This is the best time of year to head into Lake Erie Wine Country, once known as the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail.
The consortium of 23 wineries is in "America's Grape Country," from Silver Creek to North East, Pa., the largest grape-growing region east of the Rockies. There are more than 30,000 acres of vineyards, including the country's largest Concord grape crop. Welch's has two plants in the area.
But it isn't juice most visitors are after. The endless rows of grapes also lead to the vino.
Wineries are found along Routes 20 and 5, with some on side roads. You can follow the old Chautauqua Wine Trail signs. Wineries have driving maps, too. Some offer free tastings, while others charge a nominal fee (often good toward a purchase).
Even wine novices can discover some pretty darn good wines. It's all about what tastes good. Many locations also carry wine items (glasses, openers, bags, clothing). Here's an overview:
Liberty Vineyards, 2861 Route 20, Sheridan (www.libertywinery.com), is lovely, with friendly wine hosts and clever wine labels: Purple Haze, White Side of the Moon and our fave, Lucy's in the Sky.
Woodbury Vineyards, 3215 S. Roberts Road, Fredonia (www.bestnywine.com), carries a Renard wine made with native New York Labrusca grapes, making it sweeter. Cranberry and apple wines were surprisingly good. We purchased some for a Thanksgiving glog. The blueberry was very sweet; our hostess recommended mixing it with vodka for a tasty cocktail.
Nearby: We didn't venture to Willow Creek Winery, 2627 Chapin Road, Silver Creek (www.willowcreekwines.net), and we have been to Merritt Estate Winery, 2264 King Road, Forestville (www.merrittestatewinery.com), for the Strawberry Festival and loved the wine slushes! Grape Country Candles, 2787 E. Main Road, Sheridan (www.grapecountrycandles.com), is another stop you can make.
21 Brix Winery, 6654 W. Main Road (Route 20), Portland (www.21brix.com), is a new winery. Look for the big elephant out front.
At Vetter Vineyards, 8005 Prospect Station Road, Westfield (www.vettervineyards.com), our hostess kept talking us into trying different wines and we obliged (also purchasing many). Beautiful (and inexpensive) Bear Lake Baskets are also available.
Seven Vines Winery, 7540 E. Main Road (Route 20), Westfield (www.7vineswinery.com), is located in an old car dealership. We tried the Girl's Best Friend wine and a white wine from two different years to taste the difference.
Johnson Estate Winery, 8419 W. Main Road (Route 20), Westfield (johnsonwinery.com), is New York's oldest estate winery. Owned by Fred Johnson, it is located in what used to be his grandfather's apple barn. Glass walls provide a view of the winemaking process. We were lucky to meet Johnson, who took us into the vineyard to see the different grapevines. The wines here are fantastic.
Noble Winery, 8630 Hardscrabble Road, Westfield (www.noblewinery.com), is up a big hill. It offers a spectacular view of the vines and Lake Erie. There are plenty of tables (indoors and out) for picnicking. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own treats.
Nearby: We didn't visit Schloss Doepken Winery, 9177 Old Route 20, Ripley, but we had heard along the grapevine it could be interesting -- and not in a bad way. Give it a whirl if you're adventurous! The winery does not participate in LEWC events.
Quincy Cellars, 10606 Route 20 (www.quincycellars.com) and Sensory Winery & Art Gallery, 10599 Route 20 in Ripley, are located across the street from each other. Quincy is in a beautiful old barn with a stone cellar that's used as the tasting room. Go online to learn about Sippin' Sunday events. Sensory offers wine tastings and art by regional artists.
Along the next part of the trail, we bounced between Route 20, Route 5, and into North East, Pa:
Sparkling Ponds, 10661 W. Lake Road (Route 5), Ripley (www.sparklingponds.com), is a cute little place with interesting wines, like Dago Red, Fatal Attraction and Woman Pleaser. They sell local cheese and have a picnic area outside.
Mazza Vineyards, 11815 E. Lake Road (Route 5), North East, Pa. (mazzawines.com), had great wine hosts. Tours are available and they sell wine juices. Specialty wines include tasty Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese classic Italian varietals.
South Shore Wine Co., 1120 Freeport Road, North East, Pa. (mazzawines.com), is a sister winery to Mazza and a must stop. Its historic and spectacular stone wine cellar is worth the trip alone. Built in the early 1860s, the stonework is incredible. It feels like a cavern. Look for the historic photo of horses pulling grape wagons down into the cellar. Upstairs, the Vintage Cafe serves salads, soups, sandwiches, breads with dipping oils, cheese plates and more. Guests are encouraged to purchase wine to enjoy with food.
Penn Shore Vineyards, 10225 E. Lake Road (Route 5), North East, Pa. (www.pennshore.com), offers table wines, specialty wines and premium vintages. Prescheduled tours are offered to larger groups. We enjoyed looking at the old artifacts, including a receipt for the sale of the first case of Sweet Catawba in 1969 ($5) and a letter dated 1971 from Lucy Winchester, the social secretary of the White House. Visit to see what it says!
Courtyard Wineries, 10021 W. Main Road (Route 20), North East, Pa. (courtyardwineries.com), is a bright and cheerful winery. Its unique dry and sweet wine bars allow guests to follow taste preferences.
Burch Farms Country Market & Winery, 19210 Sidehill Road, North East, Pa. (www.burchfarmswineshop.com), sits on land settled in 1779 by Elliot Burch. Here you can taste wines and buy local produce and baked goods.
Nearby: Presque Isle Wine Cellars, 9440 W. Main Road (Route 20), North East, Pa. (www.piwine.com), was closed when we stopped on a Sunday. Check its website for many wine events. It also sells juice for winemaking.
Off the beaten path: Unfortunately we ran out of time for Lakeview Wine Cellars, 8440 Singer Road, North East, Pa. (www.lakeviewwinecellars.com), and Blueberry Sky Farm Winery, 10243 N.E. Sherman Road, South Ripley. But we'll be back soon!
> Chautauqua Lake winery/brewery trip:
If you head to Mayville, Mazza has its Chautauqua Cellars and distillery, 4717 Chautauqua Stedman Road, that makes fruit brandies using a copper-pot still imported from Germany. Also in Mayville is the Brick Village Gourmet Factory Store, 8 Barton St. (www.brickvillagegourmet.com), that sells salsas, salad dressings, sauces, jams, homemade pasta and more. Follow Route 394 into Lakewood to visit the Southern Tier Brewery, 2072 Stoneman Circle (www.southerntierbrewing.com). Tours, which are limited to 25 people, are held at 3 and 5 p.m. Saturdays. Cost is $8 and includes tastings. The Empty Pint brewery pub opens at 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and noon Sunday.
Events: Check winery websites for individual events. Upcoming LEWC events include Harvest Wine Weekends (Nov. 4-6; 11-13); $35 per person and includes fare paired with wines. Holiday Week at the wineries is Dec. 26-Jan. 2 (excluding New Year's Day). Pick up some bargains during the Bare the Barrels event Jan. 13-16. The Wine & Chocolate event is Feb. 17-19. Cost is $35.
For more information, maps and trip planner, accommodations and to purchase a $20 Visit Visa, go to Lake Erie Wine Country at www.lakeeriewinecountry.org. A Visit Visa provides discounts to wineries and area businesses and places to keep notes on wineries.