For more than 5,000 years, wine has served as a trusted companion of relaxation.
This social lubricant – when consumed responsibly – is not just an E-Z Pass to insta-zen, but could be a boon for our physical health too. Copious studies show that moderate wine drinkers have lower mortality rates, lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cataracts, colon cancer and, perhaps counter-intuitively, mental decline. Science!
In New York, the wine industry has substantially enriched the state’s economy. New York is the third-largest grower of grapes in the country (behind California and Washington). The grape, grape juice and wine industry generates more than $4.8 billion in economic activity every year here.
Photo Credit: New York Wine Events
And with 1,631 family vineyards, more than 400 wineries and $408 million in state and local taxes generated according to the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, there are more opportunities than ever for residents and visitors alike to raise a glass to the Empire State’s grapes.
Making wine has been an important part of the state’s identity since its birth. The state has 6 official American Viticultural Area growing regions, but three reign supreme in the history books, on wine lists and in the most well-stocked wine fridges: the Hudson River Region AVA in Eastern New York, the Finger Lakes AVA in the West-Central region and the Long Island AVA located on the coast. Each region has its own particular terroir (the word comes from the French word terre, or land), which is commonly understood as the culminating effect of factors like climate, soil, elevation and distance from water on the flavor of agricultural products, especially wine, coffee and chocolate.
THE HUDSON VALLEY REGION
Wine production in New York and arguably, America, began in earnest in the Hudson Valley. After fleeing religious persecution in Europe, settlers, most notably French Huguenots, were ready for a drink. They began planting vineyards, one of which is still used today. The region is also home to the country’s oldest continuously operating vineyard.
French Huguenots first planted grapes on the slopes of what is now part of Benmarl Winery (156 Highland Ave., Marlboro) in 1677, and today wine lovers flock to the site for the history and the experimental, complex European and French-American hybrid varietals that blossom in its storied terrain. Benmarl was also the recipient of the first New York State Farm Winery License, a 1976 act that finally allowed grape farmers to sell wines on their property.
Baco Noir grapes blooming. Photo Credit: Benmarl Winery
Brotherhood Winery (100 Brotherhood Plaza Drive, Washingtonville) is America’s oldest continuously operating winery, even managing to keep the doors open during Prohibition by slipping through the ol’ sacramental wine loophole. The winery is beloved for its clear connection to the past, harboring a quaint village of nineteenth-century buildings on the grounds and one of the biggest hand-excavated underground cellars in America.
Photo Credit: Brotherhood Winery
Millbrook Vineyards & Winery (26 Wing Road, Millbrook), which opened its doors in 1984, is a must-visit for wine nerds (Wine Enthusiast is a big fan) and its aggressive, fearless focus on classic vinifera varieties.
The Hudson Valley wine scene is wildly diverse and unafraid of fun. Wineries on the Dutchess Wine Trail, the Hudson-Berkshire Beverage Trail, the Shawangunk Wine Trail and the Upper Hudson Wine Trail all feature events on an almost weekly basis that run the gamut from backwoods BBQ-style hangouts to rarefied vertical tastings.
The European climate is more temperate than the scorching summers and frigid winters of the Hudson Valley, so for centuries, most of the world’s most popular vitis vinifera varieties withered on the vines. The grapes that do grow well in the extreme weather tend to produce less Robert Parker-approved tasting notes, and hail from French hybrid varietals no one’s ever heard of but sound vaguely dodgy (glass of Elvira anyone?) Thanks to the pioneering work of scientists at Cornell University and the bold experimental plantings winemakers agreed to, the Hudson Region – for the first time in four centuries – is harvesting some beautiful European grapes, most notably Cabernet Franc. The fabulous harvest isn’t going unnoticed. Hudson Valley Wines are finally landing on coveted New York City wine lists, love from critics and accolades from international wine competitions.
THE FINGER LAKES REGION
Reverend William Warner Bostwick likely never envisioned an entire industry would be spawned when he planted vitis labrusca shoots in his rectory garden in Hammondsport one day in 1829. But thanks to Bostwick’s experiments, by 1862, the first bonded winery was created when the Hammondsport and Pleasant Valley Wine Companies were founded.
Like other New York regions as the time, the more successful grape plantings were not of the European variety. The sparkling wines they produced became world-famous, earning recognition across the pond as early as 1867, and spawning large-scale commercial plantings and a nascent wine tourism industry.
The region foundered, though, after Prohibition, and until Dr. Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from Ukraine, began doing experimental plantings of the more lauded European vinifera varieties, the industry appeared to be on the decline. Frank dug in at Cornell University’s Geneva Experiment Station and using his experience planting vinifera varietals that managed to thrive in the similarly fierce climate of Ukraine, he devised a way to graft vinifera stocks with cold-hardy American natives and successfully produce the clamored-for European varietals the region is known for today.
Go where wine in the Finger Lakes began in earnest. Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars (9749 Middle Road, Hammondsport) remains one of the most celebrated in the region, with crowds to match.
Photo Credit: Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars
Hermann J. Wiemer (3962 Route 14, Dundee) invites you into its tasting room to experience the award-winning results of grafting Mosel Rieslings onto American rootstock. Hermann, born to a family with 300 years of winemaking experience in Germany’s Mosel Valley, emigrated to the Finger Lakes in the 1960’s and believed it was possible to produce great wines from vinifera varietals there, which many doubted. His first Riesling and Chardonnay vintages were awarded Gold in New York wine competitions. Under the dedicated leadership of Fred Merwath (Hermann’s apprentice for many years) and Oskar Bynke since 2007, when Hermann officially retired, the winery has flourished and is considered one of the nation’s best white wine producers. Its reds are excellent as well.
Photo Credit: Silda Wall Spitzer, New York Makers’ Publisher
Ravines Wine Cellars (14630 Route 54, Hammondsport) is dedicated to crafting old world style wines using new world innovations. Located on a 17-acre parcel on a glacier-carved hillside with views of the lake, it’s as delightful to just sit and breathe in the tasting room as it is to sip its stupendous wines. And stupendous they are: Ravines was recently named one of the world’s top 100 wineries by Wine Spectator.
Photo Credit: Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery
With more than 100 wineries to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start, but there is truly nary a bad one in the Finger Lakes bunch. The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is the country’s first and longest-running wine trail, with plenty of tours, events and pointers to set experienced and newbie oenophiles on their way. The Keuka Lake Wine Trail has some of New York’s most historic sites, Seneca Lake Wine Trail is the largest in New York (with breweries, cideries and distilleries on its path too) and the smaller Canandaigua Wine Trail makes it perfect for day-trippers.
Photo Credit: Keuka Wine Trail
(Very) Honorable Mentions
Domaine Leseuerre Winery (13920 Route 54, Hammondsport)
Kemmeter Wines (1030 Larzelere Road, Penn Yan)
Red Tail Ridge Winery (846 Route 14, Penn Yan)
Shaw Vineyard (3901 Route 14, Himrod)
Shalestone Vineyards (9681 Route 414 Lodi)
The Finger Lakes region contains 11 glacial lakes within its territory, four of which possess particularly auspicious growing conditions for grapes: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga. The latter two are so unique, they are recognized as separate viticultural areas within the region. The Finger Lakes vineyards encompass about 11,000 acres of vineyards, making it the largest wine-producing region in the state. The dramatic terrain features steep slopes and is analogous to German wine regions perched along the Rhine River. The combination of the slopes (providing great drainage), the ancient glacial soil (imparting flavor) and the moderating influence of the lakes (releasing stores heat in the winter, cooling in the summer), creates conditions ideal for Rieslings, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Ice Wines.
THE LONG ISLAND REGION
The Long Island AVA is the newest kid on the block, but shouldn’t be underestimated. Established in 2001, it spans Nassau and Suffolk counties. The first vineyard was established in 1973, but it’s hard to see what took so long. The terroir is ideal and the setting couldn’t be better.
Jamesport Vineyards (1216 Main Road, Jamesport) is one of North Fork’s oldest and most charming, housed in an ancient barn and featuring a menu of beach-friendly favorites (wood-fired pizza, lobster rolls) and live music, Jamesport is a destination in and of itself.
Merlot, Chardonnay and East Rosé. Photo Credit: Jamesport Vineyards
Wolffer Estate Vineyard (139 Sagg Road, Sagaponack), is more than the sum of its parts. Located on 175 acres, Wolffer churns out not only some of the most lauded vintages in the region, but also delightful meals, sunset views on the beach (bring beach chairs) and horse stables (boarding and training are available, if you are so inclined).
Photo from Instagram provided by @maceyhall
Rosé Drive-Thru. Photo Credit: Wolffer Estate Vineyard
Long Island is probably the easiest wine region in the state to access, with abundant bus, train, plane, taxi and Uber service. The Long Island Wine Council is a resource for all things even vaguely wine related in the region, so check in for the best event and travel info (and links to galleries, farms and boutiques to visit while you’re there).
The maritime climate, with long, warm summers tempered by ocean breezes and mellower winters, along with the unique glacial soils created by the retreat of the Wisconsin-age glaciers 10,000 years ago, create ideal growing conditions for Viognier, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and other varieties.
Thirsty for more? Kathleen Willcox and Tessa Edick co-wrote Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste and Terroir (Arcadia Publishing), available July 10th.
Our New York makers’ products that pair perfectly with any glass:
FINGER LAKES-MADE MUSCADINE CANDLE
New York Maker: Trim Candles
$35 (includes shipping). Click here to purchase.
CATSKILLS-MADE BICYCLE WINE CARRIER IN BROWN LEATHER
New York Maker: Jay Teske Leather Co.
$70.50 (includes shipping). Click here to purchase.
CAPITAL REGION-MADE FINGER LAKES TOPOGRAPHIC PILLOW
New York Maker: Greentree Fiber Arts
$50 or $60 depending on size (includes shipping). Click here to purchase.
HUDSON VALLEY-MADE HANDBLOWN WINE GLASSES
New York Makers: Tom Stoenner Glass
$94 (includes shipping). Click here to purchase.