wine glass

Photo by Antonio Silveira.

The Grape Outdoors

I visited seven vineyards and wineries in seven hours to find those around the famed Finger Lakes that offer unique ways to enjoy the region, its surroundings, and, of course, wine.

The Grape Outdoors

I visited seven vineyards and wineries in seven hours to find those around the famed Finger Lakes that offer unique ways to enjoy the region, its surroundings, and, of course, wine.

The Seneca Lake Wine Trail features so many wineries they appear almost as tightly clustered and abundant as the grapes used to create their offerings. But if you're looking to grab more than a good wine flight with a view and perhaps want to sip a glass while petting a miniature donkey or picking your own grapes to make wine at home, pump the brakes, and check out these operations. On a wine-soaked trip around Seneca and Cayuga lakes, I found some of the best Finger Lakes wineries and vineyards to get you out of that lakeside Adirondack chair and into some tipsy, outdoor fun.

In this context, the Finger Lakes serve two very important functions. First and foremost is their ability to help regulate the local microclimate and create a location ideal for winemaking. Grapevines need minerals, good drainage, and a moderate climate to survive, according to Joy Underhill, a writer and wine aficionado in Farmington, N.Y., and the Finger Lakes Region provides all three. The lakes and terrain in the region are well-known for being created by glaciers that left a plethora of minerals in the soil, which are partly responsible for the wine I sampled on my trip.

While the Finger Lakes are vital to all the winemaking and wine awards the area racks up, they’re also, quite simply, beautiful. The wine is certainly delicious, but the waterfront views, winding hills, ever-changing trees, and farm-to-table everything are a welcome — even necessary, I’d say — addition to a glass of Finger Lakes wine. Thankfully, the winemakers and owners are privy to this and, especially given the pandemic, do their best to ensure the combination of the two. Some wineries and vineyards, though, go beyond the shaded deck and vineyard tour and offer engaging and exciting ways to maximize your time outside.

Before we begin, a caveat: I’m no winery-judging expert. I created this list after carving out a few hours of research on a Saturday from my pseudo-professional, semi-busy, super-stressed, 22-year-old-college-student schedule to hit up the wineries on my list. While this is certainly somewhat exhaustive in opinion, I’m just a girl (if you know what I mean).

1. Cabins, Cauldrons, and Cross-Country Skiing

The mention of a fire cauldron at Buttonwood Grove Winery made me hope one was lit on the “70 degrees and sunny” afternoon I visited. Luckily the smell of a campfire welcomed me onto their lawn. Though it was too hot to cozy up next to one of their three Cowboy Cauldrons, I can only wish I wasn’t leaving the area before the next chance to brave a snowstorm and a few glasses of wine to sit next to one.

Located in Romulus, N.Y., Buttonwood Grove Winery overlooks the western shore of Cayuga Lake and offers a quiet ambience free of party buses and an entire property to wander around in. “We have 26 acres of property here to explore. Knock yourself out,” says Marcia Klue, the marketing and wine club director for Buttonwood Grove. “We don’t have groomed trails, but basically what we do is say, if you want to bring your snowshoes and skis and go up through the vineyards, you’re welcome to.”

While a Texas girl like me has yet to own a pair of either, I took the opportunity to mosey around a few acres to see what outdoor fun could be had. Klue says the winery is working on offering more groomed trails, but there’s plenty to explore and see “crisscrossing through the vineyards for hours and hours,” and in my crisscrossing, I wished I had hours and hours.

A sign by the front door caught my eye, pointing west to Buttonwood Falls, a secret waterfall on the property that can be seen during the winter — if you’re able to find it. Not trusting my rusty orienteering skills and still wishing for winter, I headed in the direction of Buttonwood Grove’s cabins. Behind the tasting room tucked into a stand of woods sits four cabins aptly named after wines: chardonnay, cabernet, riesling, and merlot. Personally, I like the idea of staying in a cabernet.

“It feels like you’ve stepped into this whole other planet up there,” Klue says. I didn’t believe her when she said this on the phone before my visit, but she had a point. With the sun peering perfectly through the trees — or maybe with the glass of wine — the small constellation of cabins was otherworldly. When you come back down to earth ready for dinner, a campfire spot, charcoal grill, minifridge, microwave, and a pizza place down the road await you after a wine tasting or night of live music.

And speaking of events, Buttonwood Grove offers many. Its Celebrate the Emerald Isle experience, for example, offered in March, features an Irish meal seated at one of the cauldrons. Buttonwood also partners with the Montezuma Audubon Center, which features 200 acres of forest, wetlands, grassland, and stream habitat, to offer guided activities such as snowshoeing, birdwatching, and kayaking. And, to compete with its 26 acres, the winery hosts 20 straight weekends of live music in the summer. It’s enough to make this Texas girl invest in a pair of skis or snowshoes after all.

2. Punny Events and Lots of Garlic

“Our motto here is ‘Drink wine, be happy,’” says Samantha Conley, marketing and events manager and wine club director at Fox Run Vineyards. So be it! Greeted by a towering metal-gate-turned-art-installation and a hillside view of Seneca Lake, I did just that. “A lot of our events and the things that we do inside and outside are centered around the experience of drinking wine and enjoying it with food,” Conley says.

For you, this could be one of Fox Run’s aptly named Food and Wine Experiences, which includes a tour of the vineyards and wine-making facilities, lunch, and a wine tasting in its dairy-barn-turned-barrel-room. For me, this experience featured kicking back on the deck with a glass of riesling and my self-mandated bag of Cheetos.

Tucked into a small slice of land on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail in Penn Yan, N.Y., the property features outdoor seating behind the building, away from the lake and near the vineyards, which means loads of room to spread out and laugh with friends. And during my visit, a rowdy group of young adults took no shame in doing so. My group of friends sadly were not there to laugh just as loud in competition. So, instead, the group watched me walk into the vineyards before seeing the “Do Not Enter” sign. Tours at Fox Run are guided, I remembered.

While outdoor seating and daily guided tours are an easy way to enjoy the scenery at Fox Run, the vineyard puts on creative food and wine events that are just as fun to say as they are to attend. Make sure you and your dog are ready on June 27 for the free Dogs & Dogs event, where you can dog down hot dogs while your dog gets down with some other real dogs. Though the vineyard prides itself on being dog-friendly year-round, it goes all out for this annual event, selling doggy ice cream, organic dog treats, “bark-chew-terie boards,” and offers a mapped-out dog walk for your dog to drag you along after a few glasses of wine. Every year, the Yates County Humane Society sets up a tent with adoptable dogs, and Fox Run offers free wine tastings in exchange for monetary and item donations. Who’d want this dog day to be over?

But the event I truly long to attend is Fox Run’s annual Grapes, Griddles, and Fiddles concert series — griddles, as in gourmet grilled cheeses made on a wood-fired friddle, and fiddles, as in live fiddle music ($5 general admission, $12 grilled cheeses). I want to believe the rhyme served as the sole inspiration for this event. But, regardless, every other Wednesday during the summer, fiddle away at a grilled cheese in the evening, violin-filled summer.

But the most notable event is the annual Garlic Festival, a whole weekend dedicated to garlic. Walking into Fox Run, the intoxicating smell of garlic hit me immediately — unexpected but welcomed. “We love garlic,” Conley says. “We use garlic in all of our food. When you come in the door, you’re instantly smacked in the face by the scent of garlic.” I can confirm.

The festival takes place the first weekend in August, and though Covid-19 canceled the 2020 and 2021 festivals, the 2019 Garlic Festival attracted more than 14,000 people for live music, vendors, cooking demonstrations, and of course, lots of garlic. Rest assured though, the 2022 festival is happening August 13 and 14 at the Geneva Lakefront. Apart from the events, Fox Run doesn’t have many outdoor features that set it apart from other Finger Lakes wineries. But, post-pandemic, Conley says the vineyard will focus on improving the outdoor spaces. It plans to start a monarch butterfly program soon and build a monarch habitat on the property with wildflowers while turning the backyard into a “wine garden,” which I surely would’ve loved to sit in and sip. Tipsy and surrounded by butterflies? Call me Alice in Wonderland. “People want to spend their time outdoors, and they want that fresh air on a summer day,” Conley says. “They want to be outside.”

3. B.Y.O.B: Bring Your Own Boat

I do not own a boat, nor am I in the market for one. If you are, might I suggest getting the true Miles Wine Cellars experience of arriving by boat and docking at the striking boathouse in Himrod, New York — with a blue roof vivid enough to catch your eye without outshining the surrounding serenity.

I lacked a nautical arrival, but, instead a golden weeping willow waving in the wind greeted me at the entrance — followed by a young woman with a Bordeaux-colored bruise crawling down her knee. She had just arrived with friends, and I was lucky enough to overhear that they all agreed that her knee was broken. Her kneecap wasn’t shattered though, Google had assured her, which must have guided her decision to wear wedges.

Thankful to be in sandals and with only tendonitis in my knees, I followed the gaggle to an all-white mansion-looking house, complete with four pristine Doric columns, that looked like it could’ve been the girls’ sorority house. And apparently, it’s haunted, too. Inside, it looks like an old relative’s house I struggle to remember being in when I was six — complete with a mounted deer head and gaudy wallpaper covered in what I’d venture to describe as leaves. But the boathouse served as the most captivating part of the property. It’s hard to spot from the front step of the wannabe Virginia mansion, but I followed a gravel path down to the shore of Seneca Lake to reveal a bobbing pavilion, with matching Doric columns and a blue roof that stood out against the sky and water. Wine aside, I’d visit this place again just to sit on the edge of that boathouse and softly bounce with the lapping currents of the lake.

A decision to buy an expensive bottle of brandy for my dad snapped the serenity. (I ended up with the pricey purchase by trying to be an adult and not asking about the price pre-purchase — $65.) But get this: the brandy was aged on a boat. Now if I couldn’t arrive at Miles Wine Cellars on a boat, I was at least going to get roped into tasting and buying brandy that was aged on one! I don’t like brandy, but if I did, I would say that it was good, especially given that the constant movement of the boat it's aged on sloshes the brandy in a way that increases contact with the barrel, resulting in a different flavor and color than typically-aged brandy. Paired with the change in temperature from day to night out on the water that expands and contracts the liquid, this aging technique results in a brandy intriguing enough to turn this non-brandy lover into a one-time brandy buyer.

With the comforting burn of brandy in my throat, I gave a longing glance to the boathouse and forced myself to trade the verdant seclusion back for the highway. Even still, I think about that boathouse and willow tree — and that poor girl’s knee.

4. Refuge from the Wild

While Montezuma Winery isn’t known for its stunning lake views or luscious outdoor seating arrangement, it features a prime location just a couple hundred yards from Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, a 10,000-acre hotspot for migratory birds and dozens of other animals. “There is a geocache hidden on the edge of our property somewhere,” says Kelly Burnett, the marketing manager. “I don't know if that's still a thing, if people geocache.”

I don’t, and while the outdoor attraction of Montezuma Winery is the refuge itself, I quickly realized how much the winery embraces this proximity through everything available in its wine shop. Almost every wine bottle featured a flying bird, a dragonfly, or a dancing cartoon frog, and the garden and home decor section of the gift shop featured items an eccentric, carefree aunt would love — complete with garish animals painted on or attached to any useless trinket you’d ever want.

Although the winery’s location at the crossroads of a highway fails to deliver all-star outdoor ambience, the property does offer a few picnic tables and chairs outside, and, I didn’t, but maybe you’ll catch sight of a bird overhead or perching in a nearby tree. Plus, you can always enjoy the outdoors by proxy with Montezuma Winery’s ample selection of fruit wines and meads, made with anything from blueberries, black currants, apples, and strawberries. In fact, owners George and Virginia Martin have been beekeeping for more than 30 years and had just begun making fruit wines before moving production to Seneca Falls in 2001 on the north tip of Seneca Lake. The couple sources honey and fruit from around the region to make these wines, such as their most popular Cranberry Bog ($11).

The winery property connects to trails leading to the refuge, and visitors can take the short walk down the road to and from the refuge. So, after you spot a few pintails, mosey on over for a glass of Montezuma’s Pintail rhubarb wine ($18) in celebration.

5. Take the Grapes into Your Own Hands

Fulkerson Winery and Farms, though underwhelming during an early April visit, offers a tasting room on the opposite side of the highway from the lake with an acceptable view and a couple chairs of outdoor seating. The other side of the property offers pick-your-own produce, an activity I was sad to miss out on during the offseason, which starts as early as mid-May when asparagus starts popping up. Visitors can buy different varieties of grapes and apples as well as blueberries, peaches, cherries, and asparagus by the pound.

Plus, the Fulkerson family takes a very lenient approach to accessing the vineyards and fields. “We just kind of point people in the right direction,” says Steven Fulkerson, the general manager and part of the seventh generation of Fulkerson's working on the farm. “If they need help ... learning how to pick, we’ll kind of explain a little bit, but for the most part, we ... set them off on their way and trust they’ll come back.”

The same sentiment goes for Fulkerson’s self-guided tour, for which the winery offers a map that identifies points of interest such as a 100-year-old grapevine growing on the farm, an old horse-drawn buck rake that’s been partially engulfed by a maple tree, or even the family cemetery where the Fulkerson founder Caleb is buried.

Fulkerson says the winery’s philosophy is “make your own,” which is why it sells D.I.Y. wine and beer brewing kits as well as wine juice and offers the occasional winemaking class. A complete winemaking kit sans juice will run you $100, whereas beermaking equipment is all sold individually, though beer ingredient kits start at $40. The winery even offers fly-fishing classes where you can make and tie your own artificial fly.

While its location just a few yards from the highway and minimal outdoor seating doesn’t create an ideal ambiance, if you’re going to Fulkerson, it’s for the do-it-yourself experiences, and hey, there’s good wine while you’re at it. The opportunities to get lost in the vineyards and pick my own asparagus certainly could make me overlook the seating arrangements.

6. A View with a Gazebo-nus

I stopped briefly at Lakewood Vineyards in Watkins Glen, N.Y., for two things: the dogs and the lake. When I arrived, I didn’t bother checking out the inside before I foundGoogle Maps reviews touting a trail down toward Seneca Lake. Lakewood, like many wineries, allows visitors to explore its vineyards, but it also has a trail that leads down through the vineyard to a closer view of the lake, fit with a secluded gazebo with enough room for two or 25 — or just me.

While a view of Seneca Lake is a pretty standard offering on the aptly named Seneca Lake Wine Trail, the view at Lakewood was a more immersive experience. Unlike the disconnected, almost aerial view other wineries offered thanks to their more elevated location (and no match for Miles Wine Cellar’s shoreside access), Lakewood sits on a less-inclined hill. This makes the lake eye-level, and instead of looking down on it, I was beside it and could look up at the top of hills beyond.

The gravel sticking to my sweaty, sandal-exposed feet stopped me from venturing to see how close to the water the trail went, and I lacked wine to entertain a solo gazebo sip. Plus allegedly two dogs awaited at the main seating area and tasting room. However, I was only lucky enough to spot one sitting sweetly under a table next to his owner. Dogs are allowed outdoors and in the tasting room, where eight of the employees’ dogs like to hang out. Depending on the day or time, you might see Harper or Bailey, the labs; the Australian shepards Piper, Presh, Cakepan, and Fizzy (whose owner works on the sparkling wine production, of course); Zora the boxer; or Phin the Weimaraner.

7. Donkeys, Dinos, and Frisbee Golf

In my long-winded journey to experience everything each winery offered — and build up enough courage to ask strangers to let me film them — my schedule unraveled, and I failed to visit all the wineries on my list. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan a visit. So consider these other wineries that could be worth a linger. Start with Swedish Hill Winery in Romulus, N.Y. With a donkey in its logo, Swedish Hill embraces its two mascots, Doobie and Sven, who I hope to meet one day. Doobie came to the winery in the ‘80s when co-owner Dave Peterson’s parents began the operation, but “he instantly became an attraction,” Peterson says. As Doobie’s popularity grew, Swedish Hill started naming wines after him — Jack Ass Red ($11), Jack Ass White ($11), Doobie Blues ($11), and Smart Ass Red ($13) — and visitors started coming to the winery just to see him.

If you’re looking for something to entertain kids during your donkey-side wine tasting, Peterson says Doobie is a hit with kids, who’s friendly enough to pet if the weather is up to his liking. “As the kids grow up, they still come back as adults to visit Doobie, and now they’re drinking wine, and they’re bringing their kids,” he says. Sven, the miniature horse, also brings in the wee ones and grownups alike. He joined Swedish Hill in 2016, coincidentally with his already Swedish name.

Though the pandemic has put the event on hold indefinitely, Swedish Hill has celebrated Doobie’s birthday each August in the past with an annual Jack Ass Day, featuring live music and old-school family activities such as cornhole, egg toss, and watermelon-eating competitions. Doobie’s been kickin’ for almost 40 years, Peterson says, so make sure to visit him if you can. I assume it’s something the whole family can enjoy, but you know what they say about assuming: It makes an ass out of you and Doobie.

Although Castel Grisch Winery, a Watkins Glen-based winery I gave a quick peruse, lacks wild animals, I did stumble upon the shocking sight of a herd of life-size dinosaurs. The dinosaurs, it seems, were enjoying a rest from their annual appearance in the Festival of Lights (starting at $20) Castel Grisch puts on in the winter. The route features, along with the dinosaurs, illuminated animals, plants, and sculptures in a larger-than-life light show. The dinosaurs, though not starring in any official events right now, await their moment lined up on the property, and visitors are welcome to check them out.

The property also features an 18-hole disc golf course. The course snakes around the winery and offers a great chance for an activity-filled, self-guided tour. Plus, hole nine sits right by the tasting room so you can stop by for a mid-game tasting to help fuel the discs for the remainder of the course.

And, finally, there’s what multiple Google reviewers describe as an “adult alcohol theme park.” Even if I possessed the time to make it to Three Brothers Wineries & Estates in Geneva, N.Y., I’m certain I would be short of the time needed to enjoy the full experience. The property boasts three different wineries along with a microbrewery and cafe. Visitors can purchase a “tasting passport” ($40) that allows a sample at each winery and the brewery. With multiple buildings and ample outdoor space at the estate, this operation accommodates ample wandering, strolling, and curiosity-fueled exploring.

Land Acknowledgement

Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.