Red Tail Ridge Winery - The Golden Child of the Finger Lakes

A Sip Wines "Winelight"

Nancy Irelan, Partner & Winemaker
Mike Schnelle, Partner & Vineyardist
Mr. B, Winery Dog

What do you get when you pair a wine scientist with a historically misunderstood wine region? I probably gave away the punch line with the title of this blog, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the answer is Red Tail Ridge Winery, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

Nancy Irelan, founder and winemaker at Red Tail, is truly blazing a trail as a pioneer not only in the Finger Lakes region, but also as a first-generation, female winemaker embracing sustainable practices, renewable resources, and lifting up her community. Sip Wines is proud to partner with this revolutionary winery.

Thanks a lot, France.

Don’t get me wrong, France has done many wonderful things, particularly in wine. In this instance, that was actually kind of the problem; France dominated the wine world so spectacularly that it was hard to see beyond it, or the wines it produced. French grape varietals were the gold standard, which meant that to be seen as a legit wine region, you had to be able to grow those grapes. If you couldn’t, well, sit down.

Actually, the Finger Lakes is one of the oldest wine regions in the United States, going back to the early 19th century. It was originally known for sparkling wines, drawing a number of prominent Champagne families to the region and growing in prominence internationally until that historical blip called Prohibition killed the party (along with the vast majority of wineries in the US).

When that buzzkill finally ended, and for various other historical factors as well, the Finger Lakes region wasn’t taken seriously for the sole reason that the colder climate could not support most European grapes--or so they thought. (Even then, to be clear, Finger Lakes winemakers were producing beautiful white wines, particularly Rieslings.)

History, stuff happened, a very smart German man convinced people that the unique microclimates existing around the region’s lakes actually WOULD support many grape varietals, and by the new millennium, the Finger Lakes was back in business. That’s also when Nancy came along. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

It’s science. WINE SCIENCE.

Nancy is a legit wine scientist. I didn’t even know that was a thing! But it is--Nancy has her PhD in grape genetics, along with over 30 years in the wine industry. For years, she worked in research and development with wineries and vineyards, touching thousands of grape varietals in the course of her career.

Unfortunately, Nancy kept encountering a problem: she was too good at what she did, which meant that she kept getting promoted to higher levels of management. (Kind of like France, come to think of it…)  Most people would think that’s a good problem to have, right. Except actually, Nancy just wanted to work with grapes.

The Finger Lakes beckoned, and Nancy followed.

In particular, Nancy wanted to develop sparkling wines, in a region known for sparkling wines. If there’s one thing our little history lesson above taught us, it’s that the Finger Lakes fits the bill perfectly.

And so, in 2004, Nancy bought her property in Penn Yan, NY, on the coast of Keuka Lake (one of the many lakes in the region, hence the name, obvi). Her husband Mike was totally on board with the plan and went back to school to take some viticulture courses, and in 2006 their first vintage of sparkling wine was born. Huzzah!

Except… sparkling wine actually isn’t cost effective, which is a huge bummer (and matters a lot when you’re starting a new business). Not wanting to see Nancy’s dream die, Mike took off his vineyardist hat, dusted off his accounting hat that had been collecting dust since he left the profession, and started problem-solving.

And what a delightful solution he found: the way to make their winery financially sustainable was to make MORE WINE! Different types of wine, to be precise.

If Nancy was going to branch out, she wanted to do it right. As discussed above, the climate of the Finger Lakes is quite different from the popular wine regions of southern Europe; trying to grow those grapes in the Finger Lakes is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, and the wine likely won’t turn out well. (Hence why many regions end up with bad wine reputations--it’s not that they can’t make good wine, it’s that they’re trying to make the popular wines like Cabernet Sauvignon even though their region can’t support it.)

Instead, Nancy looked to established wine regions with more comparable climates, such as Austria, Germany, and the Italian Alps, and began cultivating the grapes that thrived in those areas. Dornfelder, blaufränkisch--grapes that produce wonderful wines, if significantly lesser-known, along with various white varietals including Riesling.

Folks, this is the heart of the concept of terroir: understanding the climate, the land, every aspect of the environment that affects a grape, letting those things guide your growing, and elevating them into a wine that represents the best of the region.

Going for the gold

Given what I’ve told you about Nancy’s deliberate thoughtfulness and care with respect to her wine, it should come as no surprise that she feels a similar obligation of stewardship for her land. Currently, Red Tail is the only winery in New York State that has achieved LEED-Gold certification, which is a pretty big deal. Here’s why:

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized green building certification system, in which third parties verify that a building or community was designed and constructed using strategies aimed at improving performance across key metrics, including energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, and more. Buildings are awarded points (maxing out at 100) based on how effectively they implement these strategies, and the total number of points is reflected in the level of certification: Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum.

Nancy and Mike opened the winery in 2009. Red Tail achieved Gold certification status in 2011. Wow. How did they do it?

Let me count the ways:

  • The Red Tail building is designed to minimize carbon footprint and energy consumption.
  • The heating and cooling is all geothermal.
  • They installed special e-grade windows which maximize interior lighting, reducing the need to turn lights on and cutting electrical use by 50%.
  • All the processing waste from their wine production is composted and used as fertilizer for the vineyards.
  • Almost all building materials for winery were locally sourced, which not only supports the local economy but also reduces carbon footprint.

I think you get the picture.

Bueller… Bueller…

I almost forgot to mention the most important member of the Red Tail team, and that’s Mr. B, aka Bueller the rescue dog. Mr. B is the official winery dog, and because he’s a Great Pyreneese, he’s a BIG deal. Props to Nancy and Mike for rescuing a dog on top of everything else. Dogs are the best.

Let’s not forget the wine itself

Ah yes, the real reason we’re talking about all this. Here’s what you need to know: if you had any doubts about finding an incredible wine on the East Coast, you can dismiss them right now, because Nancy knows what she’s doing. She’s like a Finger Lakes conductor, finding each beautiful element of the region and making it sing in the wines she makes. Everyone should experience such a poignant embodiment of love, history, and the earth, and you can find it in Red Tail Ridge wines.

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