Take a Tour of the Oldest Winery in the Finger Lakes
February 18, 2022
Nestled at the bottom of Keuka Lake in Hammondsport, New York is the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes. Pleasant Valley Wine Company has been operating since 1860, the winery has had a long and colorful history. The campus stretches out over many acres, and the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The best part? You can visit the winery and tour the buildings for yourself. And as someone who has done dozens of brewery and winery tours around the world, Pleasant Valley’s winery tour is truly one of the best and most unique.
A huge thank you to Visit Corning & the Finger Lakes and Pleasant Valley Wine Company for arranging a tour and tasting for us.
The History of Pleasant Valley Wine Company
With hundreds of wineries throughout the Finger Lakes region, it is impressive to be able to visit the very first one that started it all. Pleasant Valley Wine Company was established in March 1860 by a group of investors and has run continuously for over 160 years. Not only is it the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes, it is also the first bonded winery in the entire country. What does that mean? It’s all about taxes. Simply put, a bonded winery has an insurance policy that covers their federal tax liability. I know, it’s not as exciting as you thought – but being the very first one in the US to do this was a very big deal.
Innovations During the Prohibition
When the Prohibition started in 1920, Pleasant Valley was quick to pivot in order to stay in business. The coopers who made the barrels for the winery switched to crafting furniture and pews for local churches. In turn, that led to making sacramental wine for those churches – the one loophole in the Prohibition’s ban on producing alcohol.
Another way the winery pivoted was by selling baked goods. One of the byproducts of winemaking is the creation of tartaric crystals, which line the wine barrels. The crystals are then crushed to create cream of tartar, which is then used in baking.
Over the course of a century and a half, it’s not surprising that the winery has changed names and ownership multiple times. Pleasant Valley was purchased by Taylor Wine Company in 1962, which was then acquired by Coca-Cola in 1977, and later sold to Seagram in 1983. After a few more transitions, Pleasant Valley Wine Company, the historic Great Western Winery, and Widmer are now owned by the Doyle family.
In addition to the three wineries, Pleasant Valley also retains rights to four other labels. Autumn Frost, Gold Seal, Millennium, and Brickstone Cellars round out the family of brands. With so much history and so many labels, Pleasant Valley is guaranteed to have a wine to suit anyone’s palate.
In 1867, Pleasant Valley won their first award for their wine. The announcement came from Paris to celebrate American sparkling wine. Visitors to the taproom can see a beautiful stained glass window in the ceiling about the tasting counter. But the achievements didn’t stop there. In 1873, Great Western Champagne won a gold medal in Vienna, and continues to be one of the top rated champagnes. It was even the official champagne of Watkins Glen International for over 50 years.
Starting Memorial Day weekend and running through the end of summer, you can do a tour of Pleasant Valley Wine Company and its historic buildings. Whether you love wine, or you’re being dragged along by a wine lover, this tour is one you won’t forget. The history alone makes for such a unique experience.
Wine Quality Laboratory
The tour takes you through several of the historic buildings, each one more impressive than the last. The first stop? Peek inside the windows of the Wine Quality Laboratory, where all the magic behind the wine-making happens. The hallway leading away from the lab is lined with wine barrels. Make sure your tour guide tells you all about the coopers who made the barrels. They used to have to crawl inside, through very small openings. Because they could pass out due to the fumes inside the barrels, the coopers would tie a rope to themselves so someone else could help them get out. Isn’t that crazy?!
I have to say, out of all of the stops along the tour, the holding tanks were one of the most impressive features. Made from redwood trees shipped in from California, the tanks hold 40,000 barrels of wine each. Yes, 40,000. And the metal rings holding the barrels together? They are each lifted by hand. It takes 25 men to raise the rings to tighten the barrels. Just standing next to the barrels is an experience because they are MASSIVE.
And if those aren’t big enough, Pleasant Valley has added stainless steel tanks that each hold 100,000 barrels of wine. The stainless steel helps maintain the temperature at 32 degrees for cold storage.
All the tanks combined can hold an incredible 14 million gallons of wine.
While you’re in the holding room, take a peek at the control board. The number of switches to control everything is insane. Just don’t touch any of them!
Because Great Western’s champagne is award-winning and so well-known, I was very excited to see the champagne cellar. Dating back to the 1800s, the champagne cellar features both storage of barrels and bottles. Your tour guide may let you try your hand at riddling: hand-turning the bottles. For several years, riddlers were responsible for manually turning the champagne bottle to move the sediment (inactive yeast) to the neck of the bottle. With potentially thousands of bottles to turn, it was definitely a busy job!
In the room outside the cellar, you’ll also find old wine-making equipment. Make sure to take a few moments to appreciate the historic mechanisms – and the people who had to operate them.
There you will also learn how Pleasant Valley makes their sherry, which is aged in barrel for 30 years before being bottled at 18%. (Spoiler alert, their sherry is phenomenal. Particularly the cream sherry. I may or may not have bought a few bottles to take home…)
Catacombs of the Winery
As the tour continues underground through the catacombs of the winery, you’ll visit several meeting rooms and banquet halls – most of which are still used today. Guests can rent out certain rooms for private events. It almost makes me wish we knew about this place before we got married! Here is where you will also find some of the furniture that was made during the Prohibition. The woodwork on the pieces is astonishing.
The tour concludes in the room that was once the post office for the property. Yes, the winery campus was so large that it had its own post office! There you’ll also find a variety of their award-winning wines from each of the Pleasant Valley brands.
Pleasant Valley Tasting Room & Visitor Center
Can’t make a tour? No worries! You can still get a lot of Pleasant Valley’s history right in their visitor center, which is attached to the tasting room. Make sure you give yourself time to explore the mini museum, which contains relics from the winery’s long history. I particularly enjoyed the replica of the Champagne Trail.
What’s a visit to a winery without doing some tastings? Visit the large U-shaped counter to do your own tasting for $10. Choose from a long list of wine, sparkling wine, sherry, and more from Pleasant Valley’s 7 brands. (Make sure you include the cream sherry!) Then head over to the gift shop and purchase some to take home.