Driving into the Finger Lakes region for the first time was an oddly familiar experience for two people raised in and around Pennsylvania farm towns. If not for the road signs proving that we were indeed in the state of New York, the area could easily be mistaken for Cross Roads, Fawn Grove, Sidman, or any other area with a strong farming backbone. That is, until you see the first winery, followed quickly by a second, then a third, maybe a brewery or two sprinkled in for variety, and a distillery or cheesery thrown in for good measure – and that’s just in the span of five miles.
But before we dove too deeply into the Finger Lakes, we made a small pit stop in Bath NY for a little RV maintenance. We always check our tire pressure (among other things) before moving from place to place, and one tire was in constant need of filling. So after a few frustrating calls involving warranties and “authorized service centers”, we finally contacted All Season Tire thanks to a Google search for truck tire repair. The person who answered the phone was very friendly and knew exactly what kind of tire we had and told us to stop by as we passed through Bath later in the week. We pulled in early on a Wednesday morning without an official appointment, and waited less than 15 minutes to back the RV up to one of the service bays. The technician was polite and helpful, chatting with us about places to go around Hammondsport, and didn’t mind me milling around while he did the important work. Turns out the consistently low-pressure tire had a nail in it, so he repaired it and we were once again on the road. Thank you to the team at All Season Tire! If you’re in western New York and in need of tires or service, definitely stop by their shop in Bath. A flat tire isn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of automotive issues, but after many unecessarily complicated calls to CoachNet, Ford, and Michelin trying to figure out what to do with regards to potential warranty issues and authorized repairs, All Season was a quick, painless, and very convenient experience.
Our first four days in the Finger Lakes were almost like a vacation – we went out for coffee as opposed to making our own, we stopped at more wineries and breweries than we usually would, we ate more treats than we should have, and we even went out for dinner one evening instead of cooking for ourselves. And we both agreed that four days was probably our limit for that kind of behavior (Ashley probably would’ve been happy with half as many). The rest of this post will cover the various towns we visited, as well as most of the stops we made during our initial exploration of a little slice of the Finger Lakes region.
Our first stop was at the southern end of Keuka Lake, outside the small town of Hammondsport. Keuka Lake is distinctive because it’s the only Finger Lake that has two branches – it’s essentially Y-shaped, as opposed to the other lakes which are mostly just long and thin. We stayed a couple miles outside of town, so we unloaded our bikes to pedal the mostly quiet country road into Hammondsport. Lying along the bank of Keuka Lake, the town features a marina, boat launch, and municipal beach area complete with a lifeguard and kayak rentals.
We grabbed a couple of coffees and two overly large muffins – pistachio for Ashley and double chocolate for me – from Aroma Art Gallery (which is a hybrid coffee shop/cafe/arts and crafts gallery) and strolled the streets checking out the various sights and shops. Hammondsport seems to have a thriving artistic community, possibly supported in part by the tourists, which is reflected in the galleries, exhibits, and installations scattered throughout downtown. As we were wandering, we stumbled across Worthy is the Lamb Essential Oils, a little gallery and craft shop located on a side alley. Ashley spoke with the pleasant and knowledgeable owner about aromatherapy and fiber arts, and found another essential oil to add to her collection (for making cleaning products, body care items, bug repellent…the list goes on).
Our first official Finger Lakes winery visit was to Great Western Wines and Pleasant Valley Wine Company, one place that is known by two names. This turned out to be one of the most interesting stops simply because of the tour (and Corey, our excellent guide), which features many of the historic buildings located on the property. Great Western/Pleasant Valley has a long and detailed history, dating back to the early 1860s, surviving Prohibition, enduring multiple corporate owners (including Coca-Cola and Seagram), before returning to single-family ownership in 2002. The tour is $5 per person and lasts about an hour, with a tasting thrown in at the end. I highly recommend the tour if you’re in the area and interested in more than just sampling wines at as many wineries as possible. Great Western is also known for producing champagne and various brandies, so be sure to sample those as well if you visit.
The Brewery of Broken Dreams is located just down the road from Great Western, so we made the short trek to visit the brewery one afternoon. It’s a small farm brewery, which is a distinction given by the state of New York through the liquor license. Among other restrictions, a farm brewery essentially produces beer or cider using predominantly New York-grown ingredients – currently set at 20% of all ingredients used, which increases to 90% by the end of 2024. This was a fun, small brewery, and while I didn’t think any of the beers were necessarily outstanding, they were all clean and stylistically accurate (the hefeweizen was yeasty with banana and clove, and the IPA was full of citrusy hops).
Our next winery stop was Bully Hill Vineyards, which is a name you might have already heard because of their fairly large distribution throughout the country. The bottle labels feature art from the founder, Walter S. Taylor, whose family originally owned Taylor Wine Company which was one of the corporate owners of Pleasant Valley. Walter Taylor was famously sued by Coca-Cola because he signed his last name to his artwork on the labels of Bully Hill wine, but Coca-Cola owned Taylor Wine Company at the time. Coke ultimately won the court battle forcing Walter Taylor to remove his own last name from his artwork on the bottles of his wine. The story is prominently featured in the art museum at Bully Hill showcasing Taylor’s work, which was the highlight of this visit.
Our final visit in Hammondsport was Heron Hill Winery, perched atop a steep hill overlooking Keuka Lake. The building is beautiful and the wines were a bit drier than the other two wineries we visited at this point, which was a nice change. Riesling is probably the most famous Finger Lakes wine, and sweetness levels vary from very sweet to crisp and dry. A semi-dry wine at Great Western or Bully Hill was comparatively sweeter than a semi-dry at Heron Hill. Certain varieties of grapes grow so well in the Finger Lakes because the very lakes themselves contribute to a macroclimate all over the region. The great volumes of water absorb and retain heat which helps to moderate temperatures surrounding the lakes year-round. The Sheldrake Point Winery website has a great article explaining this in detail, if you are interested in learning more.
The next town on our Finger Lakes journey was Penn Yan, located at the northernmost tip of Keuka Lake. Penn Yan is larger than Hammondsport (populations 5,159 and 731, respectively) and features a trail following the Keuka Outlet. No, that isn’t a large shopping area – it’s the name of the waterway that drains Keuka Lake (hence, “outlet”). Keuka is actually connected to Seneca Lake through this outlet, and the trail winds along the banks of the stream over paved surfaces, packed gravel, and firm grassy sections. We biked the trail early one morning, after stopping for cappuccino at Publick Coffee Bar – by far the best of the three coffee locations we visited so far.
Penn Yan is also home to Abandon Brewing Company, which came highly recommended from multiple people. It’s just three miles south of Penn Yan along mostly flat roads with wide shoulders, so it makes for an easy bike ride from town. In fact, we saw multiple large groups of road cyclists of all ages riding on Route 54A, which hugs the shore of Keuka Lake. After returning from our leisurely trail ride and making a quick lunch, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Abandon.
You might be wondering why I look so happy in this photo. After all, we just arrived at the brewery and we hadn’t even tasted any beer yet. Remember what I said about mostly flat roads? Well, that’s true – 54A is a long, gently rolling road. Merritt Hill Road, on top of which the brewery is located, is most definitely not flat. In fact, for the last half of a mile the elevation changes roughly 300 feet. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that change in elevation over that distance equates to around a 9% slope. One cyclist blogger claims that riding a 9% grade allows you to “gain a new perspective on life.” The article is actually pretty funny, and a good reference so check it out if you want a little chuckle. Needless to say, I pedaled up the hill for about three seconds before I practically stopped moving and teetered off my bike. We then grudgingly pushed our bikes to the top. But the beer was well worth the effort – Abandon Brewing had some of the most interesting, flavorful beers we sampled in this region. From solid saisons and a farmhouse IPA, to sours and a tart Berliner Weisse – I highly recommend a stop. Plus, the scenery is pretty nice too.
Our final stop in the Penn Yan area was Climbing Bines Craft Ale Company. This is also a farm brewery, with the added distinction of growing their own hops. Row after row of towering, lush bines create a virtual hop forest, while the abundant hop cones subtly perfume the air. The beer was good and the setting was great for relaxing inside or outdoors – they even have a nine hole disc golf course on premises, so we squeezed in a round during our visit. Ashley was working on her throwing technique and only launched one disc into the overgrown border of a nearby cornfield, never to be seen again. We even enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour with Josh, the brewer, as he showed us around the brewing area and pulled a sample of a new IPA from the finishing tank for us to try.
Our next stop was the town of Geneva, located at the northern tip of Seneca Lake and the largest city of our trip so far, with a population of over 13,200. After a couple of lattes at a place called Opus, we hopped back on our bikes to explore more of the town along the Lakefront Trail. Seneca is the largest (by area) and the deepest of the Finger Lakes and is heavily used for various water sports. We actually saw a couple of houseboats close to the shore as we rode the bike trail. A small day-use state park with a marina is located on the edge of town along the trail, and seemed to be popular as we biked along the shore.
White Springs Winery is located just south of Geneva and features not only a selection of wines, but also beer from a local brewery. We sampled both wines and beers and then enjoyed the afternoon listening to live music on the patio. The musician, Ryan Consiglio, played guitar and sang a variety of covers with a solid blues-inflected style, and I’d love to hear him again sometime. I resisted breaking out my mandolin and trying to crash his gig. Ashley even enjoyed some quiet time after hours, as they invited us to use their patio in the evening.
After these jam-packed four days, we’re looking forward to a short recovery at Sampson State Park before another brief venture along the winery trail. Stay tuned for the rest of our Finger Lakes adventure over the next week or so!