2000s Archive

New York State of Mind

Originally Published July 2005
The pastoral pleasures of the Finger Lakes region are hiding in plain sight, somewhere between the vineyards and a new crop of farm-friendly restaurants.

My sister returned from the bathroom and settled in before her plate of eggs. “It must’ve been the fried dough,” she said, squelching a smile as she reached for her glass of juice.

It had been, of course, the Genesee on tap, and our grandmother surely knew as much. We weren’t the first of her progeny to arrive at breakfast looking a little the worse for wear after a night at the Yates County Fair. It was the summer of 1979, and at 13 and 14, Joanne and I weren’t much good at drinking anything, let alone that stuff they sold on the midway for 50 cents a cup.

Keg beer, fried dough, demolition derbies: It was all new to us, part of a world that also included flame-licked bass straight from the water and fields that smelled of strawberry jam where you could plop yourself down and gorge on fruit plucked right from the dirt. A world where Mennonites clopped down Main Street in smart black carriages and strode nonchalantly into the supermarket in their Little House on the Prairie hats. “The Lake” we called it then and still do today, a mythical place where the stars shot through the night sky, the hassles of suburbia melted away, and childhood, simple and sunny, enveloped us in its arms.

It was usually just after the Fourth that the seven of us would pile into our station wagon for the six-hour drive up to Nonny Kay’s cottage, in Penn Yan. The wishbone-shaped part of the network that comprises central New York’s Finger Lakes, Keuka Lake was just far enough from Manhattan to have avoided colonization by city sophisticates, and back then it felt like a little pocket lost to time. For my four siblings and me, it was pure heaven. (How my fastidious grandmother felt about those two-week visits, when her orderly redoubt disappeared beneath wet towels and bathing suits, is another question.)

By the time we were in junior high, Joanne and I were spending most of our summers with Nonny Kay. We’d wake to the sound of the waves gently lapping on the pebble beach below and sleepily make our way out to the dock, where we’d schlump our skinny adolescent bodies into inner tubes and tuck our sunburned noses into novels, emerging only for a dip or to check out some boys on a passing boat.

The quiet evenings were spent crouching over jigsaw puzzles and lingering over meals of pan-seared trout, sweet corn on the cob, and frenched green beans, all of it throbbing with personality out there on the sun-splashed porch. Nonny Kay would sip from her cut-glass tumbler of pink Catawba, then retreat to the kitchen to dish out juicy strawberries dolloped with sour cream and sprinkled with sandy brown sugar. We climbed into bed happy those nights, then would get giggling so hard in the wobbly double bed that we’d prompt a disciplinary knock from the other side of the wall.

Long after Nonny Kay had gone, my siblings and I still made annual visits to the Lake. But they were often tinged with disappointment. With each trip, it seemed, we’d be met by another McDonald’s or Rite Aid; find a tacky pizza or video joint where there used to be a stately old Victorian. But the real problem was that we were outgrowing the place: Our own worlds had expanded and our tastes had matured, and the sidewalk sales and county fairs that once seemed so exotic now struck us as vaguely depressing.

In the past few years, though, all that’s begun to change. To get a sense of just how much, Joanne and I say good-bye to our husbands and kids and climb into the car for an extended trip back. Our first afternoon in Penn Yan, we wander into the dumpy liquor store on Main Street to find the shopkeeper chatting away in French with a young guy in funky glasses. Raymond Knfo was drawn here from Morocco, we learn, by the region’s burgeoning wine culture, and his hipster customer is interning at the two-year-old Ravines Wine Cellars, across the lake. There isn’t a bottle of pink Catawba in sight.

To be fair, winemaking in the Finger Lakes is nothing new—grapes have been grown here since the mid-19th century. But it wasn’t until 50 years ago, when a Ukrainian immigrant named Dr. Konstantin Frank settled in the region, that things really got off the ground. Speaking little English, Frank took a job as a janitor at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, in nearby Geneva, but as soon as he could make them understood, the former professor of plant science shared his theories on viticulture with anyone who’d listen. Unlike his contemporaries, Frank believed that the region could do a lot better than the native Vitis labrusca (Concord, Catawba, and the like) then blanketing its hills. With its deep, glacier-carved lakes, the area was, he insisted, ideal for growing European varietals like Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Frank eventually planted some 60 varieties of Vitis vinifera in the hills above Keuka Lake, and by 1962 he had founded his own winery there. Today, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, run by his son and grandson, produces some 50,000 cases a year, and the awards lining its walls number in the hundreds.

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