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SAVORING THE FLAVORS OF A SELF-GUIDED WINERY TOUR

Among the dozens of medals prominently displayed on the walls of Chateau Lafayette Reneau, is an ancient wine lover's saying translated from Latin: "It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend; one's present or future thirst; the excellence of the wine; or any other reason."

Our reason was a mobile party.

In a rusty, Ford Econoline van, leased for the day from the appropriately named "Rent-A-Wreck," we rolled south on Route 414, sipping as much wine as we could get our lips on during our self-guided Finger Lakes winery tour.

A side note here: The drivers of said van, and two other vehicles in the caravan of tasting, drank grape juice, not wine.

It isn't cruising in a limousine, but if you can find a willing driver or two -- known in slang as "suckers" -- renting a jalopy among friends for a Finger Lakes wine tour is as much fun as a barrel of grapes.

A suggestion: Bring along lots of water and snacks.

We started early on a Saturday afternoon at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars in Lodi, more than halfway down the east side of Seneca Lake, an area known as the "Banana Belt" because of its shape. The soaring Greek revival style tasting room, built in 1991, sat proudly atop a hill overlooking the 40-year-old vineyards and the glassy lake.

For those who believe the Finger Lakes produce second-rate wine, Lamoreaux Landing shows off two New York Times articles raving about how far the area has come.

Wagner Winery, a skip and a jump away, featured a broad selection of wines, as well as a microbrewery of hoppy craft beers.

Still further down the road, Caywood Vineyards operated out of a converted barn -- one of the newest wineries among a steady growth of wine makers on Seneca and Cayuga lakes over the past 20 years.

We felt like we had been transported to Tolkien's shire when we crossed the road to explore Shalestone Vineyards, with its tiny sheds built into the sides of moguls.

Owners Ron and Kate Thomas -- no, they're not hobbits -- tended to customers inside a wooden hut, happily pouring samples of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Shalestone's niche is red wines, and if you want to buy some you'd better act fast: They only produce about 1,000 cases a year.

If not the finest wines, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards easily had the most festive atmosphere on Seneca Lake -- and the most interesting decor.

Loud rock music greeted guests, who sipped from two separate serving tables and munched on freshly-popped popcorn in between reislings and chardonnays.

This winery even drew a small bachelor party of frat-boy types who enjoyed wrestling on the front lawn.

A stuffed muskellunge and a deer head adorned the walls, along with harnesses and sundry other unidentifiable farm equipment. There was a very large oar, fit, it seemed for a Viking ship that had crossed the Atlantic.

And most unusual was the mounted head of a grape weasel. For someone sipping wine much of the afternoon, the sight of a such a bizarre animal, with its jagged teeth and matted teepee head, was a revelation.

It was, of course, a hoax, along the same lines as the infamous "jack-a-lope," (a cross between a jack rabbit and an antelope).

It was also a giant laugh inducer for the slightly intoxicated viewer who figured out the prank only after a few seconds of incredulity.

If you ask, Hazlitt will provide a riotous, seven-paragraph "Story of the Grape Weasel," which explains how the mammal "about the size of a small German Shepard" (sic) was native to France and was easily domesticated and capable of dog tricks.

From Hazlitt, we ventured to Red Newt Cellars, a hip winery and bistro celebrating its five-year anniversary, and then to Chateau Lafayette Reneau, another converted barn with pine plan floors and a big Maine Coon cat named Jenny that lounged on a chair and watched the drinkers with an easy detachment.

Chateau Lafayette Reneau featured a fabulous view from its deck: Three ponds, rolling vineyards, a clump of trees and glistening lake water -- a site devoid of power lines and reminiscent of Italian countryside. (It's probably a lot like French countryside, too -- as the name suggests -- but I've never been to France.)

We hit eight wineries overall in our five-hour tour. The mobile party had to end sometime. But our future thirst will bring us back. Or any other reason.

E-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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