The Finger Lakes region of upstate New York is an interesting place – particularly if you like wine. The area is a big spot for wine production, though many people mistakenly believe that Napa Valley, California the only place in the US producing vino.
We settled on Hammondsport for a quick family vacation because it was the closest town to my mother’s favorite wine producer: Bully Hill Vineyards. The vineyard is only a 3-4 minute drive from the center of town, which made it easy for us to go back two days in a row. We had a bit of a late start on the first day, so we stuck to a tasting and grabbing a meal at the restaurant. The second day we went back for a tour.
A little info about Bully Hill Vineyard
Back in the day, this vineyard was a Taylor wine operation. Opened in the late 1800s by Walter Taylor, this winery is a rare example of a business that was able to last through the US prohibition period. Any ideas as to how they may have done that? (Read on, the answer is hidden below)
♦ ♦ ♦
Getting there is very easy. You basically drive straight up a hill for about 4 minutes and you’re there. They have a huge parking lot across from the entry that offers an unobstructed view of Keuka Lake. The edge of the lot is a fantastic spot to grab some pictures!
When we arrived, we headed straight for the restaurant. Being that it was midday on a Saturday, the wait was quoted at an hour. The hostess recommended that we head up to the tasting room to kill a little time while we waited for our table. The other option was to have a glass of wine in their waiting area – but any reasonable person knows that you can kill way more than one glass of wine in an hour time span… and that expense would have added up!
We instead chose to join a tasting. For $5 per person, you get to choose 5 different varieties to sample. They handed out papers with a “this or that” style menu, you mark off the wines you’d like to try, and after a quick description of that round’s choices, the staff come around and pour your chosen variety.
They have two staff members running each tasting and the guys running our tasting were awesome! We had been a little early and listened in on the tail end of the tasting before ours; between rounds one guy swapped out and though he seemed like a fine gent, we really lucked out. The two guys, Elliott and Dustin (eek they said their names so fast, hope that’s right!) played off each other so well! They were engaging, enlightening, and bang-on with their comedic timing. Ten-out-of-ten recommend. I liked all my choices, though the Bass Reisling was the winner when it came time to decide which wine to purchase.
After all that wine we were ready for some food. The balance of our waiting period was just enough for us to look at the menu to decide on meals before being seated. It appeared that everyone was being seated on their deck – which was great because the deck offered the same stunning views as the parking lot. One amazing surprise was that each place setting had a coloring page. Adult, child – didn’t matter – everyone got to color. My navy-blue dove and black sun were not actually an accurate reflection of my mood.
Though I’m inclined to think that we were a little bit of an outlier, our service wasn’t fantastic. I tend to sympathize with service industry workers, but this kid literally walked up to our table (there are 6 of us) and said that he was going to help the other two-person tables that had been seated after us first to just “get them out of the way.” I think we were all a little too delirious from hunger and stunned at his statement to say anything other than “ok.” The restaurant is a no-tipping establishment, so perhaps that’s why he felt compelled to put us off, but regardless of the reason it was a little odd.
Now, aside from the service (which would not by any means deter me from visiting again) the rest of the dining experience was great. The food came out quickly and tasted good. Everyone ordered different items and walked away satisfied.
The next morning, we went back for more.
The tours begin in their wine shop and take about 45 – 60 minutes. Our guide was Amanda and talked us through the history of the vineyard all the way from its weird origins to its current-day promise to keep their wine 100% New York made.
Transition from being a Taylor wine operation began in the 1960s when the founder’s grandson, also named Walter Taylor, realized that the family had been lying to their clientele about the origins of their grapes – they were not 100% NY as marketed. Walter (grandson), a man who had no formal wine-education, decided that he couldn’t cope with the level of dishonesty – and bough the hill in 1967.
The rest of Taylor wine business had been bought by Coca-Cola – and they did not like that Walter was running his vineyard and production under his own name – because when one sells a family-named business to a large corporation, the corporation doesn’t take kindly to individuals infringing on their copyright…
…by using their own name.
“They took my name and heritage but they didn’t get my goat.”
Even after appeals, the court upheld that Walter would be unable to market his wine with his name. As you can imagine, this didn’t go over with the free-thinking, smarty-artist. So in an act of defiance, Walter compiled all the labels that had the Taylor name, and paraded down to the center of town with supporters and unusable labels in tow. Though I was unable to find the story online, Amanda told us that Walter painted the name “Taylor” on the goat – because surely, since the goat publicly donned the Taylor name, he needed to be given up with the labels. Apparently, willing to match-wits, the goat was shaved and returned to Walter. Guilt Free the goat was ultimately used as the main mascot for the Bully Hill brand. Read more on the feud here.
The number one selling wine is called Love My Goat Red- and on the label? A cute little hand-drawn goat. Lucky for him (and for the visitors to the winery), Walter was an artist. After needing to hand over all the wine labels, he designed a new label line.
Any creators out there (particularly painters, photographers)? How do you indicate that a piece of art was created by you? That’s right….
…you sign it.
Walter, that smart, quirky guy who had lost the right to use his name on his product found a fantastic work-around in the form of art. Artist have the right to sign their art, so although the winery couldn’t be branded as a Taylor wine operation, he was able to find a way to get his name on the bottle.
If you weren’t already impressed by the history (and Walter!), the part of the tour where they go over the operation will really tip the “wow” scale. I’m going to leave a little mystery there, but I will hit a few key stats:
- Love My Goat is their number one selling wine
- Their wine is 100% NY made (though they do source from other local farmers)
- The product is not meant to age on a shelf at home – drink within 2 years
- They use only 2 (unavoidable) preservatives – so Bully Hill wines are great for individuals who have digestive sensitivities to preservatives
- They utilize a few great sustainability practices
Spreading out our visit over two days was definitely the smart plan of attack. Hammondsport and the surrounding area is beautiful and relaxing, but doesn’t have a whole lot of local infrastructure. If you’re a traveler who needs constant stimulation, you’ll need to let that go a little (or be prepared to drive a bit to other towns). Visiting the winery on both days broke up the down time.
Not a super expensive destination. We stayed at the Best Western Plus – The Hammondsport Hotel. Nice rooms, great location, kind staff, and fantastic breakfast (like, probably the best I’ve ever had in a hotel).
Bully Hill Price Breakdown:
- Wine Tasting – $5
- Tour – Free
- Lunch – +/- $12pp (not including a glass of wine)
Obviously walking around the grounds and taking pictures in that parking lot are free things to do. The tour walked us through a small museum of the history of the hill, complete with video footage of Walter – and lots of his artwork. There may also be a lime green goat statue….
- What’s your favorite go-to wine? Any particular country preference?
- Have you ever done a winery tour?
- Red or white?
Were you able to guess the answer to the question I posed at the beginning? They were able to stay open during prohibition because they provided sacramental wine to churches. Smart.