Finger Lakes Travel Guide
FLX Wienery & FLX Table
Our adventure starts in Dundee, at a nondescript ranch-style house with a marquee shaped like a wine bottle: FLX Wienery. Bates and his wife, Isabel Bogadtke, hadn’t planned on opening a hot dog joint. “But that’s just what the space wanted to be,” he tells me. “It had that roadside feel. Plus, the Finger Lakes doesn’t really do classy.”
To go with his housemade whole-hog sausages, he pours me some of the Element wines he makes with his father in an upcycled auto-body garage; the Syrah and Cabernet Franc are among the most exciting reds I’ll try on my trip. He also tells me more about his newest venture, a 12-seat tasting-menu restaurant in Geneva called FLX Table. The food is more ambitious than the Wienery’s—duck egg with black polenta, a dry-aged rib eye with mushrooms and chive blossoms, chicken thighs with charred carrots and dukka—but the ambiance is just as inviting. “We throw a lot of dinner parties at home, so we’re channeling that vibe,” Bates says.
Bellwether Wine Cellars
By the time Bates and I get to Bellwether, it is late afternoon and warm enough for us to take our tasting on the back patio. Winemaker Kris Matthewson pours us a Riesling that has exactly the fresh factor we need as we sit looking out over the European apple trees that his father-in-law planted for cider.
Matthewson harvests earlier than almost everyone else in the Finger Lakes, giving his wines crystalline acidity and a kind of laser-sharp focus. His model is Germany. “Any time a German winemaker is around me, I’m like a crazy person. I ask them a million technical questions,” he tells me.
As he looks to the future, Matthewson has his eye on nearby Keuka Lake, which he says has purer soils, steeper slopes and colder nights to get even more citrusy acidity. “It feels more like Germany’s Mosel Valley there,” he says, looking almost wistful.
Bloomer Creek Vineyard
Walking into Bloomer Creek's tasting room, I am struck by its calming energy and by how much owners Kim Engle and Debra Bermingham remind me of my parents’ artist friends back in rural Georgia. They have that “plucked directly from an Allman Brothers concert” look.
Because the couple farm organically, their wines have charmed most natural-wine geeks I know. But those aren’t the only people paying attention. “Last weekend we had 40 people stop in to taste,” Engle says. “A decade ago, we might have had three or four.” He seems amused by the fuss. So does Bermingham, who adds: “A photographer came one day while we were in the vineyard. He stayed two rows over the whole time, like we were wild gorillas that needed to get comfortable with him being there.”
With that image in mind, I try their 2013 Tanzen Dame Dry Riesling. It’s lively, floral and wild but makes me want to get even closer to the source rather than keep a safe distance.
As we drive up Seneca’s eastern shore, Bates briefs me on our itinerary for the town of Geneva. We’re headed to dinner at Cebo, the restaurant that chef Ben Dailey opened last year to meet the growing demand for his pop-up dinners. But Bates also wants to stop by Kashong Creek, a craft-cider bar, and Microclimate (below), a wine bar with inspired tasting flights from around the world. “Or there’s The Linden social club if you’re more in the mood for a great cocktail,” he says. Fortunately, all of these places are on the same block of Linden Street.
Cebo’s DIY feel reflects its supper-club origins. We tuck into housemade pickles and pâté, then crispy corn-fried celeriac and a pot roast that Dailey braises in local Pinot Noir. When we finally make our way next door to Microclimate for a nightcap, a five-piece jazz band has set up in the narrow space, including a guitarist well into his sixties and a twentysomething on the mandolin. Only in Geneva!
Heart & Hands Wine Company
The next morning, with Pinot Noir on my mind, I make the hour’s trek over to Cayuga Lake’s eastern shore. Tom Higgins, who co-owns Heart & Hands with his wife, Susan, explains why they set up in this off-the-beaten-path location: It’s the only strip of limestone in the entire Finger Lakes area. The mineral adds an incalculable quality to the vines. Plus, “this rock is what the curbstones on Wall Street are made from,” he adds.
Higgins produces great Rieslings, but as I taste his Pinot, it’s clear where his passion lies. “They’re like two children,” he tells me. “Riesling is the honors student—very easy to handle. Pinot Noir is like the rock star in training: It parties hard, keeps you up late and gives you a heart attack.” But being driven to distraction by this delinquent variety paid off; the 2012 Mo Chuisle (an Irish term of endearment) has unexpected spiciness and lithe, silky fruit.
Graft Wine + Cider Bar
That Watkins Glen, at Seneca Lake’s south tip, is classified as a village rather than a town attests to its picturesque littleness: It encompasses a small state park with waterfalls, a marina and two blocks of storefront. That’s where I find Graft and order an invigorating local cider from South Hill and a crunchy brussels sprout slaw tossed with Parmesan cheese and toasted walnuts. After days of sausages and pot roast, it is absurdly good.
In fact, Graft’s whole menu is an oasis of fresh produce, even the ricotta gnocchi, which is tossed with barely wilted dandelion greens. “Make sure you save room for pie,” a server advises, and if that doesn’t sound like an appropriate ending to an all-American wine trip, I don’t know what does.