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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.

Others were slow to follow, but by last summer there were no fewer than 75 wineries dotting the shores of Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga lakes, most of them—like the boutique Ravines, where the bespectacled intern helps Danish-born Morten Hallgren produce European-style Rieslings, Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs—devoted to vinifera wines. Pulling into the leafy driveway at Seneca Lake’s Hermann J. Wiemer, run by the scion of a family that’s been making wine in the Mosel Valley for 300 years, Joanne points to a sign informing limos and buses that they’re welcome by appointment only.

Even with the wine scene exploding, though, the food in the Finger Lakes had lagged sorely behind. Over the years, we’d hear about one new restaurant or another opening and eagerly go check it out, only to be confronted with disastrous renditions of “Continental cuisine” lacking in either context or style. But on this trip, we find that this is changing, too.

Traipsing through his apple orchards with Louis Lego, you can’t help but succumb to his enthusiasm for the region’s culinary promise. Eight years ago, Lego and his wife, Merby, quit their jobs to farm full-time, and today they oversee a staggering variety of organic fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs on the 100 acres surrounding their home, near Auburn.

In his shorts and T-shirt, gray hair peeking out from under his straw hat, Lego leads us toward his elderberry bushes and Asian pear trees, rambling on about their merits like a nerdy kid showing off his stamps. We wander past the building that houses the year-old Restaurant at Elderberry Pond, and he segues into the tale of how, two years ago, he and his family bumbled their way into the enterprise. “We way underestimated how much this was gonna cost,” he says, shaking his head as he recounts having to remortgage the 150-year-old farmhouse and invest all their retirement money despite having finagled a $60,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture.

And that was only the beginning. The kitchen equipment they’d bought on eBay broke down, and he was constantly being harassed by the chef—his 32-year-old son Chris—for failing to keep up with demand. “‘I have to have a dependable supplier,’ he’d say to me, ‘or maybe I should just go to Sysco.’ He knows all the hot buttons.”

Sitting beneath the exposed beams in the handsome dining room, you’d never know the restaurant had got off to such a rocky start. The young servers move confidently among the Craftsman-style tables, their manner as down-to-earth as the food on the plates. An heirloom Chioggia-beet salad and red-skinned Norland potatoes with peas and mint sing of the surrounding soil, and the flavors of a raspberry almond tart are as clear and bright as the garnetlike fruit peeking from beneath the crust. Lego wanders the wide-plank floors, stopping to chat and infecting everyone with his easy laugh.

In their modern kitchen sipping a local Cabernet Franc after the Saturday-night rush, Suzanne Stack and her husband, Robert, are no less ebullient. The New Jersey residents were vacationing three years ago when they saw a “For Sale” sign on a 1903 farmhouse, high above Seneca Lake. “I totally blew it with the realtor,” says Suzanne, describing how her eyes welled up the minute she stepped inside. “It was like I’d been waiting for this place all my life.”

Modeled on the country inns she’s long admired in Europe, her year-old restaurant, Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine, highlights the organic produce that Stack grows on the 100 acres that came with the house, as well as on what she gets from area farmers, vintners, and cheesemakers. Sharing honest, finely wrought dishes like a smoky late-summer chowder sweet with just-picked corn, Joanne and I find it hard to believe that this is the Finger Lakes we grew up with.

We have a similar reaction emerging from the luxurious spa at Skaneateles’s Mirbeau Inn, where we’d been wowed the night before by the cooking coming from Edward Moro’s kitchen. Opened in 2000, Mirbeau has done as much as any establishment to raise the profile of the region, and despite its slightly bizarre conceit (it’s a re-creation of Monet’s Giverny, down to the arched bridge and lily pads), it is absolutely transporting.

A night at the Aurora Inn is no less disarming. An 1833 building that reopened two years ago with ten chic rooms wired for high-speed Internet, this Federal-style stunner on Cayuga Lake is the brainchild of Pleasant T. Rowland, the founder of the American Girl doll company and an alumna of Aurora’s Wells College. Over the past decade, Rowland has poured millions into revitalizing the tiny town, and the tourists are starting to take notice.

It’s actually something of a relief to get back out on the road, where the self-service farm stands and hills dotted with Holsteins return us to the Lake we remember. Windows down and stereo up loud, we fly through the undulating landscape, marveling at the years gone by and the details that flood back: the year we dated the guys with motorcycles (“Couldn’t you find some nice lakefront boys?” my grandmother had inquired mildly, not for the first time betraying her disappointment that her eldest son—our dad—had ended up with a townie), and the time Joanne got stranded out in the rowboat. We breeze by silos and satellite dishes, braking behind a slow-moving tractor and again as we approach a group of Mennonites pedaling uphill in their stiff suspenders and hats. Green fields give way to six-foot walls of corn, orderly rows of squat cabbage, and finally the vineyards themselves—mile after mile of vines splayed out sweetly like those construction-paper chains of children standing hand in hand. And finally there’s our beloved Keuka, white sails gliding across its shimmering surface, brown and green farmland checkering its far shore.

Our wheels crunch over Nonny Kay’s gravel driveway and we make our way down to the beach. Out on the dock, Joanne pours two glasses of the Johannisberg Riesling we’ve picked up at Dr. Frank’s. And we sit there sipping silently as the lake laps softly over the stones, giving us back to ourselves, everything and nothing changed.