A Taste of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail

Written for MyCentralJersey.com

The waiter comes out uneasily, holding nothing, like a messenger on a mission.

“Yes sir, we do have Chianti,” whispers Craig, a waiter at Stonecat Café, an acclaimed organic regional restaurant nested in Hector, New York, on Seneca Lake of the Finger Lakes. “We just don’t put it on the menu since we like to feature our local wines.”

Stonecat Café has a good reason to focus on homegrown wines. It is located directly on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which holds 32 wineries on the deepest of the Finger Lakes, about a four-hour drive from Central Jersey, making it a sound pick for a long weekend getaway, especially in autumn due to the changing foliage. Each winery is located at a three-minute drive or less from the next alongside various roads running next to Seneca Lake.

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Unlike many other wine trails, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which traces its winemaking history back to 1866, sees itself as a community of winemakers who come together at local eateries such as the Stonecat Café to bring the austere beauty of Seneca Lake to the glass. Each vineyard brings its own personality and flavors to the lake’s edge, making for a comprehensive tourist destination that feature events throughout the year.

However, I didn’t think I was coming to Seneca Lake for the wine.

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Following a recommendation from a friend, we ended up staying at Seneca Secrets in Burdett, a collection of three rustic, yet updated cabins located on the east side of the lake for $150 a night. Upon our arrival, it became obvious that the Seneca Lake Wine Trail had a steady grasp on the area.

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However, 32 wineries hold an impossible amount of tastings even for the most ambitious of travelers. As a result, I took to the trail to get the best recommendations of wineries, asking locals for their take on which wineries were the must-sees. Although their answers were varied, they created a roadmap for my journey north on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.

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Wagner Vineyards is a necessary stop for wine enthusiasts due to its size at 250 acres and magnitude of vineyard attractions, including a brewery. Also, unlike some of the nearby smaller wineries, Wagner offers a tour of its wine cellars. For $4, I took the tour, sampled seven pre-chosen wines and hung out outside on the lush grounds, overlooking Seneca Lake in front of the vineyard’s grape plants.

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Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards holds a much more quaint operation than Wagner Vineyards that is more family-friendly. At Hazlitt, staff walked us through the backgrounds of their wines, such as that of the Red Cat and the 2012 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, or “liquid candy.” During our tasting of six wines for $5, we also basked in the antique-barn appeal of the tasting room. Although there isn’t as much grounds since Hazlitt makes its wine in Naples, New York, there is a small bar/restaurant outside.

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Ventosa Vineyards, a casual Italian-grape winery, has one asset that no other area wineries have — Tocai Friulano, an Italian grape found in the region which is only grown at Ventosa. At this vineyard, we also enjoyed a view of Seneca Lake with a tasting for $3. We also had lunch at the full restaurant on the premises, Café Toscan, which serves light Italian cuisine with vegetables from its own private garden.

The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has an expansive group of wineries which can be visited throughout the year, as events are planned for all seasons. However, if you’re looking for an autumn weekend away, Wagner Vineyards, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards and Ventosa Vineyards are the best wineries along this age-old trail to enjoy a glass alongside Seneca Lake.

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Drive takes about four and a half hours from central New Jersey.

Stay at Seneca Secrets in Burdett, a community of three cabins which costs $150 a night for two bedrooms, two full-sized beds, a living room, one bathroom, kitchen, and immediate access to outdoor grill, firepit and Seneca Lake. See more atwww.senecasecrets.com.

The best wineries include Wagner Vineyards, $4 for seven wine samples, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, $5 for six wine samples, and Ventosa Vineyards, $3 for wine samples.

Other area attractions include Windmill Farm & Craft Market (www.thewindmill.com), Watkins Glen State Park ($8 per car), the Stonecat Cafe (breakfast, lunch and dinner, $12.5 to $30 for dinner, http://www.stonecatcafe.com), Finger Lakes National Forest, Finger Lakes Distilling ($3, www.fingerlakesdistilling.com), and Schooner Excursions ($29 to $49, www.schoonerexcursions.com).

For more information on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, visit www.senecalakewine.com.

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Jenna Intersimone’s “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” column appears Tuesdays. Her “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” blog is at MyCentralJersey.com, as well asLifeAboardTheTravelingCircus.com. Tweet her at @JIntersimone or email her at JIntersimone@MyCentralJersey.com.

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