The Amazing Transformation Of New York’s Finger Lakes
“This is why we are here”, says Susan Higgins, standing amid yellow wildflowers and pinot noir vines on a ridge overlooking Cayuga Lake. In the shade of a maple tree, she’s showing me the hunks of limestone she and her husband, Tom, pulled from the ground. A huge vein of the stuff, deposited here roughly 400 million years ago, balances the pH of the soil—and makes it possible to coax quality fruit from their three-and-a-half acres despite Upstate New York’s reputation for brutal winters and a short growing season. The Higginses, whose Heart & Hands Wine Company released its first vintage in 2006 and who are now some of the region’s most lauded winemakers, were onto something.
There’s a special alchemy to this place, where rolling hills frame glacial lakes, clear streams carve deep gorges through the shale, and plucky, self-reliant entrepreneurs are turning what was a Rust Belt backwater into one of the country’s most appealing summertime destinations. At a time when everyone seems to have their own short list of restaurants in Mexico City and their favorite hotel in Tokyo, the hidden-in-plain-sight Finger Lakes remain largely undiscovered, a 14-county sweep of forests and farmland, four to five hours northwest of New York City by car.
The 11 long, skinny lakes, formed by advancing glaciers 2 million years ago, don’t just inspire the name but dictate the slow, rural pace of life. There are no bridges or ferries crossing the lakes, so you always seem to be driving the long way around. Not that you’ll mind: When I first started coming here, as a college student, my buddies and I would set out from Rochester with a cooler of cheese and charcuterie, and buy a few bottles of wine at whatever vineyard had a picnic table set out. Back in those pre-Sideways, pre-social-media days, tasting rooms were little more than a corner of a bam where someone had slapped a piece of lumber over two old barriques, and you could get a flight of pours for a dollar or two, or maybe for nothing at all if you promised to tell your friends to visit.
In the 15 or so years since, the fresh-from-the-farm vibe has remained largely the same, but the wine has vastly improved. “The region is more exciting than it’s ever been,” says Thomas Pastuszak, the wine director at the No Mad Hotel in New York City, who started making his own label, Empire Estate, in the region in 2014, collaborating with Kelby Russell, a winemaker at Red Newt Cellars. “There’s a push in quality that the region’s never really seen before,” Pastuszak adds. You find it at Bloomer Creek Vineyard, where husband-and-wife team Kim Engle and Debra Bermingham pour electric single-vineyard whites and Bordeaux-inspired reds in a tiny tasting room you’d drive right past if you didn’t know to look for it. At Boundary Breaks, a small-batch producer run by Bruce Murray, who used to host tastings in his own kitchen, they’ve just built a new space overlooking Seneca Lake, where you can geek out on clone-specific rieslings. And at Shaw Vineyard, where the wood-beamed tasting room is still as lo-fi as they come, owner Steve Shaw is making outre orange wines and seriously good cabernet sauvignon.
Yet as far as the wines have come, the true appeal of the Finger Lakes is that its small towns retain their white-picket-fence “Norman Rockwell-painting” feel, as bartender and manager Matt Stevenson puts it over lunch at Fargo Bar & Grill, the wood-paneled pub not far from Heart & Hands in the tiny town of Aurora, on Cayuga Lake. The ethos of the village owes largely to Pleasant Rowland, who graduated from Wells College, the 6oo-student school here, and went on to sell her American Girl empire to Mattel for a reported $700 million. She’s since spent a healthy chunk of that to convert several historic buildings into the Inns of Aurora, a network of guesthouses.
(My favorite is Rowland House, which feels more like the lakeside retreat of a lovable eccentric great-aunt than a stilted B&B.) Skaneateles, a tidy lakeside village with a gazebo bandstand at waterfront Clift Park is another holdover from the LeaveItto Beaver era: Pontoon boats and Chris-Craft bowriders tie up at the municipal dock the soft-serve machines at Doug’s Fish Fry whir afternoon; and local institutions like Sherwood Inn serve (thankfully) updated versions of country-club cuisine—shrimp cocktail, Yankee pot roast, big Bloody Marys—to locals dressed head to toe in Syracuse University gear. It’s the sort of place where you’ll find a dinghy regatta underway, though most people won’t care much who wins, as long as the race is over in time for Gibsons at The Krebs, an ambitiously formal restaurant that’s been here, in one location or another, since 1899.
For all the nostalgia, though, the Finger Lakes are today at an inflection point that felt almost unimaginable back when my friends and I were in college, renting ramshackle share cottages on the waterfront. We’d spend the mornings hiking through the region’s state parks, like Watkins Glen (with its 19 waterfalls) or Taughannock Falls (with its impressive Gorge Trail), before an afternoon of swigging riesling and fishing, at dusk, from a beat-up aluminum Jon boat. “It’s always been a good place for outdoor activities, for camping, for summering,” says Pastuszak, “but it was less accessible before-people didn’t know what to look for. Social media has helped a lot.” That’s enabled not just winemakers but chefs, distillers, innkeepers, craftspeople, and designers to connect with bigger markets—and lure more tourists than ever to places like Geneva, a small town at the north end of Seneca Lake, where, Pastuszak says, “Linden Street has blown up and become this little restaurant alley.” It’s now getting a national profile thanks in large part to FLX Table, an innovative, almost-experimental restaurant that opened in 2016.
One warm summer evening last September, Christopher Bates was there in his open kitchen, wearing his chef’s whites and a topknot, prepping a one-night-only tasting menu of dishes like an “uber-BLT” (a deconstructed version made with local tomatoes, corn, and lamb bacon) and “lots of duck,” which is exactly what it sounds like. His wife, Isabel Bogadtke, in a gingham floral-print shirt, was handling the wines, which are drawn from a wildly deep cellar and served by the ounce with a Coravin that makes possible pairings like one I had, a 1981 Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses with a course of potato raclette. But as good as the food is, the most remarkable thing about FLX Table is its vibe: on trend without being trendy, interesting without being overdone, ambitious without being pretentious.
There are just 12 seats, all of them around a farmhouse table, so I ended up sharing the meal with a group of staffers gearing up for the school year at Geneva’s Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and a couple from nearby Hornell, New York, out on what, thanks to the seating arrangements, must’ve started as one of their more peculiar dates. But when the first pours of riesling arrived, and the crudites—a riot of local peppers, squash, beans, and berries—hit the table, we all fell into easy conversation. It’s supposed to feel like a dinner party, Bogadtke says. “That’s why we have these mismatched chairs. When you go to someone’s place, they’ve always got an odd chair.” It was the sort of night you could only have here, where nothing much changes and yet things are getting better all the time.