer a tasting, as everyone gets to choose a completely unique list for him- or herself. Glenora had an amazing view of Seneca Lake from the west shore, and P and I both captured nearly identical photos:

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As we pulled out of their parking lot, I snapped a photo of their wine bottle tree, because it was so cheerful:

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At this point, all the wineries in the region had closed for the day, so it was finally time for us to check in to our Inn. We stayed at the Savannah House Inn in Himrod, and we were delighted with our choice. The Savannah House is close to a handful of wineries, and is situated basically halfway between Watkins Glen at the south end of Lake Seneca and Geneva at the north end. The Inn is owned by Pat and Brenda, who took great care to make sure that all of their guests were comfortable. Brenda led us to our room, the Mint Julep:

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Our room was cozy and warm, and proved to be the perfect place to return to each night of our stay. We even arrived on Sunday just in time to catch the tail end of the sunset on the eastern shore of the lake (yes, this was the view out of the window above!):

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Unsurprisingly, our jam-packed afternoon of wine tasting caught up to us, and we both crashed onto the bed for an unplanned evening nap. We woke up well past dinner time and decided to venture out for some food. Brenda had recommended a restaurant in nearby Penn Yan, the village at the northernmost tip of Keuka Lake — one lake over from Seneca. We hadn’t anticipated visiting more than one lake during our trip, so this was a neat surprise!

After dinner, we drove back to our room, where we tucked in for the night. Day 2 was just as jam-packed, so stay tuned for my next installment!


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