A Champagne Supernova in the Finger Lakes

So, you’re mired in your day to day life in the Northcounty. You know, work, sleep, exercise, brush snow off your car, work, sleep, spaghetti and meatballs, work, sleep…but all of that is getting a little tiresome. Even weekend jaunts to Sackets for an 1812 and a steak dinner seem ho-hum. How about casting a glance a little bit more south, to the Finger Lakes? For those of you who call the Thousand Islands home, I have a new area of the state to illuminate for you. The Finger Lakes wine trails. Think: crystalline water, rolling hills, two lane byways and stop upon stop of great rieslings, niagaras and light, summery reds to taste.
The closest wine trail to me is Cayuga, which starts down in Ithaca. My friends and I like to frequent Thirsty Owl, with their great vidal blanc, Americana, Lucas (great staff and gorgeous tasting room with a sweet little store), Goosewatch, with the best view on the trail, and Sheldrake, which is my absolute favorite. Here’s how it works: you stroll in and hand over a dollar. They pour you anywhere between five and 12 (!) sips of different wines. You chat with the staff. You laugh and carouse and carry on. Then you drive 200 yards down the road and repeat. Fun, right?

I really encourage you to make a beeline for the Sheldrake Point Winery on the next sunny, warm Saturday you’re free. Only 35 minutes from Ithaca and two hours from Watertown, this complex is one of the most beautiful on Cayuga Lake. In addition to fantastic, award-winning rieslings, ice wines and rose, you’ll find beautiful grounds, a charming gourmet food shop (featuring Croghan bologna!) and the Simply Red Bistro. My friend Jill and I ventured out to Sheldrake for lunch one Saturday back in May, after completing a mission to secure a bottle of Lucas Blues for our friend Laura, who was moving away (sob).

The first thing you need to know about Simply Red is that it’s gorgeous. Even if you’re not hungry, and my favorite pourer on the trail, Lindsey, is keeping you reasonably happy in the tasting room, your eye is still going to wander over to the café area, and you’ll want to go and sit in there. Don’t fight this urge, because good things are in there, and they are begging to be eaten.

Jill expertly models the liquid and scenic attributes of Simply Red Lakeside Bistro

Jill and I started with cocktails – mine, the Champagne Supernova, which was Finger Lakes cherry liqueur, sparkling wine and an orange twist, and hers, a very reasonably-priced glass of Sheldrake Riesling. I think it was $4? Find wine prices like that at many other upstate find dining spots, and I’ll give you a dollar. With that dollar, you can go wine tasting. See how that works? Next up, we chose a cheese platter with Chateau Royale (Buffalo) wild boar sausage, Old Chatham (Hudson valley) camembert cheese, grainy mustard, and poached figs. We were a little frightened of the wild board sausage. But you know, pigs and me, we go way back. This stuff was dynamite – much lighter than you’d think, fresh tasting and delicious. The poached figs were sweet and peppery, and I could not keep Jill out of the creamy camembert and grainy mustard. Eating this, drinking that, overlooking splendor, it was one of those “I am so happy right now,” moments. In fact, you can check with Jill, but I’m pretty sure I actually said that. Wouldn’t you like to feel that way? Well, hang on to your hat, because our entrée pushed my happy factor right over the top!

Picture this: gourmet mac & cheese with cheddar, biscuit crumb topping, bacon, dill and goat cheese. Arghhh… Sorry, I just fell off my chair. And that’s just from the memory. Of a dish I ate more than a month ago. I’m not kidding.

Our entrée in all its loveliness and glory

This dish was fabulous, plain and simple. I actually wrote down in my little book halfway through, “chunks of bacon!” The mac wasn’t too saucy, and the bacon lent the entire endeavor a really nice smoky touch. It was like digging for treasure as you ate through the “frickin’ fantastic,” cheese (Jill’s words). In the end, this is what happened:

Mac & Cheese: 2; Jill and Shelby: 0

Our lunch was not only blissful, it was affordable. For a meal with several beverages, local cheese and charcuterie, an ample entrée and a breathtaking view, the damage was only $39. What are you doing eating at Outback, where a steak dinner no longer includes a salad, and dinner for four will run you upwards of $90, when you could overlook a stunning blue lake, gorge on locally-produced artisanal foodstuffs and drink from the bounty of our own state? Ponder that…

Because my wine tour stories do not end at lovely Sheldrake (that name always always makes me think of the hotel in Dirty Dancing from which the little old couple stole all the wallets). Back in April, Melinda and I were headed out to Rochester for the weekend to visit our friends Chris and Rob and their two gorgeous daughters, and attend the Miss Greater Rochester Pageant (shout out to Calista the Birthday Girl!). We hit up the new Ulta store in Horseheads, because a girl needs her lotions and potions, and I had plotted a route to get us directly from Horseheads (which is just a ridiculous word to type more than once) to Canandaigua. Well, lo and behold, we were not on Rt. 14 for more than two miles when we stumbled upon the fact that we were unwittingly on the Western shore of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail! Oh, happy day!

We started out at the gorgy Fulkerson Winery. We tasted several lovely wines in their bright, wood-paneled tasting room. From there, we hit Arcadian Estate, Rockstream, Glenora and Anthony Road, as well as a few smaller rooms not directly on the water. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and our impromptu wine tour was so much more fun than going directly to Rochester and shopping all day. We ended up as planned in Canandaigua, possibly a little worse for the wear. There we toured the New York Wine and Culinary Center, had one last tasting, and checked out their cooking instruction rooms and gift shop. They have a restaurant with lots of locovore treats, but the food looked a little fussy for our tastes after downing wine and cheese all afternoon. So we popped across the road to MacGregor’s Grill and Tap Room.

We meant to eat here, but needed the warm embrace of MacGregor’s instead

Macgregor’s has five locations in the Rochester area, and has long been a favorite of my boyfriend Shawn and his friends Rob and Alex, as well as we girls. Yup, they have an impressive selection of beer and other adult beverages. But they also have some of the best pub grub in Upstate NY. In fact, not only did Melinda and I enjoy it that Saturday evening of our girls’ weekend, but again the next day for lunch, with Chris.

A recap of what we ate at our two MacGregor’s visits that weekend would include: fried mushrooms, sweet potato fries, hot chips, bacon and brie burger, buffalo wrap, and the open face Delmonico sandwich. I also have had the “massive” sandwich and the tremendous fries there in the past – and they are not to be trifled with. MacGregor’s isn’t upscale. It’s not fancy; the food is basic, the beer is plentiful, and the locations are convenient. You can bring your kids there as well as some of their friends, and drown your sorrows in fried things with cheese. But I promise you this: you will never have a bad meal at MacGregor’s. It’s like Zebb’s in Syracuse: food that will make you run towards your treadmill the next day, and be thankful for it. The burgers are juicy, the sandwiches are thick, and the fryer is hot. Rejoice in it.

And if you if find yourself in Canandiagua at the end of a day of accidental wine tasting that hasn’t made you want to dive head-first into a plate of saturated fats and refined carbohydrates, then slink right across the street with your bad self and enjoy some refined dining instead, at the Taste of NY Restaurant. But most of all, be sure to hit the trail this summer – whichever one is most convenient to you. Become friends with the peeps pouring your wine, soak up the sun overlooking tiny lakes the last ice age carved just for us, and bask in the delicious treats to be found. Taste the fruits of the Finger Lakes with Big Hungry: My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!!

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