Keuka Lake from Bully Hill

As I mentioned in my tasting of traminette, I spent some time last weekend tasting wines along Keuka Lake. Keuka Lake is one of New York’s Finger Lakes; it’s on the west side of the bunch, and it has a distinctive feature: it’s forked. In fact, it looks not so much like a finger as like your thumb and forefinger and a continuation of their joining down to the wrist. Actually, it looks more like a forked branch you’d use to roast hot dogs or marshmallows. Or, you know, like a lake with a fork in it halfway up.

Keuka would seem a distinctive name, with its two k’s and its echoes of cucumber and cue card and eureka, but I imagine many people get confused between Keuka Lake and the lake two to the east, Cayuga Lake. It’s not that they look similar – Cayuga is longer, not forked, and has much gentler slopes on its sides – but the names sound nearly identical. If you say them slowly, it’s “key you ka” versus “cay you ga,” but who says place names carefully more than a couple of times? In the more relaxed pronunciation, the only real difference is the /k/ versus /g/ in the middle. Coincidence? Not altogether.

It’s not that the two words are really the same name. But they are related. Keuka comes from a word meaning ‘canoe landing’ and Cayuga comes from a word meaning ‘canoe carrying place (trimmed of a final syllable). Canoe see the common element? Of course, in both cases, the names aren’t accurate; they’re really names for shoreline places – the lakes themselves are more canoe rowing places.

Or, today, boat sailing places. Or looking at the pretty water from the shore places. Or, for a lot of people, wine tasting nearby places.

Which is where Keuka comes in for me. A trip down Keuka Lake for me is a trip down memory lane. I went on my first wine tasting trip there about a quarter of a century ago with my cousin Sharon, a wine aficionado (and somewhat older than me). That’s also when and where I first tasted icewine (at Hunt Country, which still makes an excellent icewine, full of brown sugar flavours). I don’t drink too much icewine – just too sweet for me after the first sniff and sip – but I love wine touring. That first experience made Keuka a bit of a eureka for me: it opened up whole new vistas.

Vistas are another reason this isn’t my first return to Keuka. Other Finger Lakes have wineries too – even more of them, in fact – but none are as pretty as Keuka. None have as European a feel. The hillsides sloping into Keuka Lake are dramatic. And there is a high bluff over the fork. With houses on it that look like a stiff rain might just wash them down into the drink.

Ah, never mind the houses, and never mind the canoes, either. I will prefer the drink. The wineries have not improved as rapidly as the ones in the Niagara region of Ontario, but they are catching up now. And I have some more catching up with them to do… next time through.

View from Heron Hill.

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