Seattle Wine Tour (When perception and reality meet)

My girlfriend and I were recently in Seattle. She had to attend a business meeting and I tagged along as baggage handler and tour guide. We decided to add a couple of days on to the end of the trip to do some sight seeing. While researching the area, I discovered there are several wineries in and around Woodinville, just twenty miles north east of the city. This seemed like the perfect place to go since we both love wine and wine touring. I found out that there was a brewery in the area as well. Excellent! We both just happen to love beer too. The B&B was booked and I eagerly planned our itinerary for that weekend.

As I was mapping out the wineries we would visit, I pictured vast vineyards with various styles of wineries. Some would be small and quaint, some large and lavish. All would be in relatively rural settings. I don’t know why this vision was in my head. It just was. Perhaps because that’s what the Finger Lakes wineries are like. Perhaps the movie “Sideways” influenced me. After all, Washington is the second largest wine producing state in the country and its west coast. How else would it look?

When we arrived at our first winery (Distefano Winery), I immediately noticed two things. First, there wasn’t a grape vine in sight. Second, the winery was in what looked like a small industrial park. I was a bit disappointed, probably because it didn’t fit the perception I had about Washington State wineries. But, here we were, parked outside a winery on a beautiful day. How could we go wrong? As it turned out, we couldn’t. We had a great time and tasted several excellent wines.

We learned that most of the Washington grapes are grown in the eastern part of the state. This is due to the fact that the climate in the west isn’t suited for grapes like it is on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. So why are there so many wineries in Woodinville? Because it’s close to the customers. There are as many people in the greater Seattle area than in the rest of the state where the grapes are grown. Woodinville is twenty to forty minutes from Seattle by car. You can bike there in two hours. As it turns out, many people do ride their bicycles to the wineries. The vineyards are three to four hours from Seattle by car. Not exactly a day trip. Not like the Finger Lakes are to the people in Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca, and Binghamton. The other reason there aren’t many vineyards in Woodinville is because the land is much more expensive there than it is on the other side of the mountains.

As we visited other wineries, we noticed a trend. Some tasting rooms were in buildings that looked like they housed dentist offices. Some were in small strip malls. Others were in small buildings that looked like a typical Finger Lakes winery. Each of the wineries we visited was excellent. The wine was great, the people were friendly, and the atmosphere was what you expect when wine touring.

Columbia Winery and Chateau St Michelle are the area’s larger wineries and are similar to the larger Finger Lakes wineries. These wineries have large, elegant buildings and sprawling, ornate grounds. Still no grape vines in sight, however. Three Finger Lakes wineries come to mind when I compare them to Columbia in terms of size (of the building and grounds, not production) and proximity to a large city. These wineries are Casa Larga in Fairport, and Ventosa Vineyards and Belhurst Winery in Geneva. Each of these wineries is within an hour’s drive of Rochester. As a matter of fact, all of the Finger Lakes wineries can be reached by car in an hour and a half or so.

As it turns out we had a very enjoyable experience visiting the wineries of Woodinville. We met some very interesting people, tasted many excellent, world class wines, and got a first hand look at west coast wine touring. I would recommend visiting the area to anyone heading out to Seattle. While the venue wasn’t exactly what I had imagined, it turned out to be exactly what I had hoped for. The people of Seattle are lucky they have so many excellent wineries within their reach. I feel that the people of the Finger Lakes region are even luckier because we have even more wineries within our reach that produce world class wines and offer world class experiences. Most of the wineries are located in the rolling hills surrounding the beautiful Finger Lakes and not in strip malls or office parks. Plus, it’s hard to visit a Finger Lakes winery without seeing a vineyard.

I had romanticized the wineries of Washington State and realized after seeing them first hand that I didn’t have to travel so far to have a truly romantic wine experience. That experience is waiting for us all in the Finger Lakes.

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Welcome to my blog

I’ve wanted to write about the Finger Lakes region and Finger Lakes wine for a long time now.  I had a false start a couple of years ago when I started putting together a web site devoted to the topic.  My enthusiasm quickly faded, however, and the site was never finished.  I was discouraged when I saw the extensive Finger Lakes wine site published by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and didn’t think I could compete with a big company.

My passion for the subject didn’t fade, even though my efforts to write about it did.  I was on a trip to Seattle with my girlfriend Katy recently and we had the opportunity to visit several wineries in Woodinville.  Woodinville is about a forty minute drive north east of Seattle and is where the Washington wine industry, which grows most of its grapes in the eastern part of the state, showcases its wine to the masses in the west.  It is here where I met Seattle Wine Gal, an attractive, young woman with “a bachelors degree in History, Political Science, and English, with a minor in Philosophy and a MA in Social Anthropology” and who is really into this thing we call social media (blogs, tweets, Facebook, etc.)

Seattle Wine Gal (or LaFayette as I had come to call her) and I had a brief conversation about the winery (Hollywood Hill Vineyards) and its wonderful wine, the beautiful weather we were experiencing, where she was from (LaFayette, NY which is about 20 miles north of my home town of Cortland) and, of course, her blog.  She was very enthusiastic about her blog and her role in social media.  She left a big impression on me.  This conversation and the wine tour with Katy re-energized my dormant desire to write about two of my passions, wine and the Finger Lakes.  Seattle Wine Gal showed me that I didn’t have to compete with the big guys.  I could write for me.  I could do my own thing on my own terms.

So, here I am, all jazzed up at 4:17 am on a Friday morning, typing away at my first blog post.  I shamelessly copied Seattle Wine Gal’s moniker (along with Atlanta Wine Guy, who I found on the web while Googling Seattle Wine Gal) and created Finger Lakes Wine Guy.  I don’t know where this will lead or how long the fire will burn, but I’m going to give this another shot.  Stay tuned.

Thank you Katy for sharing your passion for wine and food with me.  Thank you LaFayette for reminding me to become engaged in life rather than watching life go by.

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Finger Lakes 101

There are many interesting topics besides wine that I like to explore in the Finger Lakes, one of which is geology.  Here is a short primer on the geology of the Finger Lakes to give you something to think about when visiting the area and traveling from winery to winery.

There are eleven Finger Lakes in New York State.  They are called Finger Lakes because they are long, narrow bodies of water that reminded early map makers of the fingers on a hand [1].  The lakes generally run north to south and are all located south of the New York State thruway.  The western most lake (Conesus) is located south west of Rochester and the eastern most lake (Otisco Lake) is located south west of Syracuse.  In between these lakes, listed from west to east, are Hemlock Lake, Canadice Lake, Honeoye Lake, Canandaigua Lake, Keuka Lake, Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake, Owasco Lake, and Skaneateles Lake.

The lake valleys were formed by several glaciers that advanced and retreated through the area over the last two million years [2].  Ancient rivers flowed from south to north through these valleys.  As the last glacier to cover this area retreated over eleven thousand years ago, these rivers were dammed by sediment and glacial debris causing lakes to form.  The Finger Lakes are the remains of these glacial lakes.

Along with the lakes, deep gorges were formed.  Streams flow through these gorges, further eroding the earth and rock to deepen the gorges.  The softer layers erode more quickly than the harder, more durable layers.  Where the water meets these harder layers, waterfalls and cascades form.  Ithaca, at the south end of Cayuga Lake, has perhaps the highest concentration of these waterfall laden gorges in the entire Finger Lakes region.

Cayuga Lake is the longest of the eleven Finger Lakes at 38.2 miles long [3].  Seneca is the second longest (~35 miles long) and the deepest at 651 feet deep.  Keuka Lake is forked with two branches at the north end of the lake.  Hemlock and Canadice Lakes are the only two lakes that are uninhabited.  These lakes serve as a major  source of water for the city of Rochester.

The topology of the land surrounding Seneca, Cayuga, and Keuka Lakes, along with the thermal mass provided by the lakes themselves, makes these lake regions prime areas for growing grapes.  The protective hills and warming waters moderate the climate relative to areas further from the lakes which is an advantage for grape production.

There are many other geological features in the region that are a result of glacial activity.  To learn more I suggest reading “The Finger Lakes Region. Its Origin and Nature” by O. D. von Engeln, Cornell University press or refer to one of many resources on the web, including the citations noted below.

[1] Finger Lakes Wikipedia Article

[2] Paleontological Research Institution: “Formation of the Finger Lakes”

[3] Finger Lakes Institute: Explore the Finger Lakes

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