Standing behind the long wooden bar in one of two elegant tasting rooms at The Winery at Marjim Manor, Margo Sue Bittner proudly shows off her 28 wines.
Her eyes twinkle as she tells visitors that she's named some of the wines in honor of former residents of the house, built in 1834, and which, she says, is home to six ghosts — five human, one dog.
"One of the ghosts, Shubal Merritt, died on a Thursday at 3 o'clock," Bittner says, picking up a bottle of a white grape and peach fruit blend called, of course, Thursday Afternoon at 3. There's also a dry red Lord of the Manor wine, and the sweet red Lady of the Manor.
Close to the shores of Lake Ontario in Appleton, N.Y., Marjim Manor adds a bit of spooky fun to their tour of the Niagara Wine Trail. If you do the grapes of math, you'll count nearly a dozen wineries that opened their doors here in the past decade — seven of them since 2004.
Autumn is a scenic time of year to visit the trail, which also hosts monthly events, like a Sept. 29-30 Harvest Fest and an Oct. 27-28 Hallowine Murder Mystery, where you pick up a clue at each winery. The wineries are all located in Western New York's rural Niagara County, bounded by Lake Ontario in the north and the base of a bluff, known as the Niagara Escarpment, to the south. In this micro-climate, the warming effect of the lake extends the growing season north of the Escarpment, where thousands of years ago the rich deposits left by the receding glacier created the fertile beginnings for growing fruits and premium grapes.
New York wines often struggle to find a place at fine dining tables, playing second fiddle to California's better-known labels. In truth, the Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island regions of the Empire state have been producing award-winning wines for many years. Canadian wineries in Southern Ontario Province, west of the Niagara River have also flourished, but Western New York's Niagara Wine Trail is the newest kid trying to make its mark in the vineyards, and orchards.
Marjim specializes in fruit wines, but before you turn up a snobbish nose at them, give them a try. Sample Cherry Concerto, Applely Ever After, or an award-winning dessert wine called A Pear Made in Heaven. Marjim's Merlot has a hint of vanilla, not too dry, not too sweet, refreshingly right.
A few miles beyond the Olcott Harbor bridge, we hang a left on Coomer Road to Schulze Vineyards & Winery. Relax on the covered patio or gather at the tasting bar for cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Farther south in Newfane, we meet Tom Chiappone, a master winemaker. His Chiappone Cellars Winery is not formally part of the group of wineries marketed as the Niagara Wine Trail. Chiappone has his own wine-testing lab and more than his share of awards. We sampled a dry Ives Red, a seyval blanc, and a surprising catawba, refreshing but not overly sweet.
Near the warmer limestone base of the Escarpment, 20 miles south of Lake Ontario, find the cluster of wineries west of Lockport. If pinot noir is your thing, Warm Lake Estate is a must, home to one of the largest pinot noir plantings east of the Rocky Mountains.
The only winery on the trail not family-owned, Warm Lake is a limited corporation of investors, created by winemaker Michael VonHeckler. After years of part-time research and study, the former Lockheed Martin engineer took an early retirement, and opened his winery in the summer of 2000.
Wine Spectator has called Warm Lake's world-class wine the best pinot noir in New York State. We sampled three, the signature and smoother Warm Lake Estate Pinot Noir, the pleasant Mountain Road and just a swirl of the very sweet Glace Noir dessert wine, all 2004 vintage.
The granddaddy of the Niagara Wine Trail is Niagara Landing Wine Cellars, owned by Pete Smith and his sister Jackie Smith Connelly. Although it was re-established under the Niagara Landing name only nine years ago, it is the oldest winery and founder of the Niagara Wine Trail. The 19th century vineyards yield premium grapes and wines ranging from a fruity blush to a rich cabernet sauvignon.
We cleanse the palate, get our camera ready, and head east of Lockport on Route 31 to experience a still-developing, but promising touch of Tuscany. Nestled among acres of bucolic woodlands, with walking paths and a picturesque 8-acre spring-fed lake, is the newly opened Spring Lake at Varallo Vineyards. "We're Italian. Winemaking is in our blood," says Dominic Varallo, whose father, grandfather and 10 more members of the clan work there, contributing to the operation. They decided the sandy clay soil and climate are best suited for riesling, with a second vineyard for pinot noir. They're also experimenting with wine ice cream in three flavors—peach zinfandel, red raspberry chardonnay and port.
A few miles to the northeast on Quaker Road in Gasport, we rendezvous with Oscar and Melinda Vizcarra, an enterprising couple who started Vizcarra Vineyards at Becker Farms.
In contrast to the elegant Marjim Manor, Vizcarra is a more rustic family-friendly vineyard, specializing in fruit wines. The Vizcarras studied fruit science at Cornell University and moved to Western New York to open Becker Farms where they still grow fruits and vegetables, and offer homemade baked goods. They made fruit wines as a hobby until Oscar returned from a trip to a Long Island winery to issue a proclamation to wife Mindy: "They have a lot of money, but they're not any smarter than we are. Let's open a winery and you're going to make the wine!"
They opened the winery in 2004 and today offer a riesling, a vidal blanc called Falls Fusion, and a dry red called Paso Fino. Try the Quaker Red Rougon, but don't overlook Vizcarra's award-winning fruit wines.
Start in the cheerful tasting room with a popular and smooth Red Creek Raspberry and end your day on the outdoor patio, watching the sunset and sipping Becker Blue, an award-winning blueberry wine. For families, Becker Farms also has a playground, farm tour, hay ride, a petting zoo, ice cream, chicken barbecues and evening bonfires.
Also on the trail: Eveningside Vineyards, a small boutique winery featuring high quality European-style cabernet and chardonnay, and Freedom Run Winery, which offers bold reds. Along Ridge Road (Route 104), which stretches from Rochester to Niagara Falls, is the newer Honeymoon Trail Winery, which has already won an award for its pink catawba.
At every stop on the Niagara Trail, you'll discover an array of tastes, down home rural friendliness, and winemakers willing to share their passion for producing and enjoying fine wines. Cheers!