There is nothing like waking up with the thought:
Today I am hitting the wine trail.
The skies could be gray, the temperatures terrible. It doesn’t matter. You are about to toast – literally, in many cases – the essence of Western New York. Not just our wine, but our heritage.
Wine, whether or not you drink it, reflects who we are. It involves geography, weather, land, people, everything. A wealth of festivals (see accompanying story) offer an excuse to explore this world. It is as much fun to do now as it is in summer or fall.
With which, two of us, reporter and photographer, excitedly planned two days of adventure. One trek would take us north to Niagara County, and the other would head south to the Lake Erie wine trail. These were not all-day expeditions. A handful of wineries would give us just what we needed: a taste.
Our trip got off to a dramatic start. The city editor asked that we stop at Schulze Vineyards and Winery, in Burt. It was cold, and the ice wine grapes had frozen and they had to be picked that day. Could we get a picture?
With purpose, we set out across Niagara County’s great plains, past old barns, endless fields and lovely farmhouses. Arriving at Schulze – they say it “SCHUL-tsa” – we found the grapes were all picked. The work had begun at dawn and was done by 9 a.m. But we were able to marvel at the 1950s machine that crushed the juice out of them.
We also learned why ice wine is such a delicacy: Frozen grapes yield precious little juice. So said Shaun Finley, laboring in the vineyard. “It’s like squeezing a rock.”
At Schulze, as at other wineries, you sense this area’s German heritage. It’s no accident that ice wine, a German invention, does well here – or that our area’s wines tend toward the sweet, as German wines do. The seasons here are similar to Germany’s, and the grapes that grow well there thrive here, too.
Schulze has some whimsical wines, from the popular Mon Cheri (“like cherry pop,” Tasting Room associate Emily Tinder laughed) to the fizzy Crackling Niagara. On the more patrician side is the Siegfried Reserve, made from a rare German hybrid grape. They are particularly proud of their ice wines, which have won awards. We got to try two.
“Close your eyes,” Tinder said. That way, she said, you sense the subtleties.
Eyes closed, concentrating, we could tell the difference. One, a deep amber, had an aroma of honey, and in the other, you could sense rose petals.
Glowing, we moved on to Honeymoon Trail Winery, located nearby in Lockport on Route 104 (the historic “Honeymoon Trail,” leading to Niagara Falls). We heard it had a big fireplace. The welcoming tasting room featured artisan cheese and chocolate as well as wine.
The Honeymoon Trail’s winemaker Dave Lindsay likes the slow days, when small groups of visitors allow time for him to talk shop. “We can concentrate,” he said.
It’s fun how winemakers encourage you to branch out. If you like sweet, they’ll edge you toward the dry. If you like dry, they might tempt you with a semi-dry Riesling. Lindsay, who used to work at Eastman Kodak, had mastered that art of wine suggestion.
“People shouldn’t limit themselves,” he said. “I try to make it simple. There are too many hoity-toity people in the wine world.”
Like other ambitious local wineries, Honeymoon Trail has been experimenting with more dry wines. Alongside the fruit wines and Chillin’ Catawba were a couple of nice dry reds, Baco Noir and Full Moon. Visually, though, we had eyes only for a Concord red “with a dry finish” called Honeymoon’s Over. Most of this winery’s labels show a couple dancing. On Honeymoon’s Over, they are estranged.
We ended our day at an urban winery.
Flight of Five Winery, in Old City Hall in downtown Lockport, uses locally sourced grapes and is, we hear, a popular spot for local workers. It has an antique piano, a tin ceiling and a view of the locks like something out of “Batman.”
History surrounds you. The winery gets its name from five Erie Canal locks, Locks 67 through 71, constructed in the 1820s and admired for their engineering. Proprietor Jackie Connelly filled us in on canal trivia. We learned a hoagie was the person who led the mules up the towpath, and a Canawler was a canal working squid.
The winery offers tastes in fanciful flights of five. A wine called Towpath Pickins is fruity. They are made from the apples and pears that the hoagies might have picked. Canawler Red is happily on the dry side. The Canawlers of yore would probably have liked something sweeter.
“This time of year, my favorite is Lock 67,” Connelly said. “It’s a lightly oaked, put-your-feet-up- and-light-the-fire red wine.” We agreed.
Niagara County’s wines and hospitality had brightened a gray, cold day. The next day, when we headed south on the 90 toward the Lake Erie Wine Trail, the sun was beaming.
Exiting at Westfield felt like driving into a Christmas card. Steeples and town squares were dusted with snow. Our destination was Johnson Estate, New York State’s oldest estate winery. (An estate winery is one that grows grapes.)
Johnson Estate felt like a destination. A window revealed gleaming tanks, used for wine fermentation and storage.
Its spacious, gracious tasting room even boasts a spirits bar, with New York State whiskeys. The beams over our heads, proprietor Fred Johnson explained, came from an old barn.
“They predate the Republic,” he said. “The barn was built in 1830. If the trees were 100 years old then, they were saplings when Washington was whacking down cherry trees.”
Though the winery dates to 1961, the Johnsons have owned the farm for more than a century. And before that, Johnson told us, the land was owned by William Peacock, who brokered a giant swath of land from the Holland Land Company. Peacock kept this particular parcel for himself because its location reminded him of Germany. “He thought because of that it would be good for growing fruit,” Johnson said.
Johnson, astonishingly, took on the business only in retirement. After decades in the corporate food world – including a stint at Chiquita – he moved home from Cincinnati with his wife to run the family business.
He is proud of his sparkling rose ice wine. Made in authentic Champagne fashion, it is unique in North America. On this bright wintry day, though, we enjoyed a nip of Ypocras, an Elizabethan spiced wine named for the physician Hippocrates. It’s made to be sipped warm.
When we reluctantly had to leave, Johnson suggested we visit nearby Noble Winery.
“Tell them Johnson sent you,” he said.
Noble had a wonderful address: 8630 Hardscrabble Road. We were met at the door by a gigantic, loving German shepherd. Inside, I caught my breath.
Wraparound windows – they open to a patio – showed a sweeping panorama all the way to Lake Erie and beyond. A freight train went zipping south along the lakeshore, tiny and colorful, like a model train. Noble sells local cheese and cold cuts, and what a treat it must be to lounge here noshing, watching the world go by in miniature.
Winemaker Brett Burger looked like a kid. “Red wine slows the aging process. It’s the resveratrol,” he said.
He has been making Noble wines for 10 years and had a great way of assessing your tastes.
“If you were to have juice, what kind would you have?” he asked. “Apple? Cranberry?”
What were the lessons here? That the German shepherd, Ginger, was bred by the Amish, that the Amish breed huge dogs. That cranberry juice lovers would like a wine called Cat Rouge, a Catawba blush. That Noble’s award-winning white Sweet Jenny wine was named for the lovely 101-year-old local woman who gave them the recipe.
We tasted – eyes closed, as they had told us to at Schulze.
We learned about life, a sip at a time.