by Dave DeGolyer
Love wine? Enjoy making new discoveries and uncovering secrets so special you can’t wait to share them with your friends? Here’s a hint to get you started. The sun isn’t the only thing rising in the east.
You can follow the upward trajectory of the Finger Lakes region, which over the past decade has garnered more and more recognition as one of the top wine destinations in the world, in a small town of less than 700 people, nestled at the southern tip of one of the most stunning and unusual lakes in the country. While this seemingly overnight success has been nearly 160 years in the making, for so many people it’s still an entirely new discovery ― one full of incomparable history and exceptionally good wine. This is where it all began. A couple times.
Just over 4 hours east of Cleveland — nearly a straight shot east on I-90 and I-86 — you’ll find quiet, unassuming Hammondsport, NY (with a population of approximately 650), the sort of quaint small town that might have inspired Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper once upon a time with its charming town square that always seems to have something going on, and with its quaint shops and excellent restaurants. The residents have worked hard to keep out box stores and chains in an effort to maintain the town’s character and traditions.
Voted “Coolest Small Town in America” by readers of Budget Travel Magazine and named one of the 25 Best Small Lake Towns in America by Country Living in 2017, Hammondsport’s charm and idyllic location on the lake are only two of the reasons this small town resonates with the people who have visited, and why they return year after year after year. And while Keuka Lake’s warm, clear water has been a draw for outdoor enthusiasts and leisure travelers since the mid-1800s, it is really the world-class wine that has etched the small town’s name into the minds of wine connoisseurs as well as casual wine lovers from around the globe.
After all, Hammondsport is where the first seeds of Finger Lakes wine were planted. It was also here that winemaking in the northeastern United States forever changed. And it is here, right now, where you can experience some of the best wine being made.
As with many historic wine stories, it started with the planting of grapes for sacramental wines. Yet, as is also often the case, while that sacramental wine production may have tapered off over time, wine production for public enjoyment boomed. Lucky for us, it did!
In 1860, Pleasant Valley Wine Company was founded in the valley just outside town, making it the oldest winery in the region. Chances are you’ve heard of Reims, the French city in the Champagne region of France. But were you aware that back in 1867, Pleasant Valley Wine Company garnered an “honorable mention” at the Exposition Universelle in Paris,,, becoming the first American winery to ever win an award in Europe for sparkling wine? A few years later, a wine connoisseur dubbed the winery’s champagne “the Great Champagne of the Western World” and a few years after that, Pleasant Valley’s champagne won first place in Vienna. That’s why it became known as Great Western Champagne and why they can, to this day, still call it by its rightful name.
At one point, Pleasant Valley was known as the Reims of America and in 1870, when a post office opened (at the winery no less), it used the postmark Rheims, NY.
Pleasant Valley Wine Company was also the first bonded winery in the country. Today, visitors can enjoy special seasonal tours and explore eight buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places to catch a glimpse of a bygone era. You may want to taste Great Western Champagne, as well as the delicious ports and sherries still being made at the winery, wines you won’t find at most Finger Lakes wineries. Other wineries had an impact on the history of the region, such as Taylor Wine Company and Gold Seal (neither of which are still around today), and you can learn about their history at places like the Glenn Curtiss Museum and the Greyton Taylor Wine Museum at Bully Hill Vineyards.
Of course, if you’re a wine aficionado, you’re not just coming for the history. You’re coming to taste exceptional wines, which means you’ll need to visit Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, where you’ll get to enjoy both.
In the northeastern part of the country, early winemakers had to accept the fact that those fine European-style wines considered the best in the world couldn’t be made here because the vinifera grapes wouldn’t grow. Some of the smartest people in the country (such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin) tried and failed. And they failed. And they failed. And the belief was that it’s just too cold here to grow the delicate vinifera grapes. So they went on making wines with what they could grow. That’s part of the reason, for a long time, east coast wines were mostly sweet, relying on native grapes like Catawba, Niagara, and Concord.
But in the late 1950s, an immigrant from the Ukraine made his way to the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. The man, Dr. Konstantin Frank, who spoke nine languages (just not English) knew that the cold wasn’t the problem. He’d been making exceptional wines in similar conditions for years and growing grapes in the cold was his specialty. Trouble was, after failing for so long, winemakers here had given up believing it was possible. And they thought they knew why. So they discounted Dr. Frank’s claims again and again. Good thing he wasn’t the sort to accept “no” for an answer. Not when he knew better.
As often happens with innovators and people who change the world, they only need one person to give them a chance. To listen. Dr. Frank found that person in Charles Fournier, a French Champagne maker and president of Gold Seal Vineyards. They communicated in French, and Fournier thought Dr. Frank was onto something, so he gave him a job.
Shortly after that, Dr. Frank started growing grapes in his own vineyards and started making European-style wines. He knew that while the cold winters certainly impact which types of vinifera grapes could grow best (like Rieslings), the root of the problem all those years was in fact the root of the vines which were susceptible to a pest in the soil. He also knew how to graft those delicate vinfera vines onto native rootstock. The rest is, quite literally, history. Thanks to methods pioneered by Dr. Frank, the elegant wines we know and love today were finally able to be grown in the northeastern United States.
But a visit to Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars isn’t just about the founder’s role as a scientist and a pioneer. Dr. Frank’s has been New York State’s most award-winning winery since 1962. And while it could certainly rest on those laurels, it continues to find new and exciting ways to make a wine experience more remarkable. That’s why Meaghan Frank, Dr. Frank’s great-granddaughter and the fourth generation of her family at the winery, started the first sit-down food and wine pairings in the region. These exquisite 1886 Reserve Room tastings combine history, education, tours and exquisite pairings.
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in recent years, however, is the appearance and success of several young winemakers opening boutique wineries that are small enough to fly under the radar, yet they keep turning heads for their exceptional wines. Domaine LeSeurre, which is owned and operated by French winemakers Sébastien and Céline LeSeurre, specializes in dry, food-friendly, French-style wines. They strive to showcase the fascinating elements of Finger Lakes terroir (those distinct flavor characters influenced by the various minerals in the local soil) in every bottle. It’s a very labor-intensive approach, but also a much more intimate and personal one. And right next door you’ll find the newest winery on Keuka Lake, Weis Vineyards, owned by German winemaker Hans Peter Weis and his new bride Ashlee. Though Weis Vineyards released its first vintages in May 2017, they have since won double-gold (as well as multiple other medals) at the 2017 New York Wine & Food Classic Competition and at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
If you prefer a little VIP treatment and a wine experience most people won’t get, you’ll want to consider the new Keuka Lake tour offered by Experience! The Finger Lakes — Trip Advisor’s #1 Finger Lakes wine tour and recent addition to Trip Advisor’s Hall of Fame. Called “The OG to the Progeny of Keuka Lake,” the tour explores the unique history of the Finger Lakes wine region by taking guests on exclusive tasting experiences at Dr. Frank’s, Heron Hill Winery (which has been eco-friendly since its inception and boasts what has been called “one of the most beautiful tasting rooms in the world”), as well as those two young, fresh, boutique wineries Weis Vineyards and Domaine LeSeurre.
With such an up-and-coming wine region right next door, we wouldn’t blame you if you kept this secret to yourself, but we suggest grabbing a few close friends and making a weekend of it. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself calling Hammondsport your new go-to destination for exceptional wine.
Photo by Stu Gallagher.