by Chef Joe LaVilla

The road is one I traveled frequently 25 years ago. Much of the scenery hasn’t changed. There are still rolling farm fields, Amish farmers with horse-drawn tractors and road side fruit and vegetable stands stocked with what was picked that day.  One addition is slowly taking over the landscape of this stretch of Upstate New York – grape vines. Back in the day, there were a handful of wineries in the area, having gotten permission to make wine via the Farm Winery Act in 1976.  By the early 1980s, some were already on their way to discovering what would be the best grapes of the Finger Lakes region – Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Now, twenty five years later, there are dozens of wineries, each producing some of the best Rieslings in the nation.

Rieslings and Gewurztraminers in the Finger Lakes are made in two different styles. The more familiar semi-dry is similar to the style of off-dry Rieslings found in Germany or Washington State. Dry Riesling has very little residual sugar and is more along the style of Alsace or Australia, without as high an alcohol content. Almost every producer makes both styles. For many wine geeks, the true test of the producer is their dry style because the sugar in the semi-dry can mask some errors from the vineyard or winery.

At a recent tasting of Finger Lakes wine, several producers have show how far the region has come. The best were two old standards and two up-and-comers – Hermann J. Wiemer and Dr Konstantin Frank of the old garde along with Lakewood Vineyards and Sheldrake Point from the newer generation. 

The Wiemer Dry Riesling Reserve is a revelation of how good a Finger Lakes Riesling can be. With right rounded acidity, a lime zest and grapefruit profile, and just a hint of minerality to contrast, the wine is absolutely delicious.  It even has the classic kerosene nose found in top German Rieslings (though a bit unusual to some of my tasting buddies).  It’s no wonder the Wine Spectator gave it 91 points (for people who care about those things). This wine is made from a collection of estate grown grapes, though Wiemer also makes two single vineyard Rieslings from their plots along Seneca Lake. 

Close behind is the Sheldrake Point Dry Riesling. Originating practically on a beach along Cayuga Lake, the wine is a reflection of a slightly warmer mesoclimate.  A little fuller bodied than the Wiemer, the Sheldrake Point Dry Riesling is rich with peach and apricot flavors balanced by the classic rounded acidity of the varietal. This wine was awarded 91 points by Wine and Spirits magazine (again, for those keeping track). 

Dr. Konstantin Frank was the man who introduced vinifera varietals to the Finger Lakes region. We have him to thank for showing that cool weather white grapes could not only survive but thrive in the region.  Because the Dr. Frank winery is one of the oldest in New York State, located along Keuka Lake, it has the ability to foretell the future of the region.  I say this because of the dry Gewurztraminer.  Not a popular grape (unless made off-dry), the Dr. Frank wine is made from 50-year old vines. That age translates to a wine that is complex and full bodied. A fairly Alsatian styled wine, the Dr Frank Gewurz is rich with notes of cold cream, lychees and spice, with just enough acidity and minerality to keep it from being fat and flabby. 

Lakewood Vineyards, on Seneca Lake near Watkins Glen, is not nearly as established as Dr. Frank, but is already nipping at its heals. Their Gewurztraminer has all the characteristics of the classical varietal – tropical fruit, cold cream, minerality. The biggest difference is that the Lakewood is lighter bodied than the Dr Frank, not unexpected considering the age of the vines.

All in all, if you are a lover of crisp white wines, track down some Finger Lakes Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. That said, expect it to be a bit difficult.  Most of the wines are sold within 50 miles of the wineries. Maybe just the reason you need to spend some time in Upstate New York on a lake-hopping, country-driving winery tour.


About Joe LaVilla

Chef LaVilla is the Academic Director for the Culinary Arts programs at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Phoenix. Besides being a Certified Executive Chef, Chef LaVilla also holds a certification from the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) as a Certified Sommelier. In addition, Chef LaVilla is experienced in food styling, food and wine pairing, the hospitality industry, culinary arts management, and more.

Before joining The Art Institute of Phoenix, LaVilla had been Executive Chef for Tucchetti restaurant in Phoenix. He has worked for Mark Tarbell as well as Wolfgang Puck. His credits include, “Faculty of the Year” award at The Art Institute of Phoenix; finalist in the Arizona Pork Council Taste of Elegance Competition; and author of the textbook “The Handbook of Wine, Beer and Spirits: A Guide to Styles and Service”.

Chef LaVilla received his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the University of Rochester and his Bachelor of Arts degree, Cum Laude, in Chemistry from Cornell University. He also received an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts from the Culinary Institute of America, where he graduated with honors.