It's more than just wine on the trails
FINGER LAKES--The 85 or so wineries clustered around the largest three Finger Lakes, plus breweries, cideries and distilleries tend to take a collegial, "We're-all-in-this-together" attitude. Certainly having a large number and variety of purveyors of artisanal alcoholic beverages is a marvelous driver for tourism, bringing ever greater numbers of visitors to the area. But because the impossibility of visiting every winery around the larger lakes is clear to even the most dedicated tasters, most wineries have upped their game in a quest for a competitive edge.
Some of the baby boomers who were the original backbone of returning customers are taking a less exhaustive approach to the wine trails or limiting themselves to favorites. On the other hand, many millennials have reached a point in their lives where they're ready to appreciate--and pay for--good beverages. As a result, wineries are working to distinguish themselves from the crowd, creating experiences for their customers to opt into, hoping their wineries will be seen as a destination --not just a stop on the trail.
"In general, over time, the wineries have really diversified what they offer and have taken a lot of steps to make investment in their properties," says Brittany Gibson, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. "It's not just the things you can do but the actual atmosphere."
"In the past five years, it's been dramatic," says Liz Stamp, partner/co-owner of Lakewood Vineyards on Route 14 just north of Watkins Glen. A new staffer--now part of the family--helped everyone take a long look at their indoor and outdoor space, prompting an expansion, renovation, new landscaping, and a large covered deck. "When we first opened, it was 'Make good wine and they will come,'" she says. "And that's still at the heart of things here." But they've added more useable outdoor space, weekend tours, signage enabling self-guided walkers to know which grapes they're admiring, a glass wall so visitors can peer down into the wine cellar and observe the tanks and often, winemakers at work.
Many wineries have begun offering customized gourmet tastings in addition to the standard wine-and-bland-crackers tastings. When Susan Weiner, director of operations at Chateau LaFayette Reneau (Route 414, Hector) tasted extraordinary cookies crafted by retired heart surgeon Stephanie Goodwin, she began considering how some of those cookies would pair with wines. She and Goodwin collaborated on a cookie/wine tasting menu that's become so popular, Weiner says, "We can have a hard time keeping up with the cookie supply. It's very appealing to the millennial group and across all age groups. We have customers who come in regularly just to do a cookie tasting. And it adds a unique edge to what we're offering."
There's a common theme echoed by many of the wineries consulted--perhaps millennials inspired some of the innovations, but the enjoyment of the results spans age groups.
Hunt Country Vineyards on Italy Hill Road in Branchport (4021 Italy Hill Road) visibly incorporates the family's values into a farm experience to create an attractive destination. They invested in solar panels currently supplying most of their electric needs; a geothermal loop heats and cools their buildings. They have charging ports for electric cars. They'll talk about this on their tours, as well as what's current in the vineyard. They're dog-friendly and sales from one of their wines funds contributions to the Yates County Humane Society. Outdoor picnic tables invite visitors to share lunch with their pooches, there are lawn games, and a chance to observe the rustic ambiance of a multi-generational working farm. Their on-site café--for two-legged visitors only--features organic produce they grow on the farm. "And we're working on organic wines," says Karsten Konig, tasting room manager.
Konig is one of two on staff whose knowledge of wine has been enhanced by intensive study in the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) program, learning a holistic approach to wine presentation. "Customers enjoy learning and we do it in a way that would not be intimidating," he says. "People would be put off by wine snobs, but we're really passionate about it." Customers can opt for a tasting with nibbles of chocolate or cheese. They can come after hours for concerts; in late July they're sponsoring a workshop on building dry stone walls and they have an annual harvest festival.
The combination of music and wine has been adopted by at least a third of the wineries, scheduling popular after-business-hours events week nights and week-ends, generally showcasing the talents of area musicians. Vineyard View Winery (Williams Hill Road, Keuka Park) hosts a band for their summer music series, the first and third Fridays. After a few years of scheduling visiting food trucks, this year they purchased their own, rolling it out for special events. "We're doing all right with it," says staffer Katie Hunt.
Not every environment is suitable for music, though, so the staff at Fulkerson Winery listened to their customers and adjusted. "There's been a shift in tasting room traffic," owner Steven Fulkerson says. "The millennial crowd wants more of an experiential outing. We saw the need for something else than the standard come in, taste wine, buy wine, leave." So they began offering vineyard tours, typically about an hour long. In the course of this walk, visitors hear not only about the more than two centuries this land was farmed but also how the retreat of glaciers after the last ice age left alluvial deposits particularly suited to grape growing.
And it's not just younger people enjoying these tours --among recent participants were older members of a garden club and visitors from overseas who rejoiced in the lush greens they saw around them. Visitors may also choose a self-guided tour, followed by a tasting or enhanced tasting. Depending on the season, there's also you-pick fruit and veggies, pressed juice for home winemakers and instruction on how to use it.
Many wineries have unique distinguishing features, like the boathouse at Miles Wine Cellars, unique festivals like Fox Run's annual celebration of garlic, special art or concert events and cafes whose meals have been developed with input from winemakers. Visitors can plan ahead by checking winery websites for the most up to date information or trail websites for general information (senecalakewine.com and keukawinetrail.com).