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.