He peers at us from beneath furrowed brows, taking in my slim, unathletic frame juxtaposed against my companion's stocky 6-foot build. "Are you sure?" he asks.
Dave Dennis, owner of Lake Country Bike in downtown North East, Pa., wonders if we — me, practically allergic to outdoor exercise, and he, a smoker — can bicycle through nearly 30 miles of Lake Erie's lush, yet hilly wine country, where more than 10 wineries produce and pour their award-winning alcohol. "No," I say. "But let's do it anyway."
We jet off on Jamis rentals, our route to four wineries sketched on a paper map we memorized, tucked away, then immediately forgot. We accidentally pass historic South Shore Wine Co.'s entrance at a 20 mph downward clip — and return uphill to its front door hot and ready for a refreshing unwooded chardonnay inside its cool, century-old cellar.
The French design-inspired underground room is the oldest of its kind in the county. Its arched, stone and shale walls lead the way to the winery's red-hued tasting room, where $2 buys four small samples. "Oh, if walls could talk," co-owner Kathleen Mazza muses as she leads a group on an impromptu tour of the space, "we could hear a lot down here."
Vineyards line the roads as we pedal parallel to the lake. As we ride south, rich farmland takes over, and we pass an orchard with a sign: "Pick at your own risk."
"What do you think that means?" I call to my companion. We have plans to pick peaches tomorrow.
"Maybe it's like the trees from The Wizard of Oz," he says.
"Or maybe the farmer owns a shotgun, and he's not afraid to use it?" I yell back.
We arrive at Lakeview Wine Cellars, where I nearly trip over the official greeter of this eco-friendly space: Balymeras Glorious Cabernet Franc, a lazy, rotund Irish setter. His stomach is stretched for a scratch, and I happily oblige until I spot the room's tasting bar — a handcrafted creation that owner Sam Best, a retired postal service worker, fills with sand brought in from abroad by his customers.
"This was my wife and my retirement dream," he tells us as we sip his Shipwreck Red wine, a vibrant blend of baco-noir, cabernet franc, chambourcin, cabernet sauvignon and noiret. It's so delicious we return the next day for a second glass.
Exhausted — and perhaps tipsy — at the end of our six-hour bike trek, we slide into a booth at Rizzo's On The Park, an Italian eatery downtown, where large plates of house-made pasta are served alongside vino from the region's wineries.
Hearty baked ziti and fettuccine Alfredo satiate our growling stomachs, but I still find room for a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie when we return to Grape Arbor Bed & Breakfast, two side-by-side Victorian mansions with rooms named Cabernet, Riesling, Merlot and ours, in celebration of the region's most beloved grape, Concord. There's no need to light the suite's fireplace on this night — its ample seating area and four-poster bed provide enough comfort for our aching bodies.
We're perfectly safe the next morning as we pluck peaches from rows of trees at family-run Rahal Farms, where visitors can also pick grapes and apples in the fall. "$3.75," says a boy manning the checkout counter as he places our 5 pounds of fruit into plastic bags.
A satisfying steal, I think as I plot a plan for the peaches on our two-hour drive home. Peach cobbler, anyone?
» Go Local. North East residents head to the House of the Potter to purchase hand-thrown ceramic serving pieces and one-of a-kind woodwork. This art gem's wedding registry is also popular for couples. 12391 E. Main Road, North East, Pa., 814-725-4791, thehouseofthepotter.com
» Embrace Fall. Spread across more than 30 acres of North East wine country, WineFest (Sept. 27-29) includes outdoor markets, wine tasting tents and live music. You can even stomp your own grapes, I Love Lucy style.North East, Pa., 814-725-4262, nechamber.org/pages/celebratewinefest
» Eat. Take in your daily dose of caffeine — and artwork for sale by local artists — at Boston Bean Cafe, where tips left in a countertop jar benefit rotating charities. 12 S. Lake St., North East, Pa., 814-725-0750, thebostonbeancafe.com
» Play. Admire southern North East, Pa., on horseback through trail rides offered at Eden Run Farms. Trails lead through the woods, over a babbling creek and down a private dirt road. 11610 Cole Road, North East, Pa., 814-725-2996, edenrunfarmsstables.com
» Stay. With panoramic lake views and its own — albeit nonworking — lighthouse, Light On The Lake bed-and-breakfast offers a scenic spot to kick up your feet and uncork a bottle of wine. 11934 Seitzinger Road, North East, Pa., 814-725-9115, lightonthelake.com