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Photo by Dylan Buyskes

Giving the Finger to West Coast Wine

What if I told you there was a world-class wine region, essentially in your backyard, that you’ve probably never heard of, let alone sampled its bounty?

Although it might be hard to believe, New York’s Finger Lakes wines are exactly that: some of the best wines around that have flown almost completely under the radar of most wine drinkers.

If West Coast wines are John and Paul, and Midwestern wines are Ringo, I’m going to go ahead and call Finger Lakes wines the George of the bunch: underappreciated at first, but gaining credit and attention as we try new things and our tastes change.

Obviously, West Coast wines grab the vast majority of our national attention and for good reason; there’s huge talent and flashy star power there. And if the North Market’s annual Ohio Wine Festival is any indication, there’s plenty of interest here at home for something sturdy, dependable, local. But there’s something surprising a daytrip away from Columbus: the least appreciated great wine region in the country.

Proctor’s Picks
Ravines Wine Cellars | www.ravineswine.com
Dr. Konstantin Frank | www.drfrankwines.com
Hermann J. Wiemar | www.wiemer.com
Red Newt Cellars | www.rednewt.com

The Finger Lakes have been producing wine for almost 200 years thanks to glaciers, a fortuitous microclimate, and German settlers’ propensity for drinking the winter away. More than 100 vineyards and wineries surround four major lakes in the region – Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka, and Seneca lakes, each with their own character and winemakers. For most of its history the region produced run-of-the-mill table wine made from sweet American grapes, as the preferred European varieties couldn’t survive the harsh New York winters. That thankfully changed in the 1960s when scientists pioneered cold weather techniques to help local grapes thrive, and the Finger Lakes haven’t looked back since.

The Finger Lakes are a destination. Like Napa or Sonoma, there’s a built-in wine culture and infrastructure that includes bed and breakfasts, museums, restaurants, and a general wine-tourism base that supports tours and tastings seven days a week. But unlike Napa, it’s not only nearby, but has yet to be corporatized; that is, on any given day the people you meet at the wineries are the actual people who grow the grapes, press them, and make the wine. Maybe I’m wine-jaded but there’s something refreshing and honest about that.

As for the wines themselves, it’s not surprising to find Finger Lakes wines are often compared with German and Austrian wines. Similarities include a long growing season, cool climate, water nearby, miniscule output, and common grape varieties such as Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc. Some places specialize in the sweet stuff, but for the most part dry table wines are what get produced here. Wine professionals have been crowing about how great Finger Lakes wines are for years but no one seemed to notice or care, based on their seeming underrepresentation on store shelves and wine lists. So it’s gratifying to see how that’s changed so quickly in the last two years. Major fine wine shops in Columbus now carry several of the more widely distributed brands—though don’t expect to see them on supermarket shelves soon, there just isn’t enough wine. If you don’t see any, just ask your wine store clerk.

Landon Proctor is (614)’s incredibly talented, ass-kicking and supremely humble wine specialist, and he is hosting a wine tasting on August 21 at Rehab Tavern.Find out more about him at www.landonproctor.com.