It's hard to believe a time when the shores of the Cayuga Lake were not occupied by the picturesque rows of vineyard that provide the area with the fruit that drives our local economy. Not more than 35 years ago, winemaking was nearly experimental practice for some in the Finger Lakes region.

In 1981, the owner of Plane's Cayuga Vineyards (now called Cayuga Ridge Estate Winery), Mary Plane, envisioned a multifaceted tourist destination along the shores of Cayuga Lake. She recognized the challenge of getting visitors to a rural business surrounded mostly by farmland and located 30 minutes away from the interstate highway. Plane teamed up with neighboring Lucas, Americana and Frontenac Point vineyards to discuss common goals and to facilitate creative tactics to attract new customers. Not long after, in 1983, Lakeshore Winery joined the group, which was then established as the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail — becoming America's first organized wine trail.

In that same year, the first brochure was produced, proclaiming, "The CLWT offers a variety that is unmatched in wine touring and tasting. Nowhere else will travelers experience such a multitude of premium wines, attractions, comfortable lodging, fine restaurants, friendly people and a splendid scenery." Perhaps a bit overstated in 1983, it's certainly true now.

Shortly after, Knapp joined the trail in 1984, Hosmer and Swedish Hill in 1986, Six Mile Creek in 1987, and King Ferry, Goose Watch, Sheldrake Point and Long Point in the 90s. Bellwether joined in 2000, Montezuma and Thirsty Owl joined in 2003, Buttonwood and Cobblestone (now Varick) in 2005, and the newest members, Toro Run, in 2014. The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail currently has 17 member wineries, featuring a cidery, a meadery and four distilleries within the wineries themselves.

Then in 1987, Cayuga Lake became the first American Viticulture Area in all of the Finger Lakes. An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region having distinguishing features that allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin, as defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Within the Cayuga Lake AVA, eastern exposures help ripen grapes hit by the sunrise and vineyard elevations never exceed 800 feet above the lake's surface, with steep slopes leading to the shorelines, creating air patterns that generate a unique microclimate in autumn that facilitates the perfect harvest season. In the fall, cold air drains off the vineyards onto the lake, mimicking a vacuum-like effect that draws more cold air from the land. The continuous air flow is helpful in preventing cold pockets from settling and forming frost on the vines, extending the growing season to 165-170 days on average, which is three weeks longer than many other areas in the Finger Lakes region, making Cayuga Lake truly unique.

According to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, just this month, New York has reached 400 wineries in 59 of the state's 62 counties, with more licenses pending at the New York State Liquor Authority, claiming the fourth most wineries in the country behind California, Washington and Oregon. The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail has served as a model for most of New York's current 19 wine trails and for other wine trails across the nation. It is a benchmark for results attained by working together for a common goal. Thus, Cayuga Lake is home to America's most vintage wine trail.

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Cassandra Harrington is the executive director of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. For more information, visit cayugawinetrail.com.


Features editor for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I also cover local arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.