The Finger Lakes unique geology and topography is what makes the area hospitable for grape growing. Seneca Lake is deep - the deepest of the Finger Lakes. During the winter months the water temperature of the lake rarely dips below the freezing mark. This, in turn, acts as a warming agent for the surrounding shores and hillsides. The water temperature radiates up the slopes sheltering the vineyards from the winter cold. In the spring, the cooler temperatures of the lake help to delay the bud break until the risk of all winter frost has passed. In reverse, after the hot summer months, the warm surface water temperatures helps to postpone the first frosts. This allows the grapes to hang on the vines and ripen.
The area’s earliest vineyard on record belonged to the Reverend William Boswick. In 1829, Boswick grew Catawba and Isabella grapes in his rectory garden located in Hammondsport, New York on the southern tip of Keuka Lake. He distributed cuttings to parishioners and soon offshoots from his vineyards spread throughout the region.
In 1866, the western shores of Seneca Lake became home to its first winery, the Seneca Lake Grape Wine Company. The winery planted of grapes. At the time, it was the largest vineyard in the state. By 1869 they were producing 14,000 US gallons of Seneca Lake’s first commercial wine.
Then, in 1882, New York State opened its Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York located at the north end of Seneca Lake. Its grape breeding and research programs helped to substantiate Seneca Lake as a prominent player in the grape growing industry. By 1900 there were over 20,000 acres (80 km²) of vineyards throughout the Finger Lakes and more than 50 wineries.
In 1919, the passage of Prohibition strongly impacted the wine and grape growing industries. Only the largest wineries were able to survive by making grape juice and sacramental wine. Total area of Finger Lakes’ vineyards was cut in half. And many of the vineyards that remained were replanted to produce grape varieties popular for juice or for the fresh fruit market.
When Prohibition was repealed, the wine and grape growing industry remained a shadow of its former self. The Seneca Lake Grape Wine Company had folded and area farmers struggled to survive in a much reduced New York State market.
The next significant change for the Seneca Lake grape growing and wine producing industry occurred during the late 1950s and 1960s. Two young European viticultural pioneers named Charles Fournier and Dr. Konstantin Frank began to research and experiment with Vinifera grapes in the Finger Lakes Region. Fournier and Frank’s research led them to Seneca Lake where they found the most favorable microclimates conducive for growing Vinifera grapes. In the early 1970s, Fournier planted 20 acres of Vinifera on the east side of Seneca Lake. At the same time, a German native named Hermann Wiemer bought and planted of Vinifera on the west side of Seneca Lake.
The success of these two vineyards along with the establishment of a wine research program at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva (which had been banned since its opening) helped to start the revitalization of Seneca Lake in the grape growing and wine producing industry.
In 1976, New York State passed the Farm Winery Act reforming tax and marketing regulations to encourage grape growers to expand into the wine production business. Finally, in 1977 - after more than 60 years, Seneca Lake became home to its first new winery: Glenora Wine Cellars. Soon to follow were Wagner Vineyards, Herman J. Wiemer Vineyard and Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards.
Since that time, Seneca Lake has become a popular winery and grape growing destination in the Finger Lakes Region as well as the Eastern United States. With more than 28 wineries located on Seneca Lake’s shores, Seneca Lake rivals wine regions of California and Europe.
In 1986, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail was formed and is currently the largest and most active Wine Trail in New York State. The Wine Trail office is located in Watkins Glen, New York and employs a full-time Executive Director and Office Manager.