Hammondsport: Dr. Frank Plants Rolling Hills of Riesling

A fellow travel writer wrote me recently from Nevada and mentioned he was on his way out the door to check out the state’s “wine country.” He asked me what I thought of the recent movement in the States toward local wineries – the fact that wine tasting has become such a popular/sexy activity to market within tourism that every state now seems to push homegrown wine regardless of its quality. I don’t mean to sound negative, but it’s true: All fifty states produce.

Despite the growing numbers, people still have a tendency to group American wine into two categories: That which flows from California and that which does not. This obviously presents a challenge to the latter group. How does one break free of being fenced in as ultimately inferior? Reputation is what will eventually separate a region from the rest of the pack, and the Finger Lakes owe a great deal of gratitude to Dr. Konstantin Frank Vineyards, whose founder is responsible for starting the wine revolution in New York.

A European immigrant and a professor of plant sciences, Dr. Frank arrived in the United States in 1951 and moved shortly after to Upstate New York to take a position at Cornell University’s Geneva Experiment Station. He concluded that the lack of proper rootstock, not the cold climate, was the reason for the failure of Vitis Vinifera vines in the Finger Lakes region. In 1962, Dr. Frank founded his vineyard using his new method, slowly but surely enhancing the quality of the wines produced in New York.

Now into its third generation, the winery’s production has grown from a few thousand to 40,000 cases per year under current President Fred Frank, the grandson of Dr. Frank. When they won the Best White Wine award at the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Competition, Fred went in person to receive the honor so as to simultaneously deliver a message to those in the wine industry: Stop grouping us in with all the others.

“I call this missionary work,” he told Edible Finger Lakes about his trip. “This is an opportunity to educate those on the west coast about the ongoing renaissance in quality in the Finger Lakes.”

With sixty gold medals in 2009 and a boatload of others since, it seems like that message has been well-received across the nation.

View from Heron Hill Winery.

Proper Planning Prevents Improper Pours: Last time I was in the Finger Lakes region to taste wine, I looked out the window and saw that snow was falling on Keuka Lake. The trees were beautiful colors of red and yellow and brown, but the sky was overcast and the cold pressed against the glass windows of the tasting room.

That’s a shame for obvious reasons, not to mention I was in a region known for its Rieslings. To me, that style is best enjoyed on a summer day, not when the bones are shivering for a glass of red. The views of the fall foliage stole the show despite the conditions – and to taste wine in the snow was a first – however I knew I had miscalculated by arranging my first visit to a white wine region that late in the year (October). Be sure to visit before the weather completely breaks – perhaps you can time it just right so you get the tail end of the summer weather just as autumn begins to show in the trees (mid to late September).

Happy Birthday Dr. Frank’s: We were at Dr. Frank’s 50th anniversary celebration tasting the past and the present – from a 1980 Chardonnay to the current reserve Riesling – and through the windows I could see the healthy grape vines and the hills sloped down toward the lake. As we enjoyed the fruits of the vine in Dr. Frank’s tasting room, an employee stood up as part of the presentation and began sharing his thoughts on the flavors of wine and how they present themselves to the taster. He related a taster’s interaction with wine to a man’s courtship of a woman, a comparison that drew laughter from the crowd.

“There are three parts to (the way a wine tastes)…. The attack, the middle part, and the persistence,” he said. “It reminds me of the pursuit of my wife.”

In a world full of romanticized tasting notes, it was nice to hear someone put it so simply. Cheers to the entire team at Dr. Frank’s – keep rolling out those Rieslings.

Here are a few other vineyards along the Keuka Wine Trail that I’d recommend including in a visit to Hammondsport:

Keuka Wine Trail near Hammondsport, NY.

Bully Hill: Serving up great views and a fantastic menu – I had a mushroom stuffed with crab and topped with scallops –  this would be my recommendation for a first stop on a wine tour. Sample a few in the notoriously fun and involved tasting room, then take a bottle of your favorite out to the patio for a lingering lunch. Seriously, be prepared to participate during your tasting.

Heron Hill: The views of the lake (and the colors of the trees in the fall) have a lot do with Heron Hill’s tasting room being honored as one of the world’s most spectacular. Friendly pourers create a casual atmosphere that feels more like a bar than a tasting room, although I don’t say that to insinuate a lack of class. Ask politely for permission to check out the view from the tower above the tasting room, and you may just find yourself occupying the best seat in the house. If the schedule works out, enjoy live music on Sundays and Wednesdays.

Pleasant Valley: Pleasant Valley is the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes and the first bonded winery in the country. A guided tour isn’t a bad idea given the winery’s large size and history. Be sure to concentrate on the champagnes during the tasting – it’s what they’re known for. Interesting fact: The enactment of prohibition left Pleasant Valley with an inventory of 70,000 cases of champagne and substantial quantities of still wine, yet it survived the 14 years of prohibition on sales for sacramental and medicinal purposes. Hmmm… so the churches could buy booze, but not the people…

One last post before we wrap up the Coolest Small Town Road Trip: I’ll be dishing out some awards by the end of the week. Remember to check out Wake and Wander on Facebook, and follow the Coolest Road Trip on Twitter: @WakeandWander (#CoolTrip).

Not a wallflower? Enter once every 24 hours to win a road trip of your own – weekend getaways in the four Coolest Small Towns.

View from Heron Hill Winery.
View from Dr. Frank's Winery.
Keuka Wine Trail near Hammondsport, New York.
Keuka Wine Trail near Hammondsport, New York.
Keuka Wine Trail near Hammondsport, New York.
Keuka Wine Trail near Hammondsport, New York (early morning clouds).
Keuka Wine Trail near Hammondsport, New York (early morning clouds).

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