Saddened to see this fantastic summer slipping away, we recently decided to drown our sorrows in a glass of something fall-ish.
Along the Niagara Wine Trail we found a buzzing mead and hard cider scene perfect to bid summer a bittersweet farewell. The trail’s Harvest Festival takes place Sept. 24-25, but you can visit anytime.
For those who aren’t quite sure what mead is (besides something hoisted in medieval mugs), we asked Cynthia West-Chamberlain, owner of Black Willow Winery — the first stop on our tour — to help us out.
West-Chamberlain began producing mead in 2010 when the winery opened. “Nobody else had mead. We were the first," she said. "It’s also the oldest form of wine known to man, so that’s pretty awesome.”
She said she makes her mead pretty much the way the ancient Greeks did. “I only use pure honey, yeast and purified water. It’s the traditional way.” She buys honey 1,600 pounds at a time from a local apiary and another in Pennsylvania.
“Mead is totally different than grape wine. It has completely different types of sugar and proteins. It can be enjoyed cold, room temperature or even warmed up. It does no sour like grape wine either,” she said.
Currently Black Willow makes three different meads.
“We’ll be adding more meads to our Valhalla Meadery portfolio. I’m experimenting with a few now. It’s quite a sticky process,” she laughed. Black Willow was recently recognized as 2016 NY State Mead Producer of the Year at the New York International Wine Competition.
Black Willow Winery (5565 W. Lake Road, Burt) has viewing windows where you might catch a glimpse of mead being made and bottled in the production area.
Here’s how we meandered along the rest of the way on our mead-hard cider-food tour. Not listed are the multiple roadside stands to stop for late summer fruits and vegetables. (It is a harvest festival after all!). We took a cooler to store items. And while “Harvest Fest” sounds kid-friendly, the tour is for adults.
On the way to BlackBird Cider Works along Lake Road, take a short detour to the iconic Bye’s Popcorn on Route 78 in Olcott for some addicting peanut caramel popcorn to take home and some traditional white popcorn for the car.
Back on Lake Road, Singer Farms (6730 Lake Road, Appleton) is a must stop if nothing else for the roughly 60 types of garlic for sale. The 2016 garlic harvest is in. Trust us, there is a difference among garlics.
Singer Farms lists each variety by hard- or soft-neck, the country where it originates and its cooking properties. Some are hot and peppery while others can be more mild. Cost is $10 a pound, so load up. (We’ll plant cloves in our garden this October for next year.)
Singer Farms also carries interesting food items like coffees and intriguing salsas. Don’t forget dried cherries (Thanksgiving stuffing here we come) and Singer Farms dark chocolate covered cherries that are unbelievably delicious.
And hey-ho, here are 7-Grain Cherry cookies we came home with!
At BlackBird Cider Works (8503 Lower Lake Road, Barker) there is a variety of hard ciders. Although we consider ourselves Anglophiles, we didn’t care for the Dabinett English Style.
A worker laughed and told us it was made to the traditional standards and should have a “horse blanket” aroma. (It tasted like water wrung from a horse blanket.)
The rest of the ciders in our flight were unique and tasty however. We came home with the perfectly balanced Organic Oak Barrel Aged Semi-Sweet Cider.
The winery makes a fantastic Steampunk hard cider along with a Cerise carbonated cherry “cidre.” The workers were busy setting up for the annual Steampunk Festival, so instead of tasting, we grabbed some Zestar apples (first of the year) and checked out the store filled with salsas, barbecue sauces, dressings, etc.
We’ve had the Steampumk and can vouch for its deliciousness. A new version of Steampunk might be in the works, but the worker was very hush-hush about it.
Our next destination — 810 Meadworks (113 W. Center St., Medina) — was fabulous and fun.
Located in the historic Robert H. Newell Shirt Factory building, the tasting bar had a funky vibe, really great meads and a “beegarten” outside.
Mead and mead cocktails were available, along with mead slushies.
For those feeling peckish, 810 offers picking items like a “Feasting Platter” of bread and local cheeses and spreads. Or go sweet with something like the “roast your own” s’mores (we think over a candle).
As recommended, we tasted dry meads and moved to the sweet.
Meads are “heavy hitters.” With ABVs upward of 15 percent, innocent names like Sweet Devotion and Kremesickle belie the strength. Our favorites were Bee Vomit with its hoppy beer-like flavor and Liquid Sunshine with its lemon-lavender flavor.
Be sure to check out the mini art gallery up the walls that lead to the second floor and rooms of Hart House Hotel (harthousehotel.com) which shares the building.
Hotel rooms are designated by images of famous customers, like Winston Churchill and Bob Hope, who among other famous folk commissioned the Newell Shirt Factory for everything from custom pajamas and undergarments to shirts. Very cool. Also here is the Shirt Factory Café (Facebook). Medina’s Ales in Autumn takes place Sept. 24.
Back in the car we headed to Becker Farms (3724 Quaker Rd., Gasport), home of Vizcarra Vineyards and Becker Brewing.
Here we found a multitude of ciders including the regular Cherry Cider and Strawberry plus seasonal selections — Almond Cherry, Concord, Oaked and Traditional.
Decisions, decisions. It was between the Concord and Almond Cherry. We tasted both and the latter was the big winner.
Super refreshing and clean tasting, we could have guzzled several pints and then daringly inserted ourselves as guests at one of the two weddings going on (but we didn’t).
Instead we chatted with guests waiting (and drinking) prior to the weddings. We wondered, “How will they ever get these folks to the ceremonies”? But an authoritative voice got them moving. It made for a fun atmosphere.
Tasting meads and hard ciders, one can work up an appetite. On the way home we stopped at the destination restaurant Gordie Harper’s Bazaar (3333 Lockport Olcott Road, Newfane) for some solid home cooking... including these monstrous house made onion rings.
We walked off dinner shopping the restaurant’s antique-mall stalls where we spotted this excellent Shaun Cassidy record.