Well-trod Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail features explosion of wineries

Anita Dufalla, Post-Gazette
By Bob Batz Jr.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY, N.Y. -- So many grapes grow here, the country's top grape-producing county outside California, that, as they ripen in fall, the aroma fills the air like spicy sweet incense.

Some 20,000 acres of grape vines stretch in wave-like rows along New York's Lake Erie shore, flowing into 12,000 more acres in Erie County in northeast Pennsylvania.

Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette
The bubbly Diane Noble, who, with her husband, Pete, runs the Noble Winery that opened this July near Westfield, N.Y.
Click photo for larger image.
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Native purple Concord grapes dominate the landscape. Most of those and local white Niagara grapes are sold to the locally headquartered National Grape Cooperative, which owns Welch Foods Inc., helping to make New York the No. 2 grape juice state (after Washington).

But more and more of those vines are leading to wines as wineries proliferate and shift to growing French-American and European wine grapes.

And that's bringing more wine drinkers to the region, as tasters and tourists.

"It has exploded," says Jennifer Johnson, who married into the family that still runs New York's first estate winery. The Johnson Estate Winery, on U.S. Route 20 near Westfield, started in 1961.

Now, says the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, New York is the country's second biggest producer of wine, with 211 wineries. Sixty-three of them opened in the 1990s; another 63 opened in the first five years of this decade. Wine is the fastest-growing part of the state's top two industries of agriculture and tourism.

To market themselves and to map the way for road-trippers, wineries have organized into various "wine trails." The Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail, which Ms. Johnson helps run as vice president, is unusual in that it spans two states. Started in 2001 with seven New York wineries, this year it grew from 11 to 15 stops along a 40-mile stretch between Erie and Silver Creek, N.Y. Another winery is set to open on the trail next year.

Just a 2 1/2-hour drive north of Pittsburgh, the trail is well-traveled by Western Pennsylvanians, as my wife and I found during an overnight escape on the first weekend of October.

It was a fall Saturday out of a winery brochure, with clear sunny skies and lots of color in the trees. I turned off Interstate 79 and headed over back roads into Chautauqua County. Our first stop, just after our first glimpse of the brilliant blue lake, was the appropriately named Blueberry Sky Farm Winery.

The tasting room, like some others along the trail, is nothing fancy: A sort of garage beside the house of the family who runs it. Unfortunately, we'd just missed the fresh blueberries season. But within minutes of parking, we were standing at a short bar with another couple, sipping our way through their blueberry and other fruit wines -- a long list of a dozen from apple to rhubarb, including dandelion and honey, with some in both sweet and dry versions. We also sampled the garlic and the jalapeno (but not the tomato) cooking wines.

The server wasn't well versed on how they made the wines, but she did say the cooking wines had added ingredients such as raisins to facilitate fermentation.


If you go:
Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail

See a map of vineyards and wineries along Route 90 in Pennsylvania and western New York.

The Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail holds three special events each year, and the next one is coming up on the first two weekends of November.

For these "Holiday Wine Weekends," you can purchase a ticket -- $31 for an individual or $47 for a couple -- that admits you to a wine and food tasting at each of the trail's 15 wineries. You also get one or two wine glasses, a packet of cards of recipes for the foods, and a gift -- a pair of whimsical bottle covers.

Tickets are good for either of the weekends, which do sell out. Packages are available with some bed-and-breakfasts and motels.

The other two events are a Wine and Chocolates Weekend in February (10-11) and a Wine and Cheese Weekend in May (4-5).

For tickets and more information, visit the Web site www.chautauquawinetrail.org or call 1-800-DRINKNY (374-6569).

The site has a map and links to all the wineries, lodging and more, but you also can order, or pick up at a winery, a map brochure. Road signs also point the way, but it's best to carry a map.

If you can't make an organized event, you can always create your own wine tour (the trail site's map can be customized). Most of the wineries are open daily from around 10 a.m. or noon to 5 or 6 p.m., although winter and spring hours tend to be reduced, especially on weekdays.

There are several other sources of area information, depending on where you're headed along the trail.

The North East Area Chamber of Commerce lists northeast Pennsylvania lodging and restaurants and more on its site, www.nechamber.org (or call 1-814-725-4262).

For Western New York, you could visit the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau (www.tourchautauqua.com or 1-800-242-4569).

You can find other wine trails and wineries to explore at www.pennsylvaniawine.com (or 1-877-472-9463) and www.newyorkwines.org (or 1-585-394-3620).

Ohio wineries, too, are included in the Lake Erie Viticultural Area; see www.lakeeriewine.com.

As at most wineries, the tastings are free. We bought a bottle of the blueberry ($10) for a gift and one jalapeno ($7) for a novelty and hit the road, having tasted at least 10 wines.

And it wasn't even lunchtime yet.

Down off the ridge that buffers the grape belt from extreme temperatures, we drove toward the big lake, navigating by our wine trail brochure to U.S. Route 5. We pulled into Sparkling Ponds Winery, which happened to be celebrating its grand opening.

Its tasting room is in a split-level house but is tonier. It even offers local cheese and meats to buy with your tasting, which was free, except for the ice wine. The winery's "premier offering" costs $28.99 a bottle, so a taste costs $2, refundable if you buy a bottle.

The room and the horseshoe-shaped bar were filled with chatty, happy tasters. One of our chatty, happy servers explained how the ice wine is made by leaving grapes on the vine until February, when, at 20 degrees, they freeze solid. The high-sugar juice is allowed to ferment just briefly, so the resulting dessert wine is super sweet.

A bit too sweet, thought my wife. While tasting like this, you can't help but turn into a wine judge, but we just tried to have fun. We sipped the Niagara, in still and sparkling versions, and the Concord, which wine snobs might dis as kiddie fare. But I remember my father making homemade Concord wine when I was a kid and teaching me how to make it. The result is sweet, but it has the fruitiness of that grape smell in the air.

I enjoyed trying some of the more serious reds, including a cabernet sauvignon and a cabernet franc, which always seem difficult for Lake Erie wineries to do well. I liked best a dry red made with a grape we'd never heard of, Chancellor -- and so we bought a bottle for home ($11.99).

Then we stepped outside to a table beside a small pond and munched bratwurst sandwiches and chips we'd bought but not with a bottle of wine. We had a lot of wineries yet to hit on our west-to-southeast circuit, and next we were getting Schlossed.

The Schloss Doepken Winery is infamous for its owner, who's said to be persnickety about pouring his wines in a certain order and other rules, but who's also eloquent about pairing wine and food. As we drove up to the old gray farmhouse, I was disappointed to be greeted by a younger man, but I cheered up when he brusquely ordered us to sign the guest book.

He attentively, if a bit too quickly, poured for us with some patter ("You can substitute this for your morning orange juice") but seemed to offend a woman who asked to try just the warm Apple Spice, saying, "We're going to try a lot of things today."

Indeed, we were. We went on to Johnson's tasting room, in a great low-ceilinged former cold storage building, which offers more than two dozen varieties, including a cab and a merlot, a chardonnay and a riesling. They even make red and white versions of an Elizabethan spiced wine called "ipocras."

The new Noble Winery, which opened this summer on Hardscrabble Road, has a shorter list, but we loved its signature Seyval, all the more so because it was poured for us by the owner's warm and bubbly wife, Diane Noble. She gave us a tour of the operation, which includes a short bar where kids can drink grape juice, and convinced us that their winery, built on a hill overlooking the vineyards and the lake, has the most glorious view.

We made it to Vetter Vineyards just in time to try and buy a bottle of its pinot noir, our most expensive purchase of the day at $25. Then we dropped down into Mayville, on Chautauqua Lake, just in time to check out the new Mazza Chautauqua Cellars opened by Mazza Vineyards of North East, Erie County.

We were glad to get to see this handsome "green" building, which features geothermal heat and other environmentally friendly touches, as well as a cafe, and to see the copper distillery with which they make various types of fruit "eau de vie," or "water of life." At 40 percent alcohol, it was more like water of fire, with little fruit flavor but fun to try ($1 a taste vs. $35 a bottle).

I'd reserved an affordable room at the Snow Ridge Motel so we could splurge on a fine country French dinner at La Fleur, which, unlike some local establishments, remains open until mid-December.

In the morning, we strolled around the stunning Chautauqua Institution and a ways down the rail trail along the lake before heading back to Pennsylvania. The vineyard vistas we were soaking in were busy with workers on purple pickers and in trucks hauling in the harvest.

There are four Erie County wineries on the trail (and one, Heritage, that is not). But another, Burch Farms Winery, just opened and expects to be fully licensed and part of the trail by spring. And earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program awarded a $17,500 grant for a "wine incubator" to start even more wineries. The goal is to make the North East area the Napa of Pennsylvania, according to grant recipient and grower Randy Graham, who is president of the National Grape Cooperative.

On our way home, we visited all four Pennsylvania wineries on the trail: Arrowhead (adjacent to a fruit market), the original Mazza (very cozy, delicious fruit wines, and it offers tours) and Penn Shore (open and spacious). Although Penn was our 10th winery, we still could try wines we hadn't already tasted, including a black-currant-flavored kir and a not-bad-at-all "Burgundy."

But our finest tasting experience of the whole trip was the very last, at Presque Isle Wine Cellars. On this sunny Sunday, it was offering tastings at its busy wine supply shop as well as in its Isle House Restaurant. We chose the latter and soon were seated in this lovely old home at a white cloth-covered table.

Our server was chef/manager, Joshua Hosler, who was most personable, knowledgeable and relaxed as he shared with us the winery's line of reds, which include a dark and delicious one made with a newly named hybrid grape, noiret. We ordered a plate of assorted cheeses and some bruschetta and settled back to savor it all. This, we agreed, was the best way to enjoy wine, with great food, and great company, while drifting on this sea of grapes.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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