Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tooling around the Finger Lakes Region

October 16-18
Geneva and Watkins Glen, New York
Harvest Hosts overnight stays

I had visited the Finger Lakes Region of New York many years ago in my early twenties and it always stood out as a breath of fresh air for what I pictured New York to be like. (At the time, I had been living in Montana.)  When we studied the map for our route to Niagara, I noticed that the Finger Lakes area was close enough to include in the itinerary. I had also recently learned that this area is becoming well-known for it numerous wineries along the lake—making it an even more attractive destination.  Before agreeing to go a little further east in our travels, we made sure the weather looked decent.  The forecast was for daytime highs in the 60s or low 70s with nighttime lows in the 40s—but sunny. We were also happy to be traveling close to peak color time for the autumn show, so off we went.


After spending mucho money in Niagara Falls on our Jeep repairs, a campground, and tours, we were excited to find at good potential overnight sites at Harvest Hosts wineries. If you look at a map of this area, most of the wineries, orchards, and farms you can visit are located on the two largest Finger Lakes: Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake.  We decided to focus our time on Seneca at two different Harvest Host wineries on either side of the lake. (For more information about playing tourist in this area check out the 34 wineries of  the Seneca Lake Wine Trail and 12 artisan cheese makers along the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail.)

We pulled into our first Harvest Hosts site, Seneca Shores Winery, about 2:00 p.m. with the intention of wine tasting at our host’s place and a couple other wineries after setting up the motorhome in their parking lot.  It turned out they had had a few days of rain before we arrived and the manager at Seneca Shores advised against parking in their typical Harvest Host site, a grass field with a view of the lake—no argument there!  We parked in a large gravel parking lot near this freshly mowed field. The winery is the blue building in the background and the lake is just to the east.Everyone was quite friendly—even though they were busy with harvesting and the crush.  Too bad I didn’t get any photos of the crush.

The Seneca wines were very affordable, but most were way too sweet for our liking.  We bought a couple bottles of their red blend which were more to our liking than their other offerings. This area is better known for its white grapes so we expected to be a little disappointed in the their red wines.

There were at least ten wineries within five miles from our location. Our first stop was a lovely winery called Anthony Road.  We learned their winemaker was from Germany and that the region is best known for its German style wines: Gewurztraminer and Riesling as the climate is quite similar to Germany. I could tell this winemaker really knew what he was doing as the white wines were only subtly sweet and sophisticated tasting. They also had rose wines and reds, but not much was to our liking as they were either very dry or slightly sweet.  We also ended up liking their inexpensive red table wine called Devonian Red the best.
We especially loved these two Alaska Weeping Cedar trees that adorn the entrance to the Anthony Road tasting room.

anthony roads

Next up was our favorite winery in terms of a fun host and lively atmosphere: Fox Run.  Their seemed to know what they were doing with their red wines. This time we branched out and bought a Cab Franc Lemberger blend.

I forgot to take a photo; this one is from their website. The tasting room and wine making facility was converted from a dairy barn in 1993.

From here we decided to drive into the charming town of Geneva on the northwest side of Seneca Lake.  We did a little grocery shopping at Wegman’s—a store reminiscent of Safeway in the NW or Publix in Florida.  I don’t know the history of the name Geneva but the town did remind me of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. (I have not been to original Geneva in Switzerland.) There were large gracious summer homes along the lake shore and the town is home to a well-known private college: Hobart and William Smith.  By this time we were needing a bite to eat so we asked around and discovered the delightful Uncle Joe’s Italian Eatery housed in a turn of the century home. It was a great way to end our night and begin our introduction to this special area of the country.

Day two in the Finger Lakes, we traveled less than one hour to reach our new destination on the southeast side of Seneca Lake and Chateau Lafayette Reneau winery.  Actually, on our way to our next destination we found a place to park the motorhome and Jeep in tow in the town of Watkins Glen. Our intention was to hike to the falls at  Watkins Glen State Park, but discovered they did not allow dogs.  Our second choice was to do our own urban trail and discover the town and lakeshore with  the dogs on our own. Spending a few hours walking around a town really gives you a flavor of the local color and this experience was no exception.

One of our first discoveries was that Watkins Glen is famous for car racing. They have a track that is now on the Nascar circuit, but the area has a colorful history of being the location of the first Grand Prix in 1948. Consequently, the town has numerous references to this aspect of its fame with murals, souvenir stores, and even actual race cars on display



The north end of town at the south end of the lake turned out to be the best part of our adventure. We walked with the dogs out on a pier and just sat on a bench there for quite a while enjoying a gorgeous fall day and a peaceful view of the lake.

watkings glen marina

watkins glen marina2

After visiting this lovely town, we headed back to the motorhome and drove about 20 minutes to our next Harvest Host site at Chateau Lafayette Reneau. Their parking situation was great and the winery quite lovely with a deck overlooking the lake that had great potential for sunset viewing.  After setting up here, we made a half hour trip into the largest city on the Finger Lakes: Ithaca, also home of Cornell University.  I wanted Vic to see the town, plus, slightly more importantly, I wanted to take my broken Nikon PS510 to Best Buy as it was not working correctly since the Niagara Falls moisture dampened its inner workings.  I bought an extended contract on the camera, something I rarely do, because I use it on the kayak all the time and it covers water damage.  They decided it had to be sent off for possible repair, but fortunately they were willing to send it to Florida when it is ready in a few weeks.

We drove around the hill where Cornell University is located and had a tasty lunch in a local deli taking in a little bit of the college scene before heading back to do a little more wine tasting on the way. But wait! I saw large signs that seduced us into pulling into the Finger Lakes Distillery.  I didn’t expect to see a distillery in the area although they are getting more popular even in places like Napa. This distillery is probably best known for its vodka made from grapes, but more importantly they also made award winning gin and three types of whiskey: rye, Irish, and bourbon. Let’s just say it was our favorite tasting in the area.

By now we were getting a little weary but I wanted to check out a winery right next to where we were staying that was highly rated by Wine Spectator and other critics: Atwater Estate Vineyards. This tasting room was also an old barn converted into a tasting room. We enjoyed the wine, the knowledgeable staff, and the charming ambiance here. Their reds were the best we tasted in the region, especially their Cab Franc and Syrah.


Chateau Lafayette Reneau, our Harvest Hosts site, was just next door to Atwater’s—good thing after that distillery stop.  We managed to get to their tasting room with just enough time to sample a few and call it a day. Their place is lovely with an amazing view, but their wines seemed to pale in comparison to the previous stop.  Fortunately, Vic liked their Pinot Gris and their Christmas special, a Wassail blend.  Even though the Harvest Hosts dry camping is advertised as “free,” we always make an effort to show our appreciation by making a purchase of something from our hosts.

Sunset looked to be promising, but as dusk arrived the sun disappeared completely behind the cloud cover. We still enjoyed this expansive view of the lake and the pastoral autumn setting.

chateau benoit winery parking space

Our stay on Seneca Lake offered a good two day respite after our trek across the whole country. With the weather forecasts calling for chillier temperatures all along the East Coast, we are feeling pressed to be moving south. If we were here a few weeks earlier, this would be a place we could easily hang out  for a couple weeks. Next destination: Galax, Virginia near the North Carolina border and the Blue Ridge Parkway.



  1. Looks like it's been warmer in upstate New York than it has been in Virginia. Can't wait to hear what you did in Galax and where you stayed. If you go down 81 you'll be driving pretty much right by us. Well I should say you must have driven since from the date of this post it looks like you already did. Finger Lakes to Galax in one day is a longer trip than I can make. :-)

  2. What beautiful country. That last picture is awesome. Wine and relaxing....a great combo! Add that wonderful area and it doesn't get much better!

    Glad to know the Jeep is fixed and the weather is travels to Virginia.

  3. We were just with friends last night that have a place on one of the lakes. She just said exactly what you said....lots of wineries but way too sweet for her pallet.

    I didn't know Cornell University was in that area.

    What a great two days. The last photo is so beautiful. You could frame it.

  4. we really enjoyed our visit to the finger lakes and enjoyed a nice bike ride around Cornell...

  5. What a beautiful area. We hope to get up there one day.

  6. It is a nice time of the year to be in that region, the color is wonderful.

  7. That area of NY is just beautiful. I lived in Ithaca for a while (of course I was only one year old). My father went to Ithaca College and then was head of their fund raising for years. My family is actually from north of that region.

    Since I can't drink wine, we don't do the wine tours. So wish I could. But I had no idea about the cheese trail! I LOVE cheese. John wasn't so happy to hear this:)

    We stayed in Galax two years ago. Terrible cell service. Where are you staying? They had a nice theater in town that happened to be having live music one night while we were there. It was a real memory of the past.

    I hope you have made it beyond Atlanta by now so you can miss this freezing weather! It sure is time to get out of these winter temps!

  8. A nice flashback to the region I grew up in:)

  9. Enjoyed reading about your tour in the Finger Lakes and especially your comments about the wineries. Thanks for your positive and objective reviews. Ted Marks, owner, Atwater Estate Vineyards.


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