A Wonderful Day on Cayuga Lake
Pleasure can take many forms but as you’ll know if you’ve visited this site, wine and water are two of our favorite elements of the “good life” so when you combine them with a perfect summer afternoon...well, it doesn’t get a whole lot better for Carol and me.
We got a serious dose of that on our recent visit to the New York Finger Lakes wine area. We had just become aware of the growing wine industry in that region and as we planned the trip, we knew we’d want to get a good feel for the local wine producers and sample their wares as best we could. We learned during our visit to Napa Valley that driving around to tastings can be a bit daunting considering the number of wineries available and the fact that after a few stops, driving can become an issue. So while planning our activities for this trip, I looked into bus tours, limos and other means of getting to wineries without our car. I consider it a great stroke of luck to have found School’s Out Charters and Captain Rick Eleck. Imagine getting to wineries from the lake on a 22’ Chaparral Bowrider.
We arranged our cruise for a Thursday afternoon and we could not have had a more perfect day for it. We drove to Myers Park near Lansing, NY and met Captain Rick around 11:00am at the marina on the southeast shore of Cayuga Lake. At nearly 40 miles, Cayuga is the longest of the Finger Lakes. By the time we arrived, we found that Captain Rick had stocked the three ice compartments and raised the Bimini Top which provides shade if the sun gets too hot. We got a chance to spend a little time with Rick before the other couple who would be joining us on the cruise that day arrived. It was during that conversation that we learned that Rick is the band director at Cortland High School and also serves as the musical curriculum administrator for kindergarten through 12th grade. It was then obvious how the business got its name...when he’s not Mr. Eleck in school, he’s Captain Rick all summer...when “school’s out.”
Rick grew up in Cleveland and fell in love with the Finger Lakes area while doing grad work at Ithaca College. He’s been in the area ever since and has never looked back. An accomplished musician, Rick has performed with jazz bands and toured with the Sammy Kaye orchestra. He inherited an entrepreneurial spirit from his father which Rick believes contributed to the decision to start School’s Out Charters five years ago. His love of the water probably contributed as well...Rick is an avid SCUBA diver. That hobby indirectly led to his boating business as well through a strange twist of events. After asking many times, a diving friend convinced Rick to get his captain’s license. The friend and his brother were going to get theirs and if they could find a third, they would get a discount. Turns out, they all three got their license but only Rick actually put it to use.
After that conversation, we only had to wait a few minutes for the other couple with whom we would share the cruise... Jay and Beth Ann Zunic from Johnson City, NY. The Zunics were the perfect companions on this cruise as they opted for the bow section and the full sun that provides, while Carol and I sat aft under the shade of the canvas top. After some safety instructions, we set off for the forty minute journey to our first destination, Long Point Winery.
Long Point Winery
When we arrived at the dock near Long Point Winery, we were met by owner Gary Barletta who had driven down to meet us in a van. After the short ride back up to the tasting room, we were able to sample five of the 18 wines produced there. We learned that Gary, who is also the winemaker, blends locally grown grapes with California grape varietals to produce some of the best wines we tasted in the area. We had actually sampled the Long Point Sangiovese the previous afternoon as our host, The Inns of Aurora, offers a glass with a cheese tray each day at 5:30pm and that is their standard red selection. We also discovered a wonderful 6-year-old cheddar cheese that the winery had out for tasting. It was a perfect match with the red wines and Carol observed that after tasting the cheese and wine pairing, she now knows what Christmas tastes like.
By the time we finished the tasting, it was after 12:30pm and we were quite hungry. Fortunately, Long Point offers lunch so we sat on picnic tables overlooking the vineyards and the lake, enjoying a turkey wrap with a glass of the Cabernet Franc. I could have relaxed there all afternoon but we had miles to go and three more wineries to visit.
Buttonwood Grove Winery
It was a much shorter jaunt across the lake and a little north to Buttonwood Grove Winery. We were once again met at the dock for the somewhat longer ride up to the tasting room but that gave us a chance to check out the wonderfully landscaped grounds on the way. We were not surprised to find that owner Ken Riemer was a landscaper in a previous career and he and wife and co-owner Diane have certainly brought that skill to their new life. The Riemers owned the lakeside property for 20 years before they began the process of creating a winery. The doors opened in 2004 and Buttonwood Grove has been a stop on Captain Rick’s cruises for years.
At this stop, Jay and Beth Ann sampled several wines but Carol and I decided to have a glass on the wonderful deck overlooking the lake instead. Though we both prefer dry reds, we were encouraged by tasting room manager Sue, to try a specialty of Buttonwood Grove, the slushie. It’s a sweet wine in slush form that was so refreshing when we sampled it, we both decided to have a glass. Once again, I would have been completely content to stay there on that deck til dinnertime but as before, we had other ports of call lying ahead.
Before we left, though, we were able to get a picture of Buttonwood Grove Winery’s most famous resident, Melody the Scottish Highland cow.
Thirsty Owl Wine Company
The three mile journey south to Thirsty Owl Wine Company seemed to just take a few minutes as I was trying to soak up as much of our time on the water as possible. By late afternoon, it was so beautiful on the lake that I began to think about doing another cruise the next day but of course we had a full schedule awaiting us on Friday so I just tried to enjoy the moment.
The Thirsty Owl tasting room was packed that Thursday afternoon and we weren’t able to get a lot of information but we did learn that the winery opened in late summer 2002 with Mary Dauber managing the tasting room. The winery has experienced tremendous growth since then and has won numerous awards including the Governor's Cup and the John Rose award for its Rieslings.
Like the others on the cruise, this winery offers a wonderful panoramic view of Cayuga Lake and they have all done a great job providing comfortable spaces from which to take it all in.
Sheldrake Point Winery
While all four wineries we visited on the cruise were wonderful, Captain Rick had saved the best for last. When we arrived at Sheldrake Point Winery, we found that tasting room manager Jamelle had prepared a six course food/wine pairing for us, a perfect ending to a great day of tasting and boating.
After a bit of exploring in the tasting room and gift shop, we were escorted to a private area for the pairing. We started with Battistoni, a locally produced hard salami along with their Gamay Noir. That was followed by five local cheeses and five more wines. The last offering was very special...a beautiful blue cheese called Lively Run Blue paired with Sheldrake Point’s Riesling Ice Wine, an almost legendary local late harvest wine. All the pairings were spectacular and we bought three of the cheeses and the salami and had them that evening with a bottle of the Long Point Sangiovese and a nice loaf of crusty bread we picked up at the Lansing Market. It ended one of the best days of my life.
Our cruise that Thursday afternoon on School’s Out Charter was perfect. Before we left that morning, Captain Rick said that it’s his job to make certain that his guests are having a good time and he certainly did that for us. His knowledge of Cayuga Lake, the area around it and the wineries that dot its shores made the six hour tour seem like it went by in a flash. His professional seamanship and his relationships with the wineries blended so beautifully, it’s easy to see why Captain Rick keeps pretty busy all summer. But I’m still a little amazed that there aren’t more folks offering this service on the lakes. There is only one other company serving Cayuga Lake. I would think that anyone coming to visit this wine country, this Napa Valley of western New York, would make a winery cruise a “can’t miss” item on their agenda. It’s such an ideal way to sample wines while being made to feel special at each tasting room. Captain Rick has two boats and while he tells me that he’s not interested in growing the business too far beyond its current size, he is looking for captains to allow more flexibility in his schedule. When I told him that I thought he has the best job ever, not surprisingly, Captain Rick confirmed that very enthusiastically.
If you visit the Finger Lakes area and you love wine and water like we do, book a cruise with Captain Rick. Tell him Dan and Carol sent you.
For more information about School’s Out Charters including private tours, check out the website by clicking HERE.
Visit Long Point Winery website HERE
Visit Buttonwood Grove Winery website HERE
Visit Thirsty Owl Wine Company website HERE
Visit Sheldrake Point Winery website HERE
For more information on the Finger Lakes area, visit the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance website HERE