Esther and John Earle prefer not to play favorites with the 50 grape, fruit and honey wines available at their Seneca Lake tasting rooms.
“They’re all like our kids,” says Esther Earle, who launched Earle Estates Meadery with husband John in 1994, followed by Torrey Ridge Winery in 1999.
No wonder the tasting rooms, located within the same structure in Penn Yan, Yates County, feel like home. Accented by brass chandeliers, cathedral ceilings and blond wood, the atmosphere lends itself to meeting up with Cousin Hick-A-Billy, a sweet nonvintage red blend made from Catawba and other native grapes, or Uncle Ralph’s Rabble Red, a dry nonvintage blend of Vincent and Marechal Foch.
Turning wine tasting into a come-as-you-are experience began enticing the Earles shortly after they befriended scientist Bob Kime in the 1980s.
As an employee at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, Ontario County, until his death in 2002, Kime spent much of his career studying how to improve the taste and appearance of mead, or honey wine. The Earles got to know him when they donated orange blossom honey from their bee colonies for his experiments.
The Earles expected nothing in return except a few bottles of the resulting mead, which they eventually sent to Ithaca liquor stores to gauge its commercial appeal. Buoyed by the public’s interest, the couple started laying the foundation for Earle Estates and eventually branched out to making grape wine under the Torrey Ridge label from vinifera, hybrid and native varietals.
The subsequent years have given the couple the chance to educate the public about mead, a relatively uncommon beverage with roots trailing back to antiquity. Some of the options at Earle Estates are blends of fruit wine and mead, while others are purely honey-based but come in various styles, from semi-dry to sweet.
Last year, Earle Estates even delved into producing bubbly, resulting in the debut of a sparkling mead called Twinkle.
Though the winery and meadery saw a slight decline in visitors when gas hit $4 a gallon in 2008, Esther Earle says the recession and the staycation phenomenon have benefited both operations.
“We’ve been blessed through the bad times,” she says.
Sheila Livadas, for FingerLakesWine.com
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, after Memorial Day through December; noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, February through Memorial Day. Call ahead for hours in January. Tasting fee: $2 for six samples of wine. Not wheelchair accessible.
Photo courtesy of Torrey Ridge
Earle Estates Meadery is three miles south of Torrey Ridge (above). Tastings from both operations are available at the Torrey Ridge Winery.