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Finger Lakes Cheese on the Rise

Vintners have unearthed the cool-climate secrets of the Finger Lakes, where 140 wineries are producing Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Riesling and more. At the same time chefs are discovering rich, impressive cheeses to complement carefully tended grapes.

“The time is now,” says Christopher Bates, local chef and winemaker. Bates moved back to his home area to establish Element Winery and creative restaurants like FLX Wienery and FLX Table.

“There are some great things starting to pop up, [and] some really exciting cheeses [are] being made here. As we become more of a gastronomic destination, the demand for more traditional, Old World-style cheeses grows, too,” he says.

Standout cheesemakers are experimenting with more complex styles and aging techniques to develop delicacies unique to the Finger Lakes. A new crop of cheesemakers, like Lively Run Goat Dairy’s Pete Messmer, are bringing fresh energy and ideas, and are also helping fellow dairy farmers produce inventive curds.

“The area itself is bursting with enthusiasm for local foods and small farms,” says Messmer. “There are lots of young people coming to the area with the explicit interest in doing something like this.”

The proximity to Cornell University has been beneficial to the region’s food culture as well. Located in Ithaca at the end of Cayuga Lake, Cornell’s vaunted agriculture school includes renowned viticulture and dairy programs. It lends expertise and even start-up facilities to some of the local cheesemakers.

Here are the stories of five forward-thinking creameries, with pairing tips from chefs, vintners and cheesemakers of Finger Lakes wines to best complement their varieties.

Tumino's Song
Tumino’s juniper berry-studded Song / Photo by Meg Baggott

Tumino Cheese Co.

Last year, three women who shared a love of Italian cuisine decided to bring their passion to upstate New York.

Elisa Tumino Van Amburgh grew up in Sicily, and invited her friends Mariann Fessenden and Sue Prokop to experience Italy with her. The three were struck by how similar Northern Italy’s Po River Valley felt to the Finger Lakes.

“We would go back to Italy and bring back these cheeses and say, ‘We could make these!’ ” says Fessenden, who studied dairy cattle nutrition at Cornell.

The Tumino team leases space at Cornell’s dairy lab as part of a dairy-business incubator program to produce a half-dozen Northern Italian-styled cheeses. They range from Primo Sale—a light, creamy basket cheese made with Jersey cows’ milk that tastes as rich as a buffalo-milk mozzarella—to more surprising Toma-style cheeses like Kidders, which is aged and scattered with black peppercorns.

Pair Tumino’s Song with Treleaven 2013 Gewürztraminer (Finger Lakes)
Why it works: Song, which is studded with juniper berries, is a firecracker when matched with this dry Gewürztraminer: bright, surprising flavors burst out in succession. Treleaven winemaker Lindsay Stevens serves them together regularly in the vineyard’s tasting room and outdoor pavilion. “The juniper berry pops out first, but there’s also a little bit of beeswax, tropical aromas like passion fruit, lychee and a really lovely rose aroma,” she says. “Those botanicals go hand in hand with that spicy juniper.”
Finger Lakes Gold Lively Run Goat Dairy
Finger Lakes Gold cheese from Lively Run Goat Dairy / Photo by Meg Baggott

Lively Run Goat Dairy

Lively Run has been a Finger Lakes mainstay since 1982. After being acquired by the Messmer family in 1995, they invested in more goats for their creamery in Interlaken, New York. They also expanded the dairy’s farmstead shop, created picnic space and branched into more cheese varieties.

Pete Messmer has experimented even more since he became head cheesemaker two years ago. He helps area farmers’ make cheeses all while producing 11 of Lively Run’s own varieties.

Finger Lakes Gold, for instance, is a sunny cross between Manchego and Gouda styles, while Seneca Blue Moon is a rare mold-ripened Chêvre.

“I’m working really hard to make something that’s unique and not derivative, an expression of this area,” says Messmer.

Match Lively Run’s Finger Lakes Gold with Red Tail Ridge 2012 Estate Bubbles Sekt (Finger Lakes)
Why it works: Red Tail’s Méthode Champenoise-styled Sekt is made from estate-grown Riesling. Its bone-dry minerality shines against this mild, buttery, crowd-pleasing cheese. The wine brings out “the savory and saline notes in the cheese, while the wine’s effervescence cuts through the creamy texture,” says Messmer.
Crosswinds Farm and Creamery Goblin
Crosswinds Farm & Creamery Goblin / Photo by Meg Baggott

Crosswinds Farm & Creamery

Sarah Van Orden’s family has farmed in New York State for 12 generations. Her parents maintain a dairy farm in the Hudson Valley, but she and husband Charles Morrow chose to establish theirs in the Finger Lakes area after deciding it had a more suitable agricultural infrastructure.

After spending time at Cornell, where she earned degrees in animal science and agricultural business (in addition to participating in the dairy incubator program), Van Orden now produces cheese from her own farm’s milk at the facilities of Sunset View Creamery, a local stalwart who also hosts the annual Finger Lakes Cheese Festival. Crosswinds sells their product from an honor-system farmstand on their own land in Ovid, New York, which sits in view of the barn that shelters the herd that helped make the cheese.

Crosswinds cheeses blend the characteristics of Alpine styles like Emmenthaler with cheddar influences.

“Everything is coming together in the Finger Lakes,” says Van Orden. “The neat thing is, when we’re pairing wines from our neighbors, the same soil is feeding the cows and growing the grapes. That’s why they pair so beautifully.”

Try Crosswinds Goblin with Standing Stone 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Finger Lakes)
Why it works: Goblin, perhaps Crosswinds’ most popular cheese, is smooth and nutty with a sharp, citric edge. “This is a wine of substance, and I think there’s a nice balance between the wine and the cheese,” says Van Orden. “Neither overpowers the other.”
Muranda Blue Cheese
Muranda Blue / Photo by Meg Baggott

Muranda Cheese Co.

Tom & Nancy Murray have been dead serious about Holsteins, a type of milk cow, for decades. Nine years ago, convinced they were producing the best milk in the business, the Murrays decided it would be criminal if they didn’t find someone who could turn it into cheese.

Standing in a barn built in 1891, recently restored into an event space on their farm in Waterloo, New York, Tom waxes about exacting nutrition ratios and moisture levels of corn forage and alfalfa hay.

“The key to good cheese is good raw product,” he says. “We’re husbandry people. We know how to make good forage, and it’s all about forage intake.”

The Murrays provide their cows’ milk to a multiple cheesemakers, mostly in the Cooperstown area, who use it to produce around a dozen cheeses. They’ve found the Holsteins’ milk lends itself particularly well in blends of popular European styles like Asiago, Provolone, Gouda and Parmesan. Muranda Blue—a cheese made for the Murrays at nearby Lively Run Goat Dairy before being aged in custom caves built by Tom on his own farm—is a standout. It offers the evocative flavor sought by makers of mold-ripened cheeses.

Team Muranda Blue with Ravines 2013 Maximilien (Finger Lakes)
Why it works: “Certain reds will make cheese taste minerally,” says Scott Riesenberger, executive chef at Ravinous Kitchen. “Here, the fat plays with the spice. The deep fruit of the Max works with the butteriness and grassiness of the blue.” Ravines serves them together in a Civil War-era cattle barn adorned with chandeliers and lush flowers.
East Hill Creamery Silver Lake Cheese
East Hill Creamery’s Silver Lake, a Comté-style cheese / Photo by Meg Baggott

East Hill Creamery

When Gary & Betty Burley, dairy farmers of nearly 40 years, delved into cheesemaking last year, they went big. The Burleys invested nearly $7 million to establish East Hill Creamery, a cheesemaking facility and gourmet shop in Perry, New York, west of the Finger Lakes.

The couple built four 24-foot-high cheese caves, bought copper-lined vats and brought in a French consultant to help develop recipes.

The facility embodies the couple’s “go big” spirit. The Burleys started out in dairy farming with 18 cows. They now milk 700.

“When we set out to make our cheese, we wanted to compete with European imports,” says Gary. “We chose to build into the future.”

The creamery uses raw milk from its own grass-fed cows, and the cheeses are aged on boards from basswood trees harvested from the Burley’s wood lot. The results are impressive.

Underpass, a Raclette-style cheese designed for melting, is a pungent cousin of the Emmenthaler that the Swiss use in fondue pots. Meanwhile, Silver Lake is a Comté-style cheese aged one year to bring out notes of the grass, flowers and herbs from which the cows grazed. It results in a complex, nutty flavor.

Try East Hill’s Silver Lake with Shaw 2003 Chardonnay (Finger Lakes)
Why it works: The best wine and cheese pairings create a third taste in the mouth. “The cheese brings a sweetness to the wine,” says Bates. “It’s like hay and clover and corn.”