My Guide to America's Best Cider Region
Travel tips for a getaway to the Finger Lake's cider trail. Do yourself a favor this fall and plan a trip!
I realize there’s still a few weeks of summer left—and I don’t want to rush things—but in September, my thoughts always turn towards fall, my favorite season. My love of autumn is a major reason why I ended up writing The Cider Revival a few years ago. Certainly the early fall is harvest time for wine grapes all over the northern hemisphere. But here in the American northeast, as the apples ripen and the days eventually get colder (maybe!), it also, unmistakably, becomes cider season.
There are certainly great American ciders from Vermont, Michigan, and elsewhere, but Finger Lakes cider is unique: consistently drier, with more acidity, higher alcohol by volume, and generally more “wine-like” than most others. For more on the hows and whys, check out this audio interview that the Cider Qween and I did last year with Steve Selin of South Hill Cider:
To taste great Finger Lakes cider, look for producers such as Eve’s Cidery, Redbyrd, Blackduck, Open Spaces, Black Diamond, Finger Lakes Cider House, as well as South Hill. In most cases, you’ll have order directly from their website.
Or, better yet, visit them in person! To help with that, today I’m publishing my travel guide to New York’s Finger Lakes cider trail. If you haven’t yet visited the Finger Lakes—especially if you live withing driving distance—do yourself a favor and go this fall. New York Cider Week, September 29 - October 9 is a great time visit.
On the Cider Trail
Wine transports us, evokes the romance of places far away and romantic—the rolling hills of Tuscany, perhaps, or the châteaux of the Loire Valley, or the steep slopes of the Mosel. Cider is different. Cider comes from places where your relatives live, or where you once went to summer camp. You’ve likely been apple picking, or bobbed for them, or eaten a candied one on a stick.
Cider evokes a different emotional response that's hard to pin down—the thrill of something familiar, yet new. I was taken by the feeling on a sunny fall Sunday at Eve's Cidery, in Van Etten, New York, at the southern end of the Finger Lakes region. I was sitting at a wooden table on the family farm and orchard of cidermakers Autumn Stoscheck and Ezra Sherman. A half-dozen cider samples sat in front of me, along with some amazing cheese, bread, and—of course—an apple.
It had been a while since I'd last visited Eve’s, while on tour for the cider book I'd written. Now, back at the orchard, I felt moved. “The emotional connection to cider is something I wish people talked about more,” Stoscheck said. “It’s something we're super cut off from in our modern lifestyles.”
Eve's is one of the nation's most established cider makers, producing dry, artisanal bottlings since 2002—about as old as contemporary craft cider gets in America. I tasted batches made from a single apple variety, such as Northern Spy; others were sourced from a single place, such as Albee Hill, a veritable cider grand cru.
“This year, I made a barrel from a single tree,” Stoscheck told me. The ciders were presented like fine wines, their names listed on a tasting sheet. “For years, I was adamant: no tastings,” she said. “But we just started doing them, and they're great. There's a real sense of appreciation after the past year.”
I’d once spent a night sleeping in the family’s barn, just steps from where we were seated. This time around, I stayed in one of the 24 guest rooms of the Inn at Taughannock Falls, within a short hike of the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. Another lovely, and quirky, place to stay in La Tourelle Hotel & Spa on the outskirts of Ithaca, close to the naturally foaming Buttermilk Falls. Otherwise, my suggestion for a cider trail visit is to find an Airbnb in or around Geneva, at the tip of Seneca Lake, or in Ithaca, at the bottom of Cayuga Lake.
The Finger Lakes region has emerged over the past decade as one of the nation's premier cool-climate wine appellations, renowned for its Riesling and Cabernet Franc. But while it is also America's most important dry-cider region, that fact is far less widely known.
The Finger Lakes, some of the deepest on the continent, modulate winter temperatures while keeping things cool in the summers. That climate, combined with rich, fertile, well-drained soils, makes for one of the nation's great fruit-growing regions—for both grapes and apples.
"The only difference between what people call wine and what we call cider is the fruit it's made from," said Steve Selin of South Hill Cider, a few minutes southwest of downtown Ithaca. "There's been wine around here for a long time, and a lot of us picked up not only technical knowledge but also our palates from hanging out with winemakers."
South Hill is a prime example of how the local scene has evolved: In 2014, Selin was a luthier, repairing and restoring stringed instruments, and was making cider at home. Now he has a modern tasting room and an orchard with more than 2,000 trees.
“We're getting more knowledgeable drinkers now, and they're seeking out dry ciders,” Selin told me. When I visited South Hill on a sunny weekend last October, people lounged outside in Adirondack chairs next to firepits, enjoying flights of ciders made from apples with names like Ashmead's Kernel, Baldwin, and Golden Russet. They picked flowers, listened to a bluegrass band, and paired their ciders with tartines and cheese boards.
About 20 minutes up the road, the town of Trumansburg sits between Seneca and Cayuga lakes. This is the sweet spot for cider, and Trumansburg is the platonic ideal of a cider village, with a good café and roastery, Gimme Coffee; a retro-chic bowling alley, Atlas Bowl; and a quaint Wednesday-evening farmers' market, with live music, where I sipped ciders from Eric Shatt of RedByrd Orchard Cider. Hazelnut Kitchen in the center of Trumansburg serves a constantly changing seasonal menu, in a cozy atmosphere, with an extensive list of local ciders Hazelnut Kitchen is easily one of my favorite restaurants in the region
During the fall, Black Diamond Farm runs wonderful orchard tours, led by cidermaker Ian Merwin, who gives background on the dozens of heirloom and European bittersweet apple varieties that he grows.
Nearby, on a hill in Interlaken with views of Cayuga Lake, the Finger Lakes Cider House has become a can't-miss destination for cider aficionados in the seven years since it opened.
On my most recent visit, a diverse crowd picked apples, played cornhole, and chatted over sourdough pizza and salads made with ingredients grown on site. In the tasting room, I nudged my way through a boisterous crowd to sample ciders ranging from the crisp, dry Pioneer Pippin to the earthy, barrel-aged Funkhouse. A truly cider-immersive move for the traveler is to stay overnight in the Cider House’s yurt!
At Blackduck Cidery, meanwhile, the attitude is unapologetically challenging. In the barn-slash-tasting room, John Reynolds—known as an iconoclast within the industry—pours wild-fermented ciders. Some are made with a high percentage of bracing crab apples; many incorporate chokeberries, currants, or pears.
“Our ciders are dry, have a lot of acidity, and they're funky,” Reynolds told me. “People who come here looking for a sweet cider are going to be disappointed.” Yet every time I've stopped by, I've seen visitors happily surprised by what they taste.
All great wine regions have a food scene to match, and in the Finger Lakes, it's centered in Geneva. The hardest reservation in town is F.L.X. Table, where chef and master sommelier Christopher Bates serves inventive dishes to just over a dozen people each night. They also have two casual options, F.L.X Frybird, with excellent fried chicken, and F.L.X. Provisions, a wine bar and shop, a great place to taste the region’s wines.
Another highlight is Kindred Fare, where Brian Butterfield's beverage program is among the best in the region, featuring cocktail ingredients like damson-plum gin and poppy amaro and a wine list dominated by local producers. I like to end my evenings with a house-made cider at Lake Drum Brewing, where the vibe is mellow hippie meets college bar.
In my book, I called the Finger Lakes the “Napa Valley of cider.” But on this trip, I realized what's happening there is something unique—and that it's still emerging. "Apples take a long time," Stoscheck had told me. For the Finger Lakes, it seems the time has finally arrived.