by Stephanie Schuckers Burdo
Along the eastern shores of Lake Erie, “harvest” means grapes and from mid-September through the end of October, it’s the primary thought on everyone’s mind. In this region–known as America’s Grape Country–the quintessential harvest experience is to get outside and inhale the sweet, intoxicating aroma emanating from vineyards laden with Concord grapes.
But, of course, the season holds many more experiences such as drives along back roads to see the colors of fall or horseback trail rides through the woods and fields at Double Dab Stables in Westfield. In Dunkirk, the historic lighthouse stays open through October where visitors can climb the 61-foot stone tower for a magnificent view of Lake Erie and cliffs along the shoreline. Many enjoy fly-fishing in Lake Erie’s tributary streams, and for those new to the experience, Orvis-endorsed guide, Alberto Rey, can personalize an adventure. Regional art galleries and boutique stores in nearby lakeside villages such as Bemus Point or Findley Lake add even more color to harvest and fall in Chautauqua County, New York.
Grapes, grapes, and more grapes
When visiting the region, the Grape Discovery Center in Westfield should be the first stop on your list. Not only will you breathe in the aroma of grapes from the surrounding vineyards, but you can enjoy a glass of wine or a grape juice slushy out on the patio next to the vineyards. Sample grape juice made with 100% Concord grapes. Taste products made with grapes or grapeseed oil, like grape jam, Concord grape vinaigrette, grape berry topping, or grape fruit sticks. Head to the Exhibit Room and discover grape growing through each season, particularly during the harvest. You’ll learn about terroir (how soil, climate and farming methods help distinguish the flavor of crops from a particular region) and see different harvesting techniques, from manual labor to mechanical harvesters. You can even test your picking speed with grape shears.
Once oriented about the history, heritage and size of the Lake Erie grape region, head out to explore the area’s wineries, galleries, back road vistas, and road side markets. Lake Erie Wine Country stretches approximately 50 miles from Harborcreek in Pennsylvania to Silver Creek in New York, encompassing 30,000 vineyard acres and 23 wineries, one of which is also a brewery and distillery. The majority of grapes grown in the region are Labrusca, such as Concord. White varietals such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and hybrids like Vidal and Vignoles also do well. Flourishing red varietals include Blaufrankisch (Lemberger), Dornfelder, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and hybrids Noiret and Chambourcin. Visit the wineries, talk to their staff, taste the different varieties, and pick your favorites.
Several wineries offer additional experiences during harvest like vineyard walks and carriage rides. Taste wine grapes right from the vine during fall foliage vineyard walks with Fred Johnson, third-generation owner at Johnson Estate Winery, on Sunday mornings October 8th – 29th. Or, take a narrated tour of the vineyards via carriage ride on September 17th, 24th, and October 1st at Liberty Vineyards. Visit Noble Winery, set on the sloping escarpment, for a beautiful view of Lake Erie and the vineyards. If you visit during the early evening and are lucky, you might spy a bald eagle returning up the escarpment along a nearby creek, a fresh catch hanging from its beak. On September 30th and October 28th, relax at 21 Brix Winery and listen to live music from 7-9 pm during Beats at the Brix. For those who prefer beer, stop by Mazza Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing for favorite fall releases, including a Double IPA; Whiskey Business, which is a rye pale ale aged in whiskey barrels; Stout Lucia aged in St. Lucian rum barrels; and “(Drink That) Funky Cherry (Whit Boy)”, an American wheat ale co-fermented with New York cherries and aged in red wine oak barrels.
Farms and markets
Farmers markets are as much a part of the local ambiance as wine country. Visit the Westfield Farmers Market on Saturdays through September from 9 am until 2 pm. A limited number of vendors continue to set up their stalls through October when root vegetables and apples, pumpkins and squash are abundant. Also in Westfield, Cross Roads Farm & Craft Market opens every Saturday through December. And, in Fredonia, the Farmers Market runs from 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays through October providing locally grown food and handcrafted products from 24 vendors.
Local foods and craft beverages
The best part of the harvest is pairing homemade or local products from the morning farmers market or the day’s catch with wines, beer, and spirits from regional venues. Some of the wineries suggest food and beverage pairings created just for fall.
Beth Margolis from Liberty Winery says that many customers prefer red wines during fall. Noiret, known for a distinct peppery characteristic, and Rufus Red, a semi-dry red with fruity notes, pair especially well with stews and soups. Try the Rufus Red with homemade Lasagna Soup. On the sweeter side, mulled Fredonia wine is a popular choice. Heating the wine with spices, or mulling, also brings a wonderful aroma to your home. Liberty Vineyards provides these and other recipes on their website.
Kevin Daughrity, owner and winemaker at Quincy Cellars suggests pairing Riesling with local pan-seared trout or Coho Salmon.
Spiced wines like Red and White Ipocras from Johnson Estate Winery are perfect for cool, crisp evenings. Try Red Ipocras and apple cider served warm and paired with homemade molasses cookies. The cloves in the wine compliment the apple cider and the molasses. Or, try warm White Ipocras and green tea paired with ginger cookies. For an appetizer, Sparkling Traminette goes nicely with smoked whitefish from Westfield Fisheries in Barcelona prepared in a dip. Johnson Estate provides recipes for these in the recipe archives on their website.
Classic festivals to celebrate seasonal flavors
A number of annual festivals celebrate the regional harvest.
The Red, White and Blues Festival takes place September 8-9, in Fredonia and honors the red and white wine industry with a lively blues music and street festival.
On September 9-10, celebrate the season with Merritt Estate Winery and Septemberfest featuring wine, beer, food and fun with live music, a classic car show, crafters and vendors. There are activities for the whole family and admission is free.
The Busti Apple Festival is one of the most anticipated festivals of the season with pioneer and 19th century-life demonstrations. The event takes place around a newly restored and operating 1839 Grist Mill and features more than 100 vendors of handmade crafts along with spinning, weaving, quilting, flax breaking, candle making, log hewing, and soap making. Ready to eat and take home foods include pies (more than 600 of them!), cider, and apple butter along with beef on kummelweck, and more.
In Silver Creek, the annual Festival of Grapes happens September 15 – 17. The annual harvest celebration features wine tasting, grape products, and a grape stomping contest.
At the height of fall’s color, Peek’n Peak Resort holds Fall Fest, October 14-15 and 21-22. The brilliant foliage sets the scene for a juried crafts show with more than 130 vendors and a farmers market along with activities like the pumpkin cannon, children’s games, petting zoo, entertainment, pony rides, corn hole tournament, ski lift rides, classic car cruise-in, and an annual snow sports equipment swap.
Harvest season wraps up in November with Harvest Wine Weekends in Lake Erie Wine Country. Sample foods prepared by each of the wineries inspired by select wines on November 3-5 or 10-12. This is a fun and social way to collect recipes for the holidays as well as discover new wines.
Find out what to do and where to experience the flavors and colors of fall in Chautauqua County.