The sun is out on a bright August morning and it beams though the windshield of my blue Audi TT humming up Turk Hill Road heading south from the village of Fairport toward Ontario County.
It’s a good day for a drive. The morning is crisp, the thumping voice of John Lee Hooker beats from the car speakers and as I motor past Casa Larga Vineyards in Perinton I catch a postcard view of green, dew-dropped grape vines set against the Rochester skyline far in the distance.
It’s good karma for a day in Finger Lakes wine country, and I head south to Canandaigua.
The city has a long history with the grape trade in the region that is still very much alive today.
In the 1800s farmers growing the fruit on the slopes surrounding Canandaigua Lake would transport their crops by steamship to the city port, where the grapes were packaged and sent on their way to markets in Buffalo, Rochester and points east.
John Brahm, the owner and wine master of Arbor Hill Grapery &Winery in Bristol Springs, Ontario County, is sort of an unofficial historian of the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail. He said the area used to be called “vine valley.”
“The Canandaigua pier that’s now basically a tourism area then had a railroad track that went down to the end,” Brahm said. “The boats would pull up to the side of the pier and unload their grapes into rail cars.”
Today, the pier is lined with recreational boats and the entire north shore of the lake has become a place for tourism and recreation. It is also the home of the New York Wine and Culinary Center, a nonprofit operation created to educate and introduce visitors to New York wines and agriculture.
“It gives people a place to come to experience New York agriculture either through a hands-on cooking class, through a demonstration, or up in the restaurant or in the gift shop take a little of New York home with them,” said Executive Director Alexa Gifford.
What happens here is a little difficult to explain, except that it’s all interactive.
The center is not just a gift shop or a tasting room. It’s not just a restaurant or a place to take a cooking class or learn how to pair wine with food. The center is all those things but with distinct focus on New York produce.
Walk though the door and at first glance it looks like a culinary school. And a school is as good a description as any other for what they do at the center.
Through large glass windows you see an auditorium for instruction. Through another set of windows is a stylish kitchen/classroom with oak walls and several cooking stations with professional stoves, granite countertops and polished fixtures. Walk down a hall and there is an oak wine tasting room stocked with wines from across the state.
The restaurant dining room is on the second floor and it has an outside balcony that overlooks a garden.
The center is busy the day I visit. Two busloads of tourists are expected. The first group will take in a wine and cheese tasting class with Shannon Brock, the center’s wine coordinator. The second will stay for lunch, during which Executive Chef Carlo Peretti will demonstrate how to make a perfect cheesecake using New York produce. There is also a barbecue scheduled in the garden that night.
But the center is a busy place most of the year. There are private group events and special dinners with local winemakers. It also conducts about 400 classes a for about 6,500 people a year.
“For us the most important thing we want people to know about when they leave here is the variety of New York state product and what that product means for New York state and what the industry means to New York state,” said Gifford. “Sourcing local and eating local is very easy when you know where to look.”
By the way, in addition to learning about New York wine and foods, I also learned why you hold a wine glass by the stem.
You hold it by the stem because your hand around the bowl of the glass will heat up the wine. So remember, hold the stem, not the bowl.