There is a place in Appalachia where every September hillside vineyards ripen for harvest, and the tiny town of Naples, New York in the southern Finger Lakes Region prepares for their annual Grape Festival and World’s Greatest Grape Pie Contest.
Driving up Route 87 from Pennsylvania to I17, I got off onto Route 53 North: a winding road through Amish and Mennonite communities and past woodland drives touting The Finger Lakes Wine Trail. Although the region is picking up fame as a premier winery region, its other agro-tourist industry is less ubiquitous and was started by small town women, in their home kitchens, who collectively turn out anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 pies a year for tourists and locals alike.
Grape pies aren’t common fare, and given the complicated process involved in making one, it’s no wonder. First, Concord grapes are picked by hand in the fields so as not to damage the fruit. Then each grape is pinched to remove the skins, the pulp is cooked and strained of seeds, perfect crusts are rolled, filling added, and then the grape skins are put back in for taste and deep purple color. The result of such hard work is something like a tart cherry pie with a slightly sweeter, grapier, more aromatic flavor. From road side stands to home kitchen pie shops, farm markets, and gift stores, selling grape pies is as part of the season in Naples, New York as fresh table grapes, local wines, and farm markets overflowing with apples, pumpkins, and other produce.
The hills above this charming, no-stop-light village are topped with slowly turning wind towers that are so impressive I had to pull over to snap a few pictures. Coming up to Jeni’s Pies tent, located on Main Street (Route 21) you first notice the organic-looking brown boxes decorated with “Jeni’s Pies” stamps in rainbow colors. Her wooden purple sign advertizes her as a “3 time World’s Greatest Grape Pie Winner”. When I catch up with Jeni later she’s delivering pies still dressed in an apron with her thick curls tied in braids. I ask her about how many pies she bakes each fall and although she can’t give me an exact number, she laughs and says “a lot!”
Like most of the pie sellers in town, her busiest weekend is Grape Festival which happens the third weekend of each September. Only Concord grapes are used in the pies which is important for a few reasons, one being that when Concord grapes went out of fashion with wineries, the only thing saving most of the local vineyards around town was the grand idea to make Concords into pies.
Back in the early 1960s, the owner of the Redwood Restaurant in town, decided to make something unique to the area to sell during the grape harvest season.
His grape pie slices were so successful that he asked his neighbor across the street, Irene Bouchard, if she would take over baking the pies. Bouchard’s grape pies got to be so popular she was making over 10,000 pies a year by the 1980s. Other women in Naples saw this was a great way to save the vineyards from being cut down, while finding a means to stay home with their families and still earn an income. Today there are a host of grape pie bakers – Cindy’s Pies, Monica’s Pies, Mom’s Pies, Jeni’s Pies, and many more, making a small living while saving their town’s heritage and pastoral views.
Grape pie season kicks off with the Grape Festival where one can shop for local artist’s wares, listen to live music, stomp grapes, and visit the New York Wine Tent. If you can’t get to Naples in time for the Grape Festival, there’s still plenty to see and do the entire fall season. And if you don’t think a grape pie sounds delicious (and it is!) several bakers expand their repertoire during the season to include fresh apple pies, pumpkin, French coconut, grape-apple and more. At Monica’s Pies, you can even get one in the chicken pot pie variety.
Other highlights right along Main Street include Artizann’s Gift Shop, where I found wonderful and exquisite works by local artists, potters, jewelry makers, fiber artists, and more. There’s Widmer Wines, offering fall wagon rides, and the quaint Imagine Moore Winery located next to a “painted lady” old Victorian House – Elements, that sells truly alternative and stylish clothes as well as unique gifts for children.
This fall agro-tourist town also offers eco-adventure with hiking, boating, and cross country skiing all within easy reach.
For the more adventurous, or even the ones who want to work off their pie, there’s great hiking and kayaking nearby. Grimes Glen is accessed from Vine Street, just two blocks down from Jeni’s Pie stand where the Bristol Valley Play House sits. For those willing to hike and get their feet a little wet, two waterfalls from 40 – 60 feet in height are just down the trail.
I’d brought my kayak so decided to save the hiking here, or at nearby Clark’s Gully, for another time. I went to the Canandaigua Lake Boat Launch in Woodville, just five miles north of town up Rt. 21. I’d heard I might see one of the nesting bald eagles that call the southern end of the lake home. My paddle was exquisite with views of the tall hills that flanked the water beginning to show their autumn color.
Although I didn’t see an eagle, I wasn’t disappointed.
After my eventful day I was flushed in the cheeks with fresh air and satisfied with my loot of fresh apples, table grapes, a few bottles of Imagine More Love and Imagine More Harmony wines, and a stack of grape pies to bring home for friends and family.
I recommend a visit to Naples in autumn and whether you bring your kayak or hiking boots or not, just don’t forget your pie fork!
What & Where:
Monica’s Pies (7599 Route 21, Naples, NY; 585-374-2139; www.monicaspies.com)
The shop is open year-round, daily from 9:00 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m.
Imagine Moore Wines (197 North Main Street, Naples; 585-374-5970)
Artizanne’s (118 North Main St; 585-374-6740)
Widmer’s Wine Cellers (One Lake Niagara Lane, Naples, NY 14512; 800-836-5253; www.widmerwine.com)
Oldest winery on the Canandaigua Wine Trail.
Unique wineries on western edge of the Finger Lakes wine region visit www.canandaiguawinetrail.com
Arbor Hill Grapery (Bristol Springs, NY; 800-554-2406; www.thegrapery.com)
Award-winning Finger Lakes wines and gourmet foods.
2009 Travel Writing Contest: 3rd PLACE WINNER
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Angela Cannon-Crothers is a naturalist and writer residing in the Finger Lakes of New York. Her story, “Collecting Clouds,” is included in the anthology, A Mile In Her Boots; Women Who Work in the Wild (Solas Hous, 2006). She is a regular contributor to Mountain Home Magazine and has also published in Life In the Finger Lakes, Rochester Lifeways, The Sigurd Journal and many more. She is the author of the children’s book, Grape Pie Season, and a novel, The Wildcrafter available on Amazon.com