Twenty years ago, no one could have predicted NASCAR’s subtle gentrification from beer drinker to wine connoisseur. But then, former racers started buying vineyards, wineries started sponsoring cars, and the crowds — some of them, anyway — traded their Bud Lights for a nice glass of pinot noir. Nowhere can you get a better taste of the unlikely pairing of wine seminars and pace car rides than at the annual Finger Lakes Wine Festival, held at Watkins Glen International, a NASCAR road course that happens to be in the middle of one of the country’s best-known wine regions.
I knew I liked wines from Finger Lakes wine country; I just wasn’t sure if I would like them in this context. Of the countless tastings I’ve been to, this was the first where organizers rewarded people for showing up early wearing a toga. The annual toga contest is part of the Friday kickoff party called Launch of the Lakes, which includes bands, food and enough libations to encourage serious participation in the competition. It’s worth the effort. Winners take home an all-inclusive VIP pass for the next year’s event.
Officially, the wine tasting and other events begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Not bothered by tasting before lunch, I went early to beat the crowds, a good idea, particularly if there are certain wineries you want to try.
The event is nicknamed the “riesling festival” because so many of the area’s producers are making dynamic versions of this often-misunderstood grape (read: not all rieslings are sweet).
I love dry rieslings, and arguably some of the most outstanding domestic examples come from local producer Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars. Namesake Konstantin Frank is a hero among wine enthusiasts, and the more than 100 wineries that now surround the region’s seven lakes, because he was the first in the area to successfully cultivate vinifera grapes in a region thought to be too cold to grow anything but less-sophisticated juice grapes.
Frank established his winery in 1962, and an industry followed. His wines and wines from about 80 other local wineries are stationed throughout Watkins Glen International.
The taster pass includes culinary demonstrations and cooking and wine tasting classes, many led by chefs and pros from the New York Wine and Culinary Center.
I sat in on a talk about some of the grape varieties that grow well in this area and learned how the cold climate drives up the acidity levels of grapes, giving the resulting wine more structure or “backbone.”
For those who want more of this intellectual side, the festival added a VIP experience including one-on-ones with the local vintners and private tastings. Like any good festival, there are also arts and crafts vendors, local food and tons of good music. And should your NASCAR roots need a break from all the swirling and sniffing, $5 gets you into the Brewer’s Garden, where you can relax with a cold beer.
Taster passes begin at $30; underage and designated driver passes $15. For tickets and more information, visit theglen.com.