Kim from the Corning Museum of Glass and formally from the Finger Lakes Tourism board has been trying to get me to come to the Finger Lakes for years. To be honest I resisted. I went to college in upstate New York so I had been to the area once a long time ago. Let’s be honest that as a California resident I was also dubious when people talked about it as a wine region.
I might as well say it now. Corning and the Finger Lakes surprised and delighted me. I found one of the best museums in the U.S., a state park as beautiful as many national parks, some great restaurants, and surprisingly good wine.
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Corning Museum of Glass
Our favorite stop on our trip to the Finger Lakes was the Corning Museum of Glass. We spent a day there and ran out of energy before we ran out of things to see and do. We saw glass art, learned about the history of glass, saw glass blowing, and took a 2-hour class where we made our own glass. There was so much to do there that I covered it in its own blog post: Visiting The Corning Museum of Glass.
Our first stop was the Rockwell Museum, formally the Rockwell Museum of Western Art. The museum has a wonderful collection of Western art that they are expanding into other American art.
The Rockwell recently became affiliated with the Smithsonian museum and is planning exhibits that will feature some of the Smithsonian collection. Members of the various affiliate museums can visit other affiliated museums for free. You can also get a joint ticket for the Rockwell Museum and the Corning Museum of Glass and a free shuttle will take you from one to the other.
My favorite part of the Rockwell was the permanent exhibit on the top floor. There you can see works from N. C. Wyeth, Charles Russel, Frederic Remington as well as landscapes from the Hudson River School. It also included a number of artists I was less familiar with like Charles Schreyvogel whose “Dead Sure Charles” looks like it came off the cover of a dime novel… which it did. Touring the entire museum can be done in about an hour.
We used Corning New York as our home base for a four-day trip in the finger Lakes. We stayed at the Radisson Hotel which is located right at the end of Corning’s beautiful little downtown. The tourism board had wanted to put us up in the more expensive Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel at the south end of Seneca Lake (we peeked in and it was lovely) but we liked the Raddison and Corning as a home base. It is within walking distance of the two museums as well as the great restaurants in Corning’s downtown.
With the draw to Corning of business travelers and tourists visiting the Corning Glass Museum, the downtown boasts a surprising number of good restaurants (more details later) for its size. The downtown has mostly boutique and antique shops and restaurants and some classically beautiful buildings. One of the nicest buildings was the Rockwell Museum which is in the 1893 former city hall.
Watkins Glen State Park
A quick glance at a map of central New York and the finger Lakes will show you the power of moving water. The finger lakes were carved by glaciers coming down from the north leaving bluffs along the sides. Watkins Glen is a gorge cut into one of these bluffs. I fell in love with the park even before we left the parking lot. The area is composed of slate walls into which a river has cut waterfalls, pools, and channels. Adding to this beauty are the man-made tunnels and bridges that allow you to climb up the narrow gorge and even behind a waterfall.
Don’t be tempted to swim as signs declared the gorge deadly. Were visited in May and not all of the trail was open yet. Each year they have to go through and clear up sections of the walls that collapse or are in danger of collapsing. From the pictures that I have seen it is even more beautiful in the Summer and Autumn.
Watkins Glen International
I will admit that when the tourism board put the activity of driving “The Glen” race track on my schedule I was underwhelmed. I am not a racing fan, so not a NASCAR fan. You have to drive behind the pace car and stay under 55 MPH. How exciting could it be? It was actually pretty fun. Unlike the rest of the tracks on the Nascar circuit, Watkins Glen is an old Grand Prix track. This is not a simple oval. The track is not even level. Even the professional drivers only average 90 MPH on the track. Driving it in a rental car was a bit more of a challenge for our friend Mark who was at the wheel (even more so because he broke his wrist a few days before our trip). We made 3 laps of the track with a pause after the 2nd lap to take pictures at the finish line. The price to drive is $25 a car.
Finger Lakes Wineries
When am at home in California, no one would confuse me with a wine snob, but sometimes I seem like one when I visit other regions. There is no question that living near Napa and Sonoma for over 30 years has raised my standards for wine. A lot of regions in the United States grow wine these days, but from some of the wineries I have visited, maybe fewer should.
As I mentioned, I needed some convincing to visit the Finger Lakes wine region in New York. I could believe that the area was good for growing cold-weather wines like Rieslings but had some doubts that they would have some of the more complex white wines I like and to be honest, I had lower expectations for the red wines.
I was wrong. New York state wine-growing has come a long way in the 3 decades since my first encounter with it. Probably more interesting is that they have found varieties of grapes better suited for the cold weather. We visited 4 wineries.
Ravines Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake
The first winery that we visited was the Ravines Wine Cellars which has a nice view of Keuka Lake just up the east side of the lake from Hammondsport. The winery is one of 8 on the Keuka Lake Wine Trail. The 8 vineyards share a Keuka Lake Wine Trail Passport that allows you to have a tasting at all of the wineries for $12 total (better space that out a bit or get a designated driver). A tasting at Ravines costs $3. I declared my biases early. I told them that I am not a fan of the Riesling (the dominant wine in the region) and that I was dubious about a good red wine coming from the area.
But… not only did I enjoy all the Rieslings I tasted in the region, starting with those at Ravines, but they also won me over to at least some of their reds with a red wine called MMX from 2010 which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. (My tastes run towards Merlot, Syrah, and Malbec just so you can judge better whether you should trust my judgment).
With our love for red wines, the server at Ravines recommended we check out their neighbor McGregor Vineyard and their famous “Black Russian Red”. Winery founder Bob McGregor was searching for red wine grapes that could both survive the cold winters of the Finger Lakes and were worth drinking. He was given some grapevines (Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni) originally imported from Leningrad by Dr. Konstantin Frank (more on him later) in the late 1950s. The Black Russian Red is a blend of those two grapes and was our favorite. We also liked the Rob Roy Red and bought a bottle to give to our friend and traveling companion Alicia for her birthday the next day. The Rob Roy Red is a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Franc (60%), Cabernet Sauvignon (20%) & Merlot (20%). We also liked the 2013 Chardonnay and 2014 Pinot Noir Rosé but were less taken with the 2012 Dry Gewürztraminer Reserve
McGregor had the nicest tasting experience. We sat at a table and were presented with some small appetizers to accompany the tasting. The tasting was $5 per person which is still cheap compared to the $15-20 that I expect to pay these days in Napa. Also for your $5 you get to keep your glass. They had some mustards and jams to taste as well and I bought a jar of a jalapeño jam and of a hot onion honey mustard.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellar
No other single individual may have done more to change the Finger Lakes area from a region that produced cheap jug wines to one that produces wines worth talking about than Dr. Konstantin Frank. He imported a number of lesser-known grape varieties from Europe that could grow in the Finger Lakes. Our third stop was to the winery owned by his family. Dr. Frank is on the west side of Keuka Lake, north of Hammondsport.
Their tasting room (free) has a dizzying array of choices but the ones that most intrigued me were the varieties I had never heard of from places like the Republic of Georgia (Rkatsiteli) or Moravia (Lemberger). They also boast the second oldest Pinot Noir vines in the country. I bought a bottle of Lemberger wine to take home. My wife Joan was more found of the 2013 Saperavi or 2013 Cabinet Sauvignon. She likes her wines like she likes her men, deep and complicated.
Heron Hill Winery
Our final stop was the beautiful Heron Hill Winery (Heron Hill Winery was chosen as one of the ten most spectacular tasting rooms in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine). In addition to the usual Rieslings (I liked them all), we tried some of their reds and also their ice wine. If you are not familiar with ice wine, it is a sweet dessert wine that can only be produced in a cold climate. You have to wait until the grapes freeze solid for a few days then pick them while still frozen (without gloves) and crush the grapes before they thaw.
Also, check out The Best Finger Lakes Wineries in Finger Lakes Wine Country
We tried two different places in town for breakfast. Poppleton’s Bakery Cafe is the best place we found downtown. They offer baked goods, Egg and cheese with bacon and blueberries, and a variety of crepes. One morning we drove over to nearby Painted Post to have breakfast at Jelly Beans which was recommended to us by Christa who taught us to blow glass at the Corning Museum.
For dinner, there are a number of great options. Fiesta Brava on Market Street offers a simple but good Mexican meal.
The meal at the Cellar was a bit more of a production. Our friend Mark declared the chicken and waffles with Sriracha (hot sauce) and maple syrup the best fried chicken he had ever eaten. Alicia was a bit less taken with the Tajine (organic chickpeas, organic mixed vegetables, saffron rice). I had the House-Made Local Pastured Pork Sausage which was wonderful. Joan also liked the Sweet Pea Ravioli (cashew ricotta, asparagus, peas, basil pesto, red pepper, pine nuts). I also had the house salad of mixed greens (with caramelized walnuts, tart cherries & balsamic vinaigrette) which was very good. The Cellar has an extensive wine list and a wine list app to help you with your choice of wine.
We each only ordered a half order for our main course. The half order of the ravioli was a bit small but the others were just the right size. You will want to leave room for dessert. Our desserts included molten lava cake with salted caramel ice cream, tiramisu, and pot de cream. But the most memorable dessert was the make your own S’more that Joan got. It had homemade graham crackers and marshmallows made next door at Poppleton’s. It also came with its own flame to have a little campfire at the table. The Cellar is a restaurant for lingering and roasting your own marshmallows was just about the perfect ending.
Hand and Foot
The Hand and Foot is a lively and loud restaurant/bar. Most of the patrons eat at one long high table that runs the length of the restaurant. Owner’s Dan and Laurie McDowell are running the kind of place that locals love. It is a hang out of the Corning Museum glassblowers according to Christa who told us to try the %*@! me pretzel (yes that is what it says on the menu) with baked pretzel bread + Jarlsberg swiss + alpine fondue + bacon crumble. It’s a good choice! I loved the simplicity of the menu. It has two columns for food: sandwich and not a sandwich.
I had the beer brisket sandwich which also came with alpine fondue and was amazing. They make a kale slaw that got kale-skeptic Alicia coming back for a 3rd serving and a Tuna poke that got Joan to break her “no raw fish of any kind rule”. We tried the Korean rice cakes also, but they were a tad chewy for me. Mark also enjoyed the fried buttermilk chicken sandwich.
But the most memorable part of the evening may have been a dessert wine from Uruguay called Alcyone. It is quite sweet and tastes more as if it came from raisins or chocolate than from wine grapes.
Restaurants in the Finger Lakes
Dinner the last night was at Veraisons Restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee. Veraisons is the kind of restaurant that is good for a celebration. You really should enjoy it with a bottle of your favorite Finger Lakes wine. We ate with a view out on the back lawn, the vines, and Seneca Lake. Glenora Wine Cellars also has an Inn in case you take all of their suggested wine pairings advice.
Both the Local Cheese Sampler (First Light – Chevre, Ithaca Milk – Bleu Jersey, Chaseholm Farm – Camembert, Sunset View Creamery – Cheddar) and the Vegan Cheese Sampler made me glad I am not a vegan. Next time I am in the area I need to check where they make these wonderful cheeses.
We tried a variety of small plates on the menu. My favorite by far was the Hawaiian Pork but the Empanadas were also great. Joan also enjoyed the fish tacos but I was a little disappointed with the untraditional potstickers (duck, rabbit, tamarind dipping sauce, cherry compote). They also had more traditional entrees. Mark enjoyed the chicken dinner.
It took me over 30 years to get back to the Finger Lakes after my mishap there in the 1980s, so I was a little surprised that as I wrote this article I wrote about my next trip there without irony. The Finger Lakes surprised me. It is an area that is a bit out of the way, but worth the trip. We enjoyed the glass making, the art, and yes the wine.
Listen to the episode of the podcast I did on the Finger Lakes:
- More of my pictures of the Finger Lakes
As mentioned above, much of my part of the trip was largely sponsored by (paid for) the Finger Lakes Tourism Board and the Corning Museum of Glass. My thanks to them for talking me into coming.