As a Finger Lakes first-timer, the area must have known that I, too, was a small town storyteller, welcoming me with open arms and eager to share their stories along with some sips.
Armed with just enough pre-trip research and a map, I gravitated towards my first line of business in any new place, getting the lay of the land…
Finger Lakes, New York
So off I went to the Corning Airport, where a local pilot and owner of Costa Flying Service, Joe Costa, personally tutored me on the Finger Lakes geography pointing out my future stops as well as sharing his story as a second generation pilot with over 57 years behind the controls.
From the cockpit, I got an explosion of pinks and oranges with the sunset over the lakes and then a beautiful tapestry of the yellow candle-like birches and the burnt orange of their neighbors the maples. I joked with Joe that this was the best leaf-peeping that I had ever done. He chuckled accustomed to the palate of colors.
Ready to regroup, I was off to the Black Sheep Inn just outside of Hammondsport. The owners, Debbie and Marc Meritsky, greeted me on the porch and showed me to my room. Before hitting the hay, Debbie who is also a chef made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse, a cooking lesson in the morning.
Bright and early, Debbie passed me an apron while Marc poured me a cup of Joe with an essence of cardamom. We were to make the specialty breakfast sandwich of the house with all local farm ingredients: squash, yellow tomatoes, raw jack cheese, broccoli and arugula pesto, prosciutto, organic eggs, and multi-grain bread.
Like any good teacher, she let me do most of the cutting, grilling, and frying. With a second cup of that outstanding coffee, I indulged in the gooey, hearty sandwich, taking half for the road.
Not far from the Inn, atop a perch overlooking Lake Keuka sat Dr. Frank’s. Most commonly known as the man and the vineyard to bring vinifera to the region, I was ready to swirl, sniff, and taste the fruits of his now four generations of wine in the Finger Lakes.
With the harvest upon us, it was the perfect time to shed light on the common misconception that all Rieslings are über sweet and bask in the rich beauty of the vineyard and its surroundings.
I continued my tasting to Ravine’s, a boutique vineyard on the other side of Keuka Lake, where its Manger, Carolyn Kruk, prepared a unique chocolate pairing with its wines. And, I never thought that I would say it, but I ate chocolate with a chardonnay. I don’t think I would have ever admitted it. However, it was the best melding of wine and chocolate with such a surprising toffee crunch bar flavor.
Through the tasting, I learned that Carolyn had worked at various other vineyards in the area, learning and growing with the Finger Lakes Wine Region as it did in its expansion to the global wine stage.
The next morning, I drove to Burdett to explore the Finger Lakes’ beauty on horseback. Erika Eckstrom, the owner of Painted Bar Stables, a spunky, tell-you-how-it-is, young woman, sized me up within moments in order to select the right horse and temperament. As she prepared the horses, she said with humor that her decision to buy the farm was, “the best bad idea I’ve ever had.”
Then, I met Crystal, a tall, botilicious black, painted mare. Her sheer size and strength beneath me made me feel confident; however, respectfully I was still cautious, as I had ridden only a handful of times in all my life. Regardless, I knew that she was going to be my better half for the ride.
Erika, her horse Fire, Crystal, and I set out through the farming fields to arrive to the backwoods trails. At which time, Erika asked if I was ready to trot. I did it, but I didn’t accomplish the subtle technique; so, instead I pummeled my poor rear-end into the saddle and Crystal until we slowed to a walk. Glad to return to this pace, it wasn’t long before we crossed a river, climbed a steep hill, and then needed to pull out the trot and then to a gallop at the top of the mountain. Yeehaw!
After nearly three-hours of riding, it was immediately apparent that although pilates, spinning, and running do wonders for many muscles, they certainly aren’t doing all that is needed for horseback riding. With a smirk, Erika prescribed a bath of Epson salts and a drink.
Taking her second suggestion, I headed to Finger Lakes Distilling, where the two owners, Brian and Thomas McKenzie, met me at the tasting bar. Although they have the same last name, I recognized right away that they weren’t related when Thomas uttered my name with his Southern drawl. Loving a good story, I needed to hear it.
And so, the storytelling began as they led me from the mill room to the mash and distilling room and finally to the keg room. It turned out that five years earlier they met at a distilling conference in Kentucky, Brian a former banker and Thomas a life-long distiller. With the same name and common dream, the two guys in their late-twenties invested in and fought to get the first farm distillery open in the state of New York. Now, the two are now reaping the benefits of their kismet. And, I enjoyed the fruits of their labor, including a Riesling Grappa, Cherry Liqueur inspired by Brian’s Aunt Jo, and to boot the best Bloody Mary that I have tried to date with a rim dusted with bacon salt. Yes, I said bacon. Yummy!
I left Lake Seneca the following morning for a road trip to Elmira. There I met the Jim Pfiffer, Director of Friends of the Chemung, and his friend and avid kayaker Norm Smith. All prepared for a chilly kayak, we headed downstream through some easy yet tricky rapids given the height of the river and its rocks. Both Norm and Jim shared with me the history of the area, including the Chemung name meaning Big Horn like the river’s shape. And of course, they told stories about one of its most famous visitors, Mark Twain, and where he smoked cigars as well as played pool.
Needing to stretch my legs out, a hike was in order. I met Elaine Farwell at the Tanglewood Nature Center near Harris Hill. There she proposed a hike along the Mark Twain Trail as well as out to the Frenchman’s Bluff to get a bird’s eye view of my previous paddle route.The easy hike reminded me of my childhood walking through the fallen leaves, hearing them crunch beneath my small feet, and of course jumping in piles of them in the yard until dinnertime.
And for the finale of a day of adventure in Elmira and Chemung, it was time for another story and a couple of sips. This time I ended up at a new local brewery started by Dennis and Susan Edwards. Although the two have been at the Birdland Brewing location only a short time, all of the recipes have been perfected from their home brewery, which started five years ago.
When I mentioned I was originally from Wisconsin, Susan lit up, knowing that I would be open to a full-blown beer tasting. And indeed, I was. Not a fan of overly strong, hoppy beers or porters, the selection from light to darker beers was quite surprisingly smooth. My kudos to their recipes and technique! I would say my favorite was the Red Wing with a smooth, subtle hop and malt flavors with a runner-up based on story alone, the Kewlerskald. This particular brew was named from an unfortunate double-scalding by a batch of boiled brew in a cooler in the Edwards’ garage years back. The name was tweaked and reversed to appear more German-like.
Sorry that two people got minor burns, but don’t you love the story!
I typically say that any occasion in life can be categorized as a good time or a good story, but my trip to the Finger Lakes was both.
It was such a good time because of all of the good stories that were shared with me over Riesling, coffee, or from the cockpit of a plane or on the trails.
The Finger Lakes is a natural playground for outdoor adventure enthusiasts like myself, but what is incredible is that by reaping some of those same natural elements many creative artists and entrepreneurs are finding a way to create new and exciting wines, surprise and delight with new favorite beers or spirits, as well as keep everything in season and sustainable, worth staying for a while or at least coming back for more.
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Written by Heidi N. Siefkas, an author and adventurer from small-town Wisconsin. With a down to earth style and just enough sass, she debuts her inspirational memoir, When All Balls Drop, this fall. Heidi lives in Kauai, but also calls the Midwest and South Florida home. She is currently writing a sequel to her memoir as well as documenting her many travels, given her severe case of wanderlust. Connect with Heidi at www.heidisiefkas.com, Facebook, and Twitter.