A Few Days In

A Sommelier's Guide to the Best Wine Region You’ve Never Heard Of

by Thomas Pastuszak
grapevines The view down to Seneca Lake from an Empire Estate vineyard. Photo by Julian Hibbard

If you’d trust an art historian to guide you around the Louvre, who better than the wine director of one of NYC’s best restaurants to show you around the Finger Lakes, the emerging wine region in upstate New York? Sommelier Thomas Pastuszak is so in love with the grapes around here that he launched his own label, Empire Estate.

FINGER LAKES, New York – Smack in the middle of New York State is one of the country’s most picturesque vacation destinations and world-class wine regions. And you probably haven’t even heard of it. 

The Finger Lakes are eleven long and narrow lakes that were dramatically carved out of the earth during the last Ice Age. They run north to south through shale and clay soils, creating gorgeous lakeside vineyards, beautiful rolling hillside farms, nature preserves, and waterfalls. (And they really do look like fingers.) Just a few hours away from New York City, it’s a great place to visit for the great outdoors, the wine and food, and the calm, rustic beauty that’s everywhere in the region I consider my second home.

I grew up in Queens, but moved to the Finger Lakes to attend Cornell University and stayed for several years thereafter to cut my teeth in the restaurant industry. I knew very little about wine at the time and was thrilled to discover that, while working in restaurants and studying the great traditional wine regions of Europe, I was living in one as well. I learned as much as I could about the Finger Lakes — the vineyards, the producers, the families and their stories. I worked at the local wineries on my days off, doing everything from working harvest to scrubbing the press pad. I loved how viniculture brought together art and science, mirroring, in a way, my own background in classical piano performance and biology.

When I moved back to New York City, I made it my mission to promote my favorite producers from the Finger Lakes, the ones whom I thought were making the most compelling wines, to New Yorkers who didn’t even know what was in their own backyard. Eventually, I started my own production, Empire Estate, focusing on dry reisling, the flagship varietal of the Finger Lakes.

Lay of the Land

The lakes form a triangle of sorts, bordered by the big towns of Rochester to the northwest, Syracuse in the northeast, and Ithaca in the south. The towns and lakes you’ll want to focus on are Ithaca and Aurora on Cayuga Lake and Geneva on Seneca Lake.

Rowland House of Inns of Aurora
Charming Rowland House, one of the Inns of Aurora. Photo courtesy of Finger Lakes Regional Tourism Council.-

Where to Stay

The nicest places to stay in the Finger Lakes are centuries-old manors that have been beautifully restored and converted into inns, like Argos Inn and The William Henry Miller Inn in Ithaca. For a beautiful lakeside setting, I like the historic buildings that are now the Inns of Aurora in Aurora. With so many lake houses in the area, Airbnb is another great option.

Where to Eat

In Ithaca, grab breakfast at Carriage House Cafe or, if you’re visiting on summer weekends, the historic Ithaca Farmer's Market at the Cayuga Lake inlet. To caffeinate properly, head to Gimme! Coffee. For dinner, Mercato serves delicious Italian-inspired, seasonal cuisine with a terrific wine list focused on Italy and the Finger Lakes. For a casual, local favorite, check out Glenwood Pines just a few minutes out of town for their famous Pinesburger. (I dare you to take the The Pinesburger Challenge.)

When visiting wineries around Seneca Lake, stop at F.L.X. Wienery for what might be the best artisanal hot dogs you’ll ever have or Stonecat Cafe for a delicious regional menu and live music. Dano's Heuriger serves amazing Austrian cuisine with an epic view of some of the region’s oldest riesling vines and sunsets over Seneca Lake. Pro somm tip: Drink a cold bottle of dry Finger Lakes riesling with Dano’s Schnitzel.

In Geneva, stop by Red Dove Tavern for hearty pub fare and great beer or Kindred Fare for farmhouse-inspired cooking. For an intimate and interactive tasting menu experience that is not at all stuffy, book a seat at F.L.X. Table, one of the best meals you’ll have in the Finger Lakes.

If you’re close to Aurora, visit the picturesque Aurora Inn Dining Room. If you go to Skaneateles and want fine dining, The Krebs offers a gorgeous dining room and elegant menu with a wine cellar that rivals the best in NYC.

Riesling grapes
Shine bright like a riesling. Photo by Julian Hibbard.
View of grapevines from within and cloudy sky.
Vines to get lost in. Photo by Jullian Hibbard

FLX Wine

The Finger Lakes region is rich with incredible, ancient soils and microclimates, making for a special terroir that gives the vines a strong sense of place. FLX is America’s premier cool-climate wine region, producing world-class rieslings, cabernet francs, chardonnays, and pinot noirs, in addition to other varietals and styles (including delicious rosés for hot summer days).

Here is a list of a few of the best wineries in the region, organized by sides of the lakes. It’s a good idea to organize your day of wine tasting by focusing on a single side of a lake, so you can cut down on time spent in the car.

Seneca Lake - East Side
Silver Thread Vineyard
Bloomer Creek Vineyard
Ryan William Vineyard
Red Newt Cellars (This is where our Empire Estate dry riesling is produced.)

Seneca Lake - West Side
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard
Shaw Vineyard
Anthony Road Wine Company
Ravines Wine Cellars

Keuka Lake - West Side
Keuka Lake Vineyards

Cayuga Lake - East Side
Heart & Hands Wine Co.

Cayuga Lake - West Side
Bellwether Wine Cellars
Sheldrake Point Winery

Bar Argos cocktail
A perfectly prepared cocktail at Bar Argos. Photo courtesy of Finger Lakes Regional Tourism Council.

Brews & Booze

A cold beer is your best friend after hours of wine tasting. The carbonation helps massage your palate and also wake it back up, which is especially helpful after tasting many acidic whites and tannic-heavy reds. If you’re on Seneca Lake, stop by Two Goats Brewing or Grist Iron Brewing Company for a crisp pint and beautiful views of the lake. In Ithaca, visit Ithaca Beer Co. and their acres of backyard for a game of cornhole.

Looking to drink something with a bit more kick? FLX is at your service, with a number of world-class local distilleries, including Myer Farm Distillers on the west side of Cayuga Lake and Finger Lakes Distilling on the east side of Seneca Lake, where they make a great rye whiskey.

Want a properly mixed drink instead? The Linden Social Club in Geneva and Bar Argos in Ithaca make some of the best cocktails north of New York City.

Hector Falls
Hector Falls, just down the road from the Empire Estate vineyards. Photo by Julian Hibbard.

Out & About

If you want to do more than just drink and dine, get outdoors and get active. Taughannock Falls State Park has one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rockies; it’s paired with a peaceful beach area on Cayuga Lake. Sampson State Park on Seneca Lake offers great summertime boating and swimming. Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca satisfies any hiking fix. If you’re in the market for antiques, vintage clothing, or a great souvenir, Found in Ithaca is a terrific marketplace with serious offerings at a fraction of what they’d cost in Manhattan.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Drive: New York City is about 4-5 hours away.
Fly: Greater Rochester International Airport (ROC) and Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR) are both convenient to the Finger Lakes and are served by major airlines. Rent a car at either, and you’re a short drive away.

When to Go
The Finger Lakes area is most beautiful from June to November, when you can really take advantage of the outdoors. Winter is gorgeous for the snow and picturesque landscapes, but many businesses and activities have reduced hours of operation, as tourism is generally at a low during this time.

Keep Exploring the Finger Lakes

Ithaca: This Is Where Locavore Was Born
For an Extra Helping of Nostalgia, Head to Quaint Beekman in Upstate New York
Off The Press: A Cider Scene Brews in New York

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.