By Julia Burke, Niagara Correspondent

SD This week I decided to take a break from my usual Niagara Escarpment stomping grounds and take a trip down to the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail. Following the lake forty miles from southern New York into northwestern Pennsylvania, the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail includes twenty-one wineries and nearly 30,000 acres of vineyards. A visit seemed long overdue.

During my visit I tasted at Quincy Cellars, Sparkling Ponds, Mazza, Schloess Doepken, Johnson Estates and Noble Winery. All were interesting, and I hope to devote a future post to a discussion of their individual merits. However, my experience at Schloss Doepken truly deserves its own post.

Disclaimer: Schloss Doepken is by no means representative of the Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail as a whole.

We followed the signs to Schloss Doepken, winding away from the main drag up a desolate hill, and pulled up to what looked like a private residence. The tasting room is a blue farmhouse with a hand-painted sign.

Inside, an older gentleman who I assumed to be the owner greeted us. So far, so good, but things started to get odd when he asked me to read the back label of his wine out loud, “to get some background.”

He introduced each wine with a conspiratorial whisper, which at first seemed charmingly eccentric as he promised me his riesling would “turn your Colonel Sanders into a chicken banquet” and that his red blend would “turn your McDonalds burger into prime rib.”

But when he advised that a cabernet before its time was like an eight-year-old girl who had not yet matured sexually, the whispering became a little creepy. I began to wonder if this gentleman was planning on turning us into prime rib. I scanned the floor for trap doors.

Things got weirder.

When I remarked that the unoaked chardonnay had nice layers, he snapped, “You’re being too analytical.” Seeing my tasting buddy slurping his wine, he snarled, “What are you doing?” with as much alarm as if he had been trying to eat the label. At my friend’s attempt to take a photo of him, he demanded that I pose with him. At the words “She’ll get behind the bar with me,” I realized it was time to leave.

My tasting fee at Schloss Doepken was $58. This is because the owner is intensely fixated on guilt-tripping his guests into purchasing wine. In order to taste his 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, by far the most interesting-looking item on the tasting menu, we had to purchase two glasses and were asked to buy a bottle at $27.95.

I was told by an employee at another winery that this guy is known for blocking the door with his cane and even smacking guests with it when they attempt to leave without making a purchase. We bought wine as quickly as possible and high-tailed it out of the house as the old man threatened to pour us more tepid apple crisp-flavored wine.

An employee at a neighboring winery cracked up when we related our twilight-zone experience. “You should see the other guy that works there – one of his eyes is glass, and the other has no eyelid,” he said.

Such was my maiden voyage into the Chautauqua wine scene. No matter what else I may encounter in this region, I will never forget the day I decided to start bringing pepper spray to wine tastings.