By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor

Photos by Morgan Dawson

On a tour of half a dozen Seneca Lake wineries earlier this week, I was reminded just how much service matters. At some stops I found myself wanting to buy wine that I thought was mediocre — simply  because the service was so good. At other stops I found myself wanting to wave my wallet in front of the staff and shout, "See this? You could have had everything in it if you understood service!"

For the most part I'm going to highlight the positive experiences. There is one exception, which you'll find below. My visits began at Arcadian Estates on the southeast side of Seneca Lake, then proceeded north to Rock Stream Vineyards, Fulkerson Winery, Villa Bellangelo, Four Chimneys and Prejean.

Knowledge is power

"This tasting bar is made from black walnuts that were taken down on this property," said Fulkerson employee Peggy, who poured for me on my visit. "There are many examples inside this new tasting room where, even though it's just a few years old, the pieces have been on the property or in the family for years."

I loved this little tidbit (the bar is pictured at right) and that was just the start.

Fulkerson produces quite a variety of unusual wines including Vincent, Dornfelder, Burntray, Ravat 51. (The latter is also known as Vignoles). If even a wine geek is perplexed by the offerings, it helps to have a pourer who can answer questions. At Fulkerson, I found they could not only answer all of my questions, they did so without hesitation and with enthusiasm.

The tasting was, in simple terms, a lot of fun. I could see why Fulkerson is a popular destination for Seneca Lake travelers. Knowledge and enthusiasm are clearly part of the culture.

Extra cost up front means extra profit down the road

At Arcadian Estate I sampled their cherry fruit wine, and when the pourer brought it out, she grabbed a bowl of dark chocolate to go with it. She described the effect as drinking a cherry cordial. While I didn't love it, I appreciated the additional touch.

I was surprised that other wineries aren't adding more extra touches to enhance the experience. Sometimes that means offering an inexpensive cheese board with the tasting, as they do at Billsboro Winery further north on Seneca.

Perhaps it means charming the visitors by pouring a special wine that's purposely left off the list. More than anything, I'd be pairing seasonal food with wine if I were running a tasting room. I realize there is the burden of more cost up front, but having tasted with hundreds of people and at dozens of places, I've seen the impact. Even the smallest extra touches reap large rewards for the winery.

If you have a theme, stick to it: Part one

Check out the sign: Four Chimneys Winery bills itself as "America's First Organic Winery." Strange, then, that when you drive up you realize the winery has no vineyards. I figured that when I entered I would regaled with detailed stories of where the grapes are from and what the practices are.

Nope. No one in the building could tell me which specific vineyards are delivering these ostensible organic grapes. I was told that some of the vineyards are on Seneca, some on Keuka. 

I was also stunned that there was no literature and additional information on the glories of organic growing. If the sign hadn't said "organic," you'd be hard pressed to figure out that was their niche. I asked what "organic" meant, given how nebulous a term it's become.

I was told, "Well, it means no spraying, really. No chemicals." I asked, "Anything else?" "That's about it," came the response.

Anyone who has a fire burning for sustainable practices, organic winemaking, etc, would be wildly disappointed. Which brings us to…

If you have a theme, stick to it: Part two

Bellangelo1Villa Bellangelo means "House of the Beautiful Angel" in Italian and is named for the owner's daughters. That was the first thing I learned when I arrived, where the theme is decidedly Italian. Check out the pic; they even have a Vespa adorning the entrance.

All the signs are in both English and Italian, and the wine list includes Sangiovese (brought in from California) and other Italian varieties.
The tabletops are covered with red-and-white checkered cloths, enhancing the theme (even if it's a little schlocky).

The only thing missing was a little Italian music; when I was there the pourer noted that sometimes they forget to play music. It was ominously silent during my tasting, which is not ideal. But the rest of the theme was on the money.