FINGER LAKES, N.Y. -- It's a cool, sunny morning, and the wineries of the Finger Lakes Wine Trail, in the rolling, vine-covered hills that slope down to deep blue Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga lakes in central New York, are pouring samples of their wares for visiting tourists.
The wines are surprisingly varied -- both familiar and little-known, tracing the whole history of the American vine: chardonnay and riesling and merlot; baco noir and seyval blanc; catawba, elvira and Delaware.
The scenery is spectacular -- a rural area of deep, pure lakes, picturesque gorges cut by thundering waterfalls, pristine oak and maple forests and friendly small towns where the family-run bed and breakfast is the shelter of choice.
If it sounds a bit like California's Napa and Sonoma counties 20 years ago, that's one reason the Finger Lakes region today is determinedly proclaiming itself The Other Wine Country.
It's no idle boast. Tourists from surrounding states have loved the Finger Lakes for decades; it's a five-hour drive or less from Manhattan, Toronto, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. But the area didn't explode as a national tourist destination until the fame and reputation of its wineries began to grow less than a decade ago.
Since 1995, the number of wineries has increased from 40 to 70, helping to make New York state second only to California for wine production; the number of tourists has increased from 9 million to 22.2 million a year, according to The Finger Lakes Association.
"We've always had our lakes, but now our wineries have become our No. 1 attraction," says spokeswoman Laurie Nichiporuk.
Why? In major part, it is because many of the wineries are switching from such old-style, little-appreciated grapes as catawba and baco noir and planting main-line grapes such as riesling, chardonnay and merlot.
Wine Spectator magazine says the area makes "some of the best riesling in the United States." New York Times writer Howard Goldberg praises the area's "inexpensive, family-oriented vacationland."
And if the Finger Lakes area still trails California's Napa and Sonoma counties in the splendor of its resorts and the cutting-edge quality of its restaurants, the people who live here call that a virtue.
"This is a small town," says Linda Smyder, who, with husband, John, runs The Gables Bed and Breakfast, serving a sweet and chewy Dutch apple pancake breakfast to guests in their prettily restored 1874 Victorian house in the village of Watkins Glen.
"Everybody's friendly; everybody knows each other."
It's true that visitors driving the Finger Lakes Wine Trail experience none of the rush-hour traffic that clogs California's Route 29 between San Francisco and such world-renowned destinations as Robert Mondavi Winery, Beaulieu Vineyard and Beringer Vineyards.
Here, sparsely traveled two-lane blacktop roads link such lesser-known but up-and-coming wineries as Red Newt, Hazlitt, Lamoreaux Landing, Standing Stone, Hermann J. Wiemer. And they stand just as ready to welcome tourists, with tasting rooms, restaurants, gift shops, picnic areas, even wedding facilities.
Certainly the Finger Lakes' chief attraction is its beauty. Seneca tribal legend says the 11 long, deep, narrow lakes were formed when a Great Spirit raked his fingernails along the earth. More prosaic modern geologists credit the grinding glaciers of the last Ice Age scoring the soft shale soils.
Whatever the mechanism, it worked. The major lakes -- Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco -- are up to 650 feet deep, too deep to freeze over in winter, their sheer mass of water moderating the area's winter temperatures, making it possible to grow mainline grapevines farther north than usual.
Still, winery tours are far from the only attractions in the Finger Lakes.
On a given summer or fall day, a tourist could drive the length of one of the lakes, about 35 miles, visiting the wineries' tasting rooms, wine museums, gift shops and restaurants; pause for lunch at the Village Tavern in Hammondsport, watch a live glass-blowing exhibition at the spectacular Corning Museum of Glass, walk under a waterfall at Watkins Glen State Park, hike the North Country National Scenic Trail system, savor a gourmet dinner at restaurants old-fashioned or new wave, then settle in under a down comforter at a friendly bed-and-breakfast inn. There's also boating, perch fishing directly off the docks, fall foliage tours, professional auto races at Watkins Glen International Race Track, the old-fashioned Seneca County Fair, dining cruises on Seneca Lake, shopping in restored historical areas such as Corning's Historic Market Street and Hammondsport's Village Square.
Cultural activities are equally varied -- the National Warplane Museum, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum of cars, motorcycles and airplanes, the Rockwell Museum of Western American Art, Broadway plays at the Clemens Center for the Performing Arts, concerts by the Syracuse Symphony, art and jazz festivals at wineries.
The Finger Lakes area has some big chain hotels -- the Radisson in Corning, the Ramada Inn in Syracuse. But many tourists prefer the bed-and-breakfast inns in restored 19th-Century houses -- Merritt Hill Manor in Penn Yan, an 1822 country estate once a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves; Rufus Tanner House, an 1864 Greek Revival farm house surrounded by sugar maple trees. And while the Finger Lakes restaurant scene hasn't reached the cutting-edge quality of Napa or Sonoma, it is moving in that direction. At Seasons Restaurant in Watkins Glen, chef Brud Holland, trained at the Vermont Culinary Institute, serves savory Creole oysters at $6.50; lobster-stuffed sole at $18.25 and hand-rolled gnocchi with spinach, Portobello mushrooms and romano cheese at $15.95, nicely matched by Dr. Konstantin Frank's soft, fruity Salmon Run Chardonnay.
At Red Newt Cellars on Lake Seneca, chef Debra Whiting is making pork chops stuffed with corn bread, rhubarb, walnuts and Swiss chard in a rhubarb sage sauce for $16.95, accompanied by a delicate, fruity Red Newt Riesling.
Still, the area's tourism future lies in its wineries. Overall, Finger Lakes wines range from world-class to primarily educational. But this means that, in an easy day's travel, a wine aficionado can taste the whole history of American wines.
Wine tastings are mostly free, with no reservations needed. Just show up and say hello, and the tasting-room folks will pour you tiny samples of their wines. It's de rigueur to swirl, sniff, slosh and -- unless you have a designated driver with you -- to spit.
Visitors are not required to buy anything, but if you taste a dozen wines and spend an hour at a winery, it would be nice to show your appreciation.
Unlike California's wine country, the Finger Lakes wineries can show you flavors from three distinctive eras of American wine.
At Bully Hill Vineyards, for example, the wines are catawba, elvira, Delaware -- hardy American native grapes that have grown along the Eastern Seaboard for centuries. The taste: grapy, simple, sweet.
At Cascata Winery, the wine is baco noir, a hybrid grape developed by French vintners around 1900 seeking better-tasting wines and vines that could withstand the frigid winters of North America. The taste: charry oak, resin, black cherries; a step up, but still unfamiliar to most American palates.
At Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, the wines are chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir. The taste: crisp, rich and dry - as main-line and familiar to American tastes as anything from California or Europe.
And it is winery events that give the area its down-home flavor. Festivals occur year-round: Chocolate and wine for Valentine's Day in February, cheese and wine in April, croquet and wine in May, pasta and wine in June, a Deck the Halls festival in late November in which wineries hand out holiday decorations.
Then there are events of purely local flavor: the annual Cardboard Boat Race, which focuses as much on staying afloat as on forward progress; the Seneca Lake Whale Watch -- no whales, of course, but a good excuse for a party.
"They try to have something going on almost every weekend through a lot of the year," Smyder says.
Accolades for Finger Lakes wines and its wine country are coming now from all around the country. Dr. Frank's 1999 Semi-Dry Johannisberg Riesling won top honors in four consecutive national wine competitions this year: the Pacific Rim International, San Bernardino, Calif.; the San Diego National Wine Competition; the Riverside, Calif., International Wine Competition and the Tasters Guild International, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Said Wine Spectator magazine: "We think some of the best riesling in the United States hails from this area."
"The emerging consensus is that the lakes are virtually certain to become North America's pre-eminent riesling domain," wrote Goldberg, the New York Times editor and wine writer.
"Winery visiting aside, tens of thousands of visitors are attracted to the Finger Lakes' inexpensive, family-oriented vacationland of waterfalls, gorges, streams, canals and rivers."
Added The Boston Sunday Globe: "The Finger Lakes and surrounding countryside proved fertile ground for truly offbeat destinations and scenery of singular beauty."