SENECA LAKE -- Lord Tennyson said, "In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."
And, probably, beer.
If there's a guy in your life who loves beer, a "beer, booze and brats" Finger Lakes tour is just the tonic for February.
The tour really works for just about anyone who isn't a teetotaler, as an escape for couples, a group of guys looking to try some new brews, or even gal pals up for some harmless flirting. (Note: Ladies, the breweries are crawling with men.)
This is also an ideal time to visit the area. There are no crowds, and the scenery -- cool gray lake, snowy hills and fields of shivering grape vines -- is stunning.
Here's the route we took along the east side of Seneca Lake:
>Beer and wine
First stop: Geneva and the Three Brothers Winery, home of War Horse Brewing, Stony Lonesome Estates, Passion Feet Vineyard and Bagg Dare Wine Co. They call it a "classy, sassy and trashy" experience. Buy the $10 "Tasting Passport," which covers all four brands. Yeah, you're here for the beer, but a little wine won't hurt (as was evident with a small, rowdy group of couples that had us rolling with laughs. An antique phone booth was involved).
We began at Stony Lonesome Estates, the "classy" part, and tried (and liked) the "Four Degrees of Reisling" (dry to sweet). Despite the moniker, there was nothing hoity-toity about the winery.
Moving on, we entered the "sassy" Passion Feet room. The good times (and tasting) continued with silly wines like "Scandalicious" and "Seduce Me." We laughed through a wine slushy that washed us next door into the War Horse Brewing room.
Country music cranking, we tried a flight of beers from light to deep, starting with a Reisling Ale, the first of its kind -- Reisling juice blended with wheat beer. Next up were two seasonal selections -- Peace Bomber, a malty German-style concoction, and India Pale Ale, followed by an American Black Lager. The taste concluded with a delicious root beer.
The last stop was our descent to "trashy" -- through the woods to Bagg Dare (Cajun for "back there") Wine Co.
Ahh, the antique signs, dumpy vehicles and rockabilly music. Sweet, cheap wines with names too risque to print, a basket of pirate panties and a discussion with the staff about "PajamaJeans" brought it all "bagg dare." Alas, we were sad to leave.
Next stop: Wagner Brewery at Wagner Vineyards. Tastings are $2 for either wines or beers. We headed straight to the brewery in the back. Among the tanks, we sampled beers from the entertaining "Wild Bill." Starting with the Mill Street Pilsner, Wild Bill moved us through each beer like a maestro. Grace House Honey Wheat, Dockside Amber Lager, an IPA, Oatmeal Stout and Sled Dog Doppelbock. Did you know two parts Oatmeal Stout, one part root beer and French vanilla ice cream make a mean adult float?
Bidding our goodbyes to Bill, it was time to run with the big dogs at Fingerlakes Distilling.
It all started in 2007, when Brian McKenzie of Elmira met Thomas Earl McKenzie (no relation), a master distiller from Alabama. The two joined forces to open the first stand-alone distillery in the Finger Lakes. Importing a 4,000-pound German still, the two set up shop and now craft, among other items, a Vintner's Vodka made from local grapes. All the ingredients they use come from within 50 miles, with the exception of juniper used to make Seneca Drums Gin.
McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey is what the distillery is known for. Made from heirloom corn and finished in Chardonnay casks, it has a distinct buttery finish. Also available are Rye Whiskey, a Maplejack liqueur, a Reisling Grappa and other flavored liqueurs and brandies. They also make a corn whiskey -- Glen Thunder, in honor of Watkins Glen Raceway.
For $2 you can sample three spirits, as we did, choosing the classics -- vodka, gin and bourbon. Served straight, they were wicked; our mixologist added a little blood orange mixer to the gin, which immediately induced visions of a hot summer day cooler. Mini-casks and unfinished bourbon for patrons to age at home are also available.
>More to see
Unfortunately, Two Goats Brewing, 5027 S.R. 414 in Hector, was closed at the time of our visit. In addition to beers, the owner tells us it serves a mean slow-roasted, hot beef sandwich with chips and a pickle for $7. It is open this month Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m. Call (607) 546-2337 or go to www.twogoatsbrewing.com.
The guys at the distillery clued us in to Rooster Fish Brewing, five miles down the road in Watkins Glen.
Rooster Fish Brewing at the Wildflower Cafe & Crooked Rooster Brewpub, 223-301 N. Franklin St., Watkins Glen (607-535-9797; www.roosterfishbrewing.com), is open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays; to 10 p.m. weekends.
Maybe it was the beer. Maybe the bourbon. Regardless, the meal we ate at Dano's Heuriger in Lodi was fantastic.
And just what is a "heuriger?" It's a traditional Austrian tavern where people are meant to gather and eat, sharing plates. Entering from the parking lot, you'll see Chef Dano Hutnik through a glass picture window, hard at work in the kitchen. The restaurant is masculine, warm and inviting.
Liptauer and Hotel Sacher bread spreads, Viennese cabbage, knockwurst, bratwurst, wiener schnitzel, spatzle and strudel -- the only things missing were the von Trapp family and Sabres left winger/Austrian native Thomas Vanek.
The beauty of Dano's is that patrons can order smaller items as they go, or a full dinner. I could have made a meal of homemade bread topped with a pumpkin seed oil spread and a bowl of rich Viennese sauerkraut soup, made with cabbage, smoked meats, paprika and prunes.
Instead, we ordered a Farmer's Plate, laden with savory sauerkraut that covered a pork shank, smoked pork chop, knockwurst and Viennese dumpling, and a clever Viennese Bento Box, an interpretation of a Japanese staple. Individual dishes filled with bratwurst, pork shank, spatzle, sweet-and-sour red cabbage, a cold potato salad and coleslaw arrived in a black lacquer box.
Chef Dano frequently visits guests in the dining room. Holding a baby, he told the mother, "He'll be ready for spatzle in another few months." The meal was the perfect ending to the day.
>Make a weekend of it
We did this trip in one day, leaving at around 8:30 a.m. from Buffalo, but if you want to linger, there are plenty of B&Bs in the area. The Fox & Grape, 9496 State Route 414, Lodi (607-582-7528; www.thefoxandthegrapes.com) is centrally located.
If B&B's aren't your thing, the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, 16 N. Franklin St. (607-535-6116; www.watkinsglenharborhotel.com) looked awfully inviting. There are also several hotels at the top of the lake in Geneva (www.genevany.com).
If you go:
It is about a two-hour drive to Geneva, where we dropped down to Route 96A to get to War Horse Brewing. From there, cut over to Route 414 to reach the rest of the stops all the way down to Watkins Glen.
Three Brothers Winery War Horse Brewing, 623 Lerch Road, Geneva; (315) 585-4432; 3brotherswinery.com. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Wagner Brewery (at Wagner Vineyards), 9322 State Route 414, Lodi; (866) 924-6378; www.wagnervineyards.com. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Finger Lakes Distilling, 4676 Route 414, Burdett; (617) 546-5510; www.fingerlakesdistilling.com. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Dano's Heuriger, 9564 S.R. 414, Lodi; (607) 582-7555; www.danosonseneca.com. Open for winter Friday/Saturday noon to 8 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m.