To follow the signs for the Chautauqua wine trail along Route 20 is to pass rows and rows of vines tied to stakes. Turn into winery driveways and sips of sweet, dry, peppery, smooth and sparkling fermented elixirs are free.
Choose a bottle to take home. Make holiday fetes stand out with a swallow of something from the shores of Lake Erie that spans two states beginning in Fredonia and on through Pennsylvania.
Barrels of reds, whites, blushes, sherries, ports and fruit wines are bottled at 11 wineries that banded together into an association four years ago. They show off at tasting counters in homey farmhouses and even an elegant stucco affair with wrought-iron chandeliers.
Winery staff patiently serves fussy palates. They keep pouring from the dry-to-sweet spectrum, until it's right.
And, for those who taste, there is etiquette. "It's a good gesture to buy a bottle wherever you go," said Abby Nash, a lecturer at Cornell University's school of hospitality in Ithaca.
It's worth the trouble, he said. Such experimentation makes wine less intimidating. "One doesn't have to know anything at all to enjoy it," Nash said. Yet: "If you really get interested in wine, you can spend the rest of your life exploring it."
Plan a route at www.chautauquawinetrail.org. Consider this list of eight. The stops below were managed in one visit, but three more wait for the next jaunt: South Ripley's Blueberry Sky Farms fruit winery, with elderberry, blueberry and dandelion wines, and Penn Shore and Presque Isle in Pennsylvania.
Merritt Estate Winery
2264 King Road, Forestville. 965-4800. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tours by arrangement. Picnic pavilion.
Step to the door of this wine shop down a vineyard edged drive and the first smell is of classic grape juice. Inside a pleasant clerk listened to customers mull over the wines. If the taste was too sweet, she'd offer something dryer, moving along the list of 22 varieties to find a fit. The small wine crackers, slightly sweet like animal crackers, are for palate cleansing between sips. I sampled Merlot -- dry, hint of plum -- and the Chautauqua Red, which is "good with pizza," and smelled of grape juice. Overheard: "This is a great activity for a rainy day." Bought: Seyval Blanc, $8.99, for its clean, crisp, dry aftertaste.
Willow Creek Winery
2627 Chapin Road, Sheridan. 934-9463. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tours: Monday through Friday. Picnic grove and pavilion for large parties.
The big windows behind the tasting counter make choosing samples from the 15 wines here a pleasure. The Cabernet Franc had a good, dry uncomplicated taste. The Merlot was dry and peppery. The Chambourcin had a cherry smell and aftertaste. The Dry Concord had a grape-juice smell and flavor without a cloying finish. Overheard: "We had a goose go down there and never come back up again," said the clerk of the back pond and its hungry five-pound bass. Bought: Chardonnay, $12.99, for its clean finish, without the oakiness that can seem sour.
3230 South Roberts Road, Fredonia. 679-9463. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tours: Hourly. Picnic tables, pavilion.
One of the wine-filled oak barrels out back can be had for $495, along with its yield of eight cases of wine. A windowed tasting counter beneath a high ceilinged shop featured a relaxed black cat. The Chardonnay had classic oakiness. The sweet wines here are the winery's current strength. The Seyval white was sweet at first with a dry finish. The Riesling was the reverse. One woman sipped happily and said, "I'll take a case of that." Bought: Glacier Ridge Red, $10.99. Tried later with steak, this wine with a dry tang pleased guests. "It's smooth, it has body and I like it," said one.
Vetter Vineyards Winery
8005 Prospect Station Road, Westfield. 326-3100. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. No tours. Picnic tables on hillside.
The place has one of the prettiest views of any. Farmhouse-tasting room sits on a hill and the vineyards spill out below in a combed sweep. Church steeple punctuates horizon nicely. Some whites had oakiness. The Cabernet had thin light taste. The Barcelona Red was sweet going in with a peppery aftertaste. Bought: Dry Reisling, $10.90, at the proprietresses urging. At home it was sipped with alternate bites of marinated shrimp and praised for its clean finish and clear, dry fruity-ness.
8419 West Main Road, Westfield. 326-2191. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. Tours: July and August.
The grape-laden vines along the edge of the parking lot look so perfect, ripe and purple, it is as if arranged by an artist. The shop's old wooden door, squared paned windows and cement floor makes the visit here seem old fashioned. Friendly clerk poured samples of the dry Seyval with licorice hints. As I tasted, favoring the dry ones, she gave this assessment of me: "You like French-American hybrids. That's what you're into." Bought: Chancellor, $7.99, a pleasant and slightly bitter grape-like red.
Schloss Doepken Winery
9177 Old Route 20, Ripley. 326-3636. Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. daily. No tours. Picnic table.
This clapboard house with its gift shop and tasting room has homey lace curtain and more rules than anyplace I visited. All wine tastes must be finished; winery does not believe in wasting its wine. A worthy sentiment, as the range of lightly sweet reds and whites tasted good. The clerk offered menu suggestions: The Roxanne Rouge would be good with steak and Portobello mushrooms. Of the non-oak Chardonnay, she said, "You're not getting just oak and it's nothing like you just bit into a wooden board." For $16.50, I bought a bottle. At home later, its dry pear-like taste impressed a friend. "I would get Chardonnay more if it tasted like this," she said.
Arrowhead Wine Cellars
12073 East Main Road, North East, Pa. (814) 725-5509. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tours by appointment.
This place not far from a McDonald's was the least bucolic of the shops I visited. Inside a new shop has lots of wine gee gaws, top 40 radio playing in the background, and a long row of wine bottles, necks draped in award-medals. The wines had nice sweet flavors, along with a peppery Cabernet Franc. Bought: Port, winner of a 2004 silver, $12.99. Served after one meal, it was reviled by guests as too much like grape juice and nothing like port. It's better use, we decided, would be as a pear poaching liquid for some future dessert.
11815 East Lake Road, North East, Pa. (814) 725-8695. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday and Saturday; noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Tours: Yes.
This pretty yellow stucco building with big barrels and grape vines along the drive was one of the prettiest stops. Inside, it has terra cotta tiled floors, high ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers. Some 30 wines to choose from, the variety was seductive. The Pinot Grigio was smooth, light bodied and earthy. The Cabernet Franc was peppery and pungent. The port and sherry tasted rich. The raspberry tasted of the tart fruit and had no sweet aftertaste. Bought: Classic red, $7.95. At home later with lamb stew, it was admired for the light sweetness and smooth finish.
If you go
Finding places to sleep and eat, which can make the experience seem more like an away-from-it-all-plane-ticket trip. But creating a package requires conversational investigation. It's worth the trouble.
Some proprietors can also make suggestions on area restaurants. I was directed to Outer Limits, a bright Route 20 diner that served a nice if overly salty, pan-fried fish lunch for $7.50. After researching bed and breakfasts online -- there are a slew in wine country -- I chose Westfield's Glenroth Inn. The converted ski lodge with views of Lake Erie and a pair of gliding pond swans also boasts a German baron innkeeper. He will arrange for a masseuse on request. His chandelier and gilded decorating tastes can best be described as castle-like.
A timely tasting
The Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail is making wine touring more festive by adding food into the equation during "Festival Holiday Tastings." During the event, taking place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, Saturday and next Sunday, the wineries augment their usual plates of palate cleansing wine crackers. Savory and sweet tastes will be specially prepared by each winery to match their wines.
Tickets include a commemorative wine glass, ornament and recipe cards. Couples can share in the goodies for $47. Singles are $31. Pay in advance. Call 679-1891, or order online at www.chautauquawinetrail.org.