The Adirondack Mountains don’t conjure images of grapevines. While New York State boasts thriving wine regions in the Finger Lakes, Niagara Falls and Long Island — in fact, it’s the second largest grape grower in the country, behind California — those jagged peaks promise more snow and adventure than they do viniculture, or any form of cultivation.
Yet vines like a bit of hardship. On the New York side of Lake Champlain, the soil is sandy, just the kind that stresses a grapevine in all the right ways. Because of that — or perhaps just because it was the ’70s — a few foolhardy winemakers began planting grapes there 35 years ago, mostly within a few miles of Lake Champlain. They call this region the “Adirondack Coast,” and it’s much sunnier than Vermont’s side of the lake.
“Old-growth” vines on the Adirondack Coast tend to be Concord, while cold-hardy grape varietals pioneered by the University of Minnesota are helping this wine-growing region, like Vermont’s, establish itself as an appellation. The Adirondacks’ unofficial wine trail offers friendly winemakers and lush vineyards, clustered in a wide ring just outside Plattsburgh. Taking a tour there feels a bit like exploring the Vermont vineyards of a few years ago: Unfamiliar varietals such as St. Pepin, La Crosse and Brianna, as well as fruit and sweet grape wines, beckon at every turn.
Because New York state has not yet granted this area official wine-trail status (a few winemakers are working to change that), you will need to map your route ahead of time and keep your eyes peeled for the tiny signs that some vineyards position near key turnoffs. Finding each winery is something of a scavenger hunt, albeit one with a very adult reward.
The Champlain Wine Company
8 City Hall Place, Plattsburgh, 518-564-0064. champlainwinecompany.com. Tasting Monday to Saturday, noon to 8 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 6 p.m.
Rather than heading into the hills immediately, thirsty travelers can start a wine tour on Plattsburgh’s main drag. Here, local winemakers Colin Read and his wife, Natalie Peck, maintain a satellite tasting room that shows off some of their own wines, as well as those of local friends.
When Read wanted to retire from his academic career (and hobby piloting) in Alaska, he chose a relatively balmy locale in which to do so — the Adirondacks. He thought he’d grow corn. But Peck asked him, “Don’t you think it would be more fun to plant grapes?” he recalls.
Four years later, the pair maintains 4000 vines on a farm in Mooers, about 20 miles north of Plattsburgh. Marquette, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, St. Croix, La Crescent, Prairie Star and a few other European-American hybrids share the real estate. But, because grapes take at least three years to begin yielding fruit, Read and Peck are currently making wines with Finger Lakes grapes and serving them inside their cozy, brick-walled Champlain Wine Company. The 10 offerings include an herbaceous Cabernet Franc laced with cherry and pepper notes; a smooth, silky merlot; and a crisp (decidedly not oaky) Chardonnay.
Sip a glass or buy a bottle, and listen to the soft-spoken Read talk about terroir — such as the glacial till that nurtures grapes here — or how winemakers are pushing legislation to bestow the Adirondack Coast with its own appellation.
Though Read and Peck still have day jobs, the first batch of estate-grown Marquette is aging now and due to be released soon. That’s sure to warrant another visit.
456 Soper Street, Morrisonville, 518-643-0006. hipvineyard.com. Tasting daily, noon to 6 p.m.
1978 was the year that Muhammad Ali beat Leon Spinks and Grease hit movie theaters. It was also the year that Richard Lamoy planted a few Concord grapevines on his farm in Morrisonville, just outside Plattsburgh, with little more than a vague sense that they might thrive. (The farm’s main staple at the time was vegetables.)
Nowadays, when Lamoy geeks out discussing training systems, maceration and yeasts, it’s hard to believe he started out ambivalent about his prospects. Though he considered himself a hobby winemaker on his own plot until 2006, he volunteered at the Cornell University experimental plot in Willsboro, N.Y., and picked up medals for the wines he made with grapes from that location. The experience ignited his sense of fun and experimentation. Now, on his own four acres of vines, Lamoy pushes cold-hardy grapes through all kinds of trials — sometimes with the help of grants — and shares what he finds with other growers.
“I’m trying to figure out what grows well here and how,” he says modestly, though many of his wines taste quite polished.
Hid-In-Pines lives up to its name: It’s tricky to find. The tasting room looks like an outbuilding, but those who venture inside will find it filled with unusual bottlings. It’s best to surrender yourself to Lamoy, as he’s adept at intuiting a visitor’s palate. “If they like pinot grigio, I say St. Pepin. Pinot Noir? Well, that’s like a Marquette,” he says. Lamoy also pours unusual northern varietals, such as Petite Pearl, a Petite Amie that smells like Viognier but has more backbone; a St. Pepin bursting with green-apple flavor; and a dark Noiret that has unusual aromas of ripe banana, but flavors of pepper and black fruit.
Last year, Lamoy lost nearly half his grapes to Tropical Storm Irene, but a year later, the plump green clusters are round and unblemished. “It’s a good year for grapes,” he says, echoing the observations of growers throughout the valley.
Vesco Ridge Vineyards
165 Stratton Hill Road, West Chazy, 518-846-8544. vescoridge.com. Tasting Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., or by appointment.
I’m hesitant to step into the tasting room at Vesco Ridge Vineyards, because it looks like part of Dan and Nancy Vesco’s home. Yet that’s sort of the point: Their wines are an extension of themselves, the tasting room adorned with Beatles album covers on one wall and bottles of wine on the other.
Six years ago, Dan Vesco planted cold-hardy grapes on a rise here and crushed and sculpted them into wines in his basement — it made for a solid retirement diversion, he thought. As tends to happen with wineries in odd places, public interest skyrocketed, and in 2010 the Vescos got a license for a full winery and tasting room.
As Dan leaves the tasting room to fetch a bottle, the vivacious Nancy leans in conspiratorially and whispers, “He’s very particular.” She’s explaining why no Farm Truck Red — the winery’s signature — has been bottled yet this year. When asked about the wine, made from Léon Millot grapes, Dan nods gravely and says, “It’s not ready yet.” Nancy rolls her eyes.
Still, tasters at Vesco Ridge will find an impressive selection of the Vescos’ wines along with those of their friends — such as a summer white with hints of strawberry; and Poppy, a peppery Maréchal Foch with racy, red fruit undertones. “Maréchal Foch is one of those grapes that takes care of itself,” Dan Vesco says nonchalantly. But you can bet he doesn’t let a day pass without checking on his vines.
Amazing Grace Vineyard & Winery
9839 Route 9, Chazy, 518-215-4044. amazinggracevineyard.com. Tasting Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
Amazing Grace lies a few miles north of Vesco Ridge, and its tasting room, filled with chattering family members, has a similarly domestic feel. As Mary Fortin begins to talk about her wines, the room clears rapidly, and in a moment only the warm, friendly winemaker remains, pouring a few samples from behind the wooden bar.
A few years ago, Fortin and her husband, Gilles, — she’s a teacher, he’s a principal — decided winemaking would eventually make for a lively but relaxing retirement.
“It’s definitely grown faster than I thought,” she says. In addition to cultivating 650 vines and running the new tasting room, the Fortins buy fruit and grape juices from the Niagara region for their fruity and sweet wines.
As Fortin splashes out some Aaron’s Red, a plummy wine made from Frontenac, Frontenac Gris and Marquette grapes, she remarks on her natural bias toward sweet wines, a taste that has morphed as the winery has grown. Amazing Grace makes a semidry “blush” wine called Soccer Mom, and there are Concord and fruit wines there. But a drier Maréchal Foch; a Beaujolais-style blend of Foch with Baco Noir called Grace’s Red; and estate-grown Frontenac are on the bill, too.
Stone House Vineyard
73 Blair Road, Mooers, 518-493-5971. stonehousevineyardclintoncountyny.com
The paths at Stone House Vineyard are leafy and cluttered, lined with gooseberry, raspberry and blueberry bushes sagging under the weight of plump, almost-ripe fruit. Then there are the grapes — tangled, tendriled plots, each marked by a silver sign with a name hammered in: Landot. Valiant. Sabrevois.
This vineyard feels almost medieval, anchored by an imposing stone house built over seven years by Philip and Bonnie Favreau. The tasting room is at the rear of the house, and inside are dozens of wines to sample — blueberry, gooseberry, plum, apple and currant. For the traditionalists, there are sweet and dry grape wines, too.
“For the first few years, we gave wines to family and vines to people,” says Phil Favreau. Eventually, he had so many vines — 5000 — and so much wine that it made sense to go commercial. “There’s more money in wine than in grapevines,” he reasons.
Stone House’s fruit wines are not cloyingly sweet, and the dry wines are round, rustic and quenching. With the hints of wild nature encroaching on this pastoral scene, it’s a perfect Dionysian ending point for an excursion on the Adirondack Trail.