Emma visits Red Tail Ridge during harvest
The five hour drive up to the Finger Lakes’ Red Tail Ridge Vineyard on an overcast, early October afternoon did not disappoint this city dweller’s craving for fall foliage that sets in this time each year. Though, as glimpses of Seneca Lake peeked out among rows and rows of grapevines, I worried what the looming clouds would mean for my day working on the crush pad. Nancey Irelan—the co-owner, winemaker, and cool-variety visionary at RTR—had emailed me two significant disclaimers:
“Please bring waterproof work boots. We will have rain gear and gummy boots here that will fit you.”
“While you’re here, the rest of the Chard will be coming in most likely. There will be Pinot rosé off and on for the next week as well. The following week may be some Blau and Franc for rosé… maybe Riesling for sekt. My point is there will be stuff happening.”
Nancy is one half of the husband-and-wife duo who bought the 52-acre property along Seneca Lake just outside Geneva, New York. With credits including Vice President of Viticulture and Enology R&D at a large California winery, Nancy is the maven behind the ideation and experimentation that goes on at Red Tail Ridge. Mike Schnelle, her dynamic partner, is the vineyard manager who brings practical experience, tireless work ethic, and an exacting mind that complements the magic of the estate. Together, the couple has about 21 acres planted to vines, 14 of which are Riesling, but that also include the likes of Teroldego, Dornfelder, Lagrein, and Blaufranckish. With so many grapes and so little time, there is always “stuff happening” at RTR.
I pulled up to the vineyard and was immediately greeted by two bears masquerading as exceptionally friendly dogs: the vineyard fixtures Shazam and Bueller. After my fluffy welcome, Mike, Nancy, and their assistants Taylor and Annika showed me around the RTR facilities. Housed in a single building constructed and designed by Irelan/Schnelle to be environmentally friendly, the winery is a Gold-Certified LEED green building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; United States Green Building Council). The building runs completely on geothermal heating and cooling that allows Nancy and Mike to cut back their energy use by over 50 percent. Steel cauldrons boiled and bubbled over with grape juice at various levels of ferment, as the RTR team scurried around taking temperatures, measuring pH levels, and punching down the caps of several vats of Pinot Noir. Flooded with natural light, the winery building has temporary walls that can be opened and closed to create different temperatures in the tank room and the barrel room, which is important for the speed of primary and secondary fermentation. Wind on the vineyard primarily starts at the top of the vineyard and heads downhill to Lake Seneca, keeping the property cool even during the humid weeks at the end of August. Due to the lake influence there is, as Nancy had alluded to over email, a ton of rain.
After a solid night’s sleep, I worked at the winery from 8AM until 8PM, crushing, pressing, shoveling, and siphoning grapes and grape juice around the property. In one short day, I helped in the processes of pressing Chardonnay, punching down Pinot Noir, tasting a just-pressed Rosé of Pinot Noir, and measuring the pH of a skin-fermented orange wine called “Miscreant” (50% Estate Chardonnay & 50% Seneca Lake Gewürztraminer). After that I lost track. At the end of the day, I asked Nancy how she comes up with her various creations, and who she sees as her key audience.
“A lot of the houses along the road try to satisfy every palate that comes in the door,” Mike replied.
With a grin, Nancy chimed in: “We’re a little bit rogue.”
Nancy continued that basically she does not make any wine she doesn’t like. “For 12 years I made every kind of wine for every kind of person. That’s what I did at Gallo. This is totally different. We don’t make ‘sugar bombs’ even though there are a lot of people in the market looking for those. Some wineries feel they need to satisfy every person who walks through the door, so they have beer, they have spirits, they’ve got sweet wines, dry wines… When you do that you can’t excel at any one thing because you’re so spread out, everything becomes kind of average.”
To attract the kind of customers they want to reach, Nancy and Mike don’t just stick to the Finger Lakes. “We’ll visit other markets, like DC, and do something called the ‘Finger Lakes Road Show.’ We’ll do a Finger Lakes Master Class during the day for the industry, and then at night we’ll go to the sommelier and wine-buyer hangout in that town and pour old vintages and big formats late at night. Those things go until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and we just party! We don’t really do it to sell wine. The wines we pour there aren’t for sale. It’s just for fun, and so that we have an opportunity to drink with people and actually get to know the area a bit better. Then the next day we work with our distributors, and then we’re gone. We’re mainly interested in creating an impression that we’re winemakers with a vision.”
So, what is that vision? “I wouldn’t call Red Tail Ridge ‘hip’ or anything,” Mike admitted. “But we’re also not really being conservative either. We do some wines that are a little bit edgy. Some of the stuff we do are wines that people don’t really know very well, like our Blaufränkisch. We’re selling wines that are stylistically a bit foreign to our more conservative markets. Which is tough because in certain markets there are only really big, broad players and tiny, eclectic players, and we’re kind of somewhere in between… We’re just looking for people who are willing to try something different. People that want delicious quality wine, but something that’s out of the ordinary. We just don’t want to be pigeonholed into one category. We’d rather people judge for themselves.”
After all the heed taken, it only rained at the very end of my day up at Red Tail Ridge. The micro-climate of the Finger Lakes changes rapidly and unpredictably, and gave me a chance to see how remarkably beautiful the vineyard can be in any weather. Nancy’s emailed warnings also gave me a good lesson in winemaking: Be ready for anything. Visiting Red Tail Ridge is like sneaking a peek into Nancy’s brain, and all the “stuff happening” is the embodiment of a dream of great cool-climate winemaking in the Finger Lakes and the excitement of seeing that dream come to life firsthand.