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One of the most common sights you see as you drive in and around the Chautauqua County Village of Westfield about an hour south of Buffalo, is vineyards, acres and acres of vineyards. That’s not really a surprise considering that this region is one of the oldest and largest Concord grape growing regions in the world.

In 1897, Dr. Thomas Welch, founder of Welch’s Foods, built his first grape juice factory in Westfield and the area became known as “The Grape Juice Capital of the World.” There are about 30,000 acres of grapes grown between Silver Creek and Harborcreek, Pa., and the region is second only to California in grape production.

The best place to learn about the region’s grape growing and agricultural heritage is at the newly opened Grape Discovery Center, located on Route 20 about a mile west of the Village of Westfield. In addition to learning about the region’s grape growing history, visitors to the center can taste locally produced wines from Lake Erie Wine country as well as purchase regional food specialties and grape-themed gift items.

While the center has been open since Memorial Day weekend, grand opening festivities are planned for Sept. 13-15, with the ribbon-cutting set for Sept. 13. The exhibit room will open to the public and visitors to the center will be able to enjoy samples from all the vendors that supply the gift shop. They also will be able to listen to live music on the patio and see demonstrations about grape production.

The center is the brainchild of the Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association, a not-for-profit corporation established in 2004, to bring greater recognition to the region. The Concord Grape Belt is a narrow strip of land about 60 miles long and 2 to 6 miles wide located along Lake Erie in both New York and Pennsylvania. The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Area, which has the ideal climate for growing grapes, was designated New York State’s 19th Heritage Area in 2006 and was the first such area to have agricultural heritage as its primary focus.

My daughter and I stopped by the Grape Discovery Center over Memorial Day weekend to check it out. The center building includes a front room that serves as a regional welcome center, with information about the Concord Grape Belt, as well as other area tourism information. A large map of the region shows vineyard locations of the 30,000 acres of grapes. Also located in the front room is a gift shop that features foods made from grapes – such as jams, grape seed oil and grape juice concentrate; grape-themed items, such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, and mugs; and locally made gourmet food items.

One of my favorite items purchased was the 100 percent Concord grape juice concentrate, which is produced by the local grower’s co-op. This concentrate, when mixed with water, makes a delicious, heart-healthy beverage full of antioxidants. The product also has recipes on its website (www.concordgrapejuice.com) to make a variety of foods with the concentrate, including grape sherbet, grape ice cream and grape dressing. If you can’t make the trek out to the center, the concentrate can be purchased online and also in Buffalo area stores, including the Lexington Co-op and Feel-Rite.

The tasting room, located in the middle portion of the building, features more than 60 wines representing all 24 wineries in the region. One can sample a flight of four wines for $6, or order a full glass of wine for the same price. Also available are wine slushies and non-alcoholic grape juice slushies, as well as snack food, like cheese, crackers, salsas and dipping oils, along with baked goods including biscotti and scones. Visitors can enjoy their beverages and snacks inside the tasting room’s cafe or outdoors on the patio that overlooks the surrounding vineyards.

The center’s back room features interactive exhibits and displays about grape cultivation and grape production, which is designed to teach visitors about the history as well as the production process of grapes.

Other things to do

Take the time to discover some or all of the 24 wineries that are located in Lake Erie Wine Country (formerly referred to as the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail). Since the climate and soil are idea for growing wine grapes, it’s no surprise that so many small wineries are located in this region. See www.lakeeriewinecountry.org for a complete list of area wineries.

Upcoming wine-related events include the annual Harvest Wine event, sponsored by the wine trail, in early November.

The Village of Westfield is filled with historic homes built in the early 1800s. One of the best places to learn about area history is at the McClurg Museum, which houses the collections of the Chautauqua County Historical Society (www.mcclurgmuseum.org). This 16-room mansion, located in Moore Park, was built by James McClurg between 1818 and 1820. A wealthy man, McClurg wanted to provide his family with more stately living conditions than the other area settlers, who lived in log homes. When the last of McClurg’s descendants died, the home was left to the Village of Westfield to be used as a public building.

Westfield also has a farmers’ market taking place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on summer Saturdays in Moore Park. Almost all of the goods sold are regionally grown or produced.

One of the most scenic areas in Westfield is Barcelona Harbor, located along Lake Erie. The area has a large parking lot, as well as a boat launch and docking facilities. The Barcelona Lighthouse, a 40-foot-tall stone lighthouse, originally was commissioned in 1829, and decommissioned in 1859. It is now a private residence, so you can view it from the road or parking area. It was the first public building in the United States to be lit with natural gas.

If you go

Grape Discovery Center, 8305 W. Main Road (Route 20), Westfield, 326-2003, www.grapediscoverycenter.com. Summer hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

For more information: www.westfieldny.com.

Directions: Take the New York State Thruway (I-90) west to Westfield (exit 60). Turn left on Route 394 and head toward the village of Westfield (approximately 1 mile). To reach the Grape Discovery Center, turn right and Route 20; the center is about a mile west of the village on your left.