By Stephanie Schuckers Burdo
On the hunt for Carménère
It’s a beautiful day in August and I have enlisted a friend to go wine tasting along Lake Erie in western New York.
We set off for a Sunday drive along NYS Route 20 in Chautauqua County. The two lane highway is flanked on both sides by miles of verdant vineyards that spread over the lake plain and up the gentle escarpment that protects this region from the more extreme weather and higher elevation of the Allegheny Plateau. This is America’s grape country with more than 30,000 vineyard acres stretching from Silver Creek, NY to Harborcreek in neighboring Pennsylvania. We are heading east from our starting point in Westfield and are on a mission to find Carménère, a dry red wine uncommon in New York State. The grapes, mostly grown in Chile, were once thought to be extinct. More than a decade ago Rick and Wendy Dunst at Piranha Vineyards in Sheridan started to grow the Merlot-like grapes and Liberty Vineyards and Winery, located across the road, began producing small batches of the wine a few years later.
Fuel for the search
Our first stop is Portage Pies on North Portage Street in Westfield. We know from experience that they can easily run out of the more than 100 pies baked each morning. Owners Connie and Jack Thayer greet us upon entering with three pies still available (it’s 11:30 am). While we talk, several people come in and out, picking up pre-ordered pies, including a scrumptious looking chocolate creation that Connie pulls out of the fridge. Though all three of the pies for sale look amazing, blueberry peach – made with fresh in-season fruit- sounds the best. I ask about grape pies which won’t be ready until the new crop comes in sometime in October. “We usually have grape pies in the summer,” explains Connie, “but we didn’t freeze enough from last year’s crop to get us through.” We found out that Portage Pies will be featured in a new PBS documentary produced by WQED in Pittsburgh called “A Few Good Pie Places.” – it premieres on August 25th.
The pies have made us hungry so before heading to the wineries, we stop around the corner at The Parkview for Sunday brunch. The tables inside are full, but it’s a beautiful day and we find the perfect spot at a lace draped bistro table outside. The wide umbrella provides just the right amount of shade. The very affordable brunch selections include omelets, eggs Benedict, a cold plate salad, citrus shrimp salad and more. Their specialty, Southern-style grits, come as one of the sides. If we had come on a Saturday, this area would be bustling with the Westfield Farmers Market across the street, which features all kinds of locally grown produce, honey, meats, and Amish goods.
With full tummies, we head northeast to the Town of Sheridan and Liberty Vineyards and Winery, passing through Brocton and Fredonia along the way. At Liberty we pay the small tasting fee, and I search the list for Carménère with no luck. Just as I start to inquire, owner Gary Burmaster appears from the back room. He knows just what I’m looking for.
“It’s in bottles; we don’t even have it out yet.” He disappears and returns with a bottle for tasting. Gary is a third generation winemaker. His great grandfather, Sheldon “Rufus” Butler planted a seven-acre Concord vineyard on this land in the 1860s. Lovingly referred to as “Old Vineyard”, it remains one of the most productive vineyards on the property.
The Carménère is good, but young. Still, you can taste hints of the green pepper, blackberry and white pepper notes that will intensify over the next few months and become perfect for pairing with Italian sausage and lasagna or with a bold cheese appetizer.
“Let it age,” he says. I make a note to come back when this year’s vintage goes on sale in early October.
Back in the car, we take a side road over to Merritt Estate Winery. Founded in 1976 it was one of the first wineries in the region and a founding member of the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail, now called Lake Erie Wine Country. We try some dry whites – Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, and dry reds – Cabernet Sauvignon and Winemasters Choice, a blend. Merritt Estate’s Bella Rosa is their most award-winning wine and best seller. A Concord wine with 7.5% residual sugar, it goes well with most food.
Returning towards Westfield, our next stop is 21 Brix Winery. I want to compare the dry whites and reds that we’ve tasted at the other two wineries with those here. The Richie Wilkins Jazz Trio is playing out on the patio and several groups, with family members of all ages, have set up picnic and listening areas on the grass and tables in the yard. Some groups have blankets, coolers and folding chairs and look like they are here for the afternoon. During the summer, 21 Brix features live music every Sunday from 1-4 pm. In fall and winter, entertainment moves to 7-9 pm on the last Saturday of the every month, and they offer soups on Sunday afternoons. Cheese plates are available anytime, as well as sparkling grape juice for the kids, and there are plenty of seats inside and out for settling in for long conversations. We try some Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Noiret, a peppery dry red developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension. The woman pouring our wine tells us that Thirsty Elephant is their best selling wine, again a sweet blend of Concord, Niagara, and Fredonia grapes. But, it’s the Vidal Ice Wine that receives the most awards. Ice Wine is made from grapes left to freeze on the vines and picked on a very cold early morning, usually in January.
Continuing west on Route 20 , we come to the Grape Discovery Center, a gift shop, wine and grape juice tasting bar, and exhibit area that tells the story of 150 years of grape growing in the Lake Erie region. The shop is filled with all kinds of grape-themed gifts, local arts and crafts, and locally produced food products like Concord Grape Seed Vinaigrette, Farmer Steve’s Grape Heritage Pasta Sauce, Burning Asphalt BBQ and wing sauces, Twisted Vine Garden pasta sauces and marinades, and Grower’s Co-operative cherry juice and Concord grape pie filling. Outside, a patio adjacent to a Concord vineyard is the perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine or grape juice slushie.
Our last stop of the day is Mazza 5 & 20 Spirits, currently distinguished as the only distillery, brewery and winery in New York State. In the fields surrounding the building, we see some of the rye and wheat they are growing. As a Farm Brewery, most of their raw ingredients must come from New York State. Posted on a chalkboard in the tasting room, current beers on tap include Pale Ale, Rye Ale, and an American Wheat Ale. We talk to Brandi Brewer (Yes-that is her name!) and learn that Mazza is also producing a grape and blueberry based vodka for Three Hunters Vodka. It’s gluten free and produced in line with the Paleo diet. We ask Brandi about the wines we’ve tasted throughout the day and the difference that soil can have in the characteristics of the wine. Even though we’ve stayed in the same general region, the soil variances from east to west along the Lake Erie shoreline as well as across different appellations like the neighboring Finger Lakes and Niagara Regions, can significantly affect the tastes of wines.
More to come
Throughout the day we passed by numerous small farm stands with fresh flowers, peaches, sweet cherries, corn and other vegetables. There were several antique shops and even a few yard sales. If we had another half day, we would stop at some art galleries, including ones at Sensory Winery in Ripley and Woodbury Vineyards in Fredonia.
After four wineries, we reach our limit. Some other time, we’ll try the other nine wineries in the area including Willow Creek Winery in Silver Creek that often features live music, Noble Winery in Westfield which boasts the best view of Lake Erie, Johnson Estate Winery, the oldest Estate Winery in New York State, and Quincy Cellars in Ripley, a beautiful spot for weddings. Further west, the wine trail continues into Pennsylvania with another 12 wineries to try on other days.
Touring wine and grape country can be a destination of several days, or provide entertainment for multiple side trips when visiting the many other attractions in the region like the Chautauqua Institution, Peek’n Peak Resort, the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse, or the Lucille Ball – Desi Arnaz Center. The Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau and Lake Erie Wine Country offer excellent resources for planning a road trip through the Lake Erie grape region. Be sure to request the free annual Visitors Guide which includes a detailed map of Chautauqua County.