Yes, we have no bananas
Finding Austria on Route 414
The southeast shore of Seneca Lake is known as the “banana belt” because the afternoon sun lingers through the summer on its high, steep, shaley, west-facing slopes, making the region unusually warm. Vinifera grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot do well here. Some, like Syrah, grow in very few other places in the Finger Lakes. In addition to trying some excellent wine, you can find stunning views, good food, and a vibrant local community devoted to growing and preparing food. If you drove there directly from Rochester, you’d be there in an hour and a half.
But don’t do that; take your time. Get up at a reasonable hour, make yourself some coffee, and drive to the Magee Diner (1303 Rte 414). It’s a few hundred yards down Route 414 from the Waterloo exit (41) of the New York State Thruway (forty-five minutes from Rochester). The gambrel-roofed building advertises its rural bent (farmers get ten percent off) and the breakfast menu includes all of the American favorites. If you are going to drink some wine, you should start the day with a good meal. (Personal favorite: two eggs over easy on corned beef hash with rye toast.)
You almost never have to leave Route 414 on this trip. It brings you from Magee to downtown Seneca Falls, a nice place for a walk to settle your breakfast. Check out the hamlet’s “other” museum at 89 Fall Street, devoted to waterways and industry (rather than women’s rights). Try to imagine Frank Capra wandering the sidewalks, creating Bedford Falls and George Bailey in his mind’s eye but don’t look for the eponymous falls; they’ve been under the canal since 1817.
Drop down through rural Seneca County to the village of Ovid (pronounced OH-vid to make classicists cringe). You will see “The Three Bears” on a rise above the village green on your left. The county has a “half-shire” system with two county seats, and these are the old county buildings for the south shire. In the modern era the board of supervisors meets here only once a year. Make a mental note to visit the Golden Buck (2082 West Seneca Street) for dinner on your way home. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, it is mostly visited by locals and serves comfort food. Not artisan nouvelle comfort food but the real thing.
To take a look at picturesquely gullied slopes of Seneca Lake, take the first right off Route 414 south of Ovid (Combs Road) to County Road 131 (Upper Lake Road). This leads you through fields and woodlots and over multiple creeks carved into the Legoland-like sedimentary bedrock. When you join Route 414 again you’ll be at the top of the banana belt.
Stop in at the King’s Garden Vineyards (9085 Route 414, Lodi). Owned by Mendon native Mike Oleksyn and his wife, Corinne, (who is from Watkins Glen), the vineyard opened in 2008. Oleksyn leaves the wine in the barrel longer than most winemakers. That and the lake-warmed location of his vineyard at Lodi Point makes for some of the fullest-bodied wine you’ll find in the Finger Lakes. Their Cabernet Franc is remarkably robust, more like a California Cabernet Sauvignon than your usual Finger Lakes vintage.
Shalestone Vineyards (9681 Route 414, Lodi) makes only red wine, and owner Rob Thomas has recently added Lemberger and Zweigelt grapes to his lexicon. The latter grape is a cross between Lemberger and St. Laurent. Both are part of the Finger Lakes drift toward growing central European varieties. If you are lucky enough to find Thomas in the tasting room when you arrive, you’re in for a treat. For one thing, he knows an enormous amount about winemaking. For another, a conversation with him feels like improv theater. (During a recent visit, he walked up to a young couple from Rochester and without preamble said, “Well, it looks like you’re in love.”)
Shalestone Zweigelt is light bodied but with a full and complex flavor. It compares favorably to Austrian bottles. This is only the second vintage year Thomas has released, and he wasn’t entirely happy with either grape harvest. But as he told a woman who asked him how he got his wines to be so richly colored, anyone can make good wine in a good harvest year. His is good every year.
You should be spitting out most of the wine after tasting it so you don’t get completely schnockered. Even so, lunch is important. Options include the Stonecat Café (5315 Route 414, Hector), a locavore joint in a converted vegetable stand. The food is as good as the place is hip. At lunch try the pulled pork; chef Scott Signori is a barbecue genius.
For less funk and more suavity try the bistro at Red Newt Cellars (3675 Tichenor Road, Hector), a more clearly nouvelle place where the floor is all on one level.
Even more elegant is Dano’s Heuriger. Chef Dano Hutnik presents food in a style you will associate with tapas, but a heuriger is an Austrian tradition: pickled vegetable salads, sausages, and fish. Save room for Karen Gilman’s desserts.
After lunch try something a little different at Leidenfrost Vineyards (5677 Route 414, Hector). John Leidenfrost Jr. planted vinifera grapes in the 1980s but kept some of his father’s French hybrids. Not many regional winemakers still bottle Baco Noir, and Leidenfrost’s version of this medium-bodied red wine is worth trying. Its cherry notes will remind you of Pinot Noir, but the ease with which it grows makes it considerably less expensive.
As a final stop before dinner, drop into Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars (9224 Route 414, Lodi). Founder Mark Wagner is a member of the multigeneration grape-growing/winemaking family. Lamoreaux Landing’s central European variety is Grüner Veltliner, a food-friendly dry white, and it has been winning medals in international competitions. The citrus notes will remind you of Cayuga White, and the minerality is like Sauvignon Blanc, but it has a fruit and spice palette of its own.
Bill Chaisson is the managing editor of the Ithaca Times and lives in Trumansburg in an old bean barn.