Always the Vineyard First

When driving into Red Tail Ridge Winery on the northwest shore of Seneca Lake, one is struck by the grand expanse of the vineyard, which precedes the view of the tasting room farther up the dirt road. Bold roadside flags entice the driver forward, but the relatively long approach begs the potential taster to consider the farm as well as the wine. Countless rows of grape-laden young vines remind visitors of the origin of the fermented juice soon to be found in their tasting glasses. This impression is a purposeful expression of owner and winemaker Nancy Irelan, who considers the vineyard to be the bedrock of any wine venture, especially one that is not yet three years old.

Most new Finger Lakes wineries make a point to invest in a large profitable tasting room first and attempt vineyard plantings second; not so with Red Tail Ridge. In fact, the location of the winery was selected based purely on the potential of a sloped ridge overlooking the lake that was covered in brush and second-growth forest. “All of this had to be cleared,” Irelan explains, gesturing over the 34-acre property, nearly all of which is under vine. “We knew that the drainage with this natural slope would be ideal. It was a lot of hard work.” The business plan for Red Tail Ridge calls for a heavy investment in the vineyards, resulting in an excess potential crop of grapes as the years go by. Irelan will soon not have to buy any grapes, and will even be in a position to sell some of her harvest to others.

The heavy lifting on the site was completed by Irelan’s husband and business partner, Michael Schnelle, who began clearing the site in 2004. Irelan started concentrating on Red Tail Ridge full time in 2006, helping with the ongoing task of clearing and planting as well as creating her first vintages. Surprisingly, the conversion of the property from brush and forest to vineyard inspired Irelan with the name of the winery. “There were two red tail hawks living in a nearby stand of trees. The removal of brush cover made their prey more visible, which made for some great sightings of them diving into the fields.”

From classroom to field
Irelan’s origins and experiences make her more than qualified to begin a winery from the vine up. She began her winemaking career in the classroom, earning a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California’s Davis campus, specializing in viticulture and oenology. In 1994, Irelan became a field researcher at Gallo Winery in California, a family-owned company and one of the largest winery operations in the world. At Gallo she researched vineyard diseases, eventually moving to technology development and troubleshooting as she dealt with the large-scale maintenance and blending of single lots of wine, the volume of which would exceed the total output of any given Finger Lakes winery. By the time Irelan left Gallo in 2005, she was vice president of research and development.

Throughout her career in California, Irelan kept her eye on opportunities to found her own winery, whether in California or elsewhere. Her position allowed her to travel to all of the major wine regions of the world, but her professional encounter with Cornell’s Geneva Testing Station left a big impression. “I recognized the beauty of the area and how affordable it was to find a large lot to develop. I knew I wanted the challenge of working in an up-and-coming region. Figuring out what to grow and how to grow it is part of winemaking in the Finger Lakes, and this is a great community in which to learn.”

Irelan believes that the strength of the Finger Lakes resides in the nature of its soil and the cool but balanced climate, resulting in nuanced wines with great acidity and mineral character.

A cool-climate future
Red Tail Ridge’s first few vintages were sourced from various Finger Lakes farms, but the vineyard plantings reveal Irelan’s plans for the immediate future. She has 14 acres of Riesling vines, acknowledging the grape’s strength in the Finger Lakes, but among these vines there are four different clones that will provide assorted blending opportunities for unique and interesting Riesling vintages. The Pinot Noir plantings also vary by multiple clones, allowing the scientifically minded Irelan to experiment with what will work in her new winemaking home. “The cool climate here will bring some interesting challenges,” she notes in reference to her warm-climate experience in California. “I’m trying to figure out what grape varieties work in similar cool-climate locations around the world.” Eventually, Ireland wants to find red grapes that are not well-known but will make for excellent blends. She has already planted an acre of Teroldego, a grape from northern Italy that she believes might have some potential in the growing climate of the Finger Lakes.

The tasting room at Red Tail Ridge is small and nicely presented. All of the wine is crafted by Irelan in a neighboring winery’s facility, but soon Red Tail Ridge will begin construction of a new tasting room and production facility that will be a true landmark among Finger Lakes wineries. Nancy and Michael hope to attain LEED certification, an environmental standard for new construction as defined by the U.S. Green Building Council. “Our goal is to be as sustainable as possible,” Irelan states.

LEED Certification is an arduous process that takes into account all the principles of design as they relate to building materials, energy consumption, air quality, and other factors. While the LEED certification does not pertain directly to winery operations, Irelan wants to make the entire agriculture and winemaking operation at Red Tail Ridge environmentally sound. “These methods are very important in other regions and will be part of the future for winemaking.”

Nancy Irelan remains busy tending to her consulting career in California and other winemaking regions. Now that her vineyard is fully cleared and planted, Irelan will spend more time in the Finger Lakes creating her vision of a productive and unique cool-climate winery. Despite the challenges inherent in making Finger Lakes wine from vintage to vintage, Ireland remains optimistic that the region is more than capable of producing world-class wines that can find a market in shops and restaurants around the country. “I believe that you can produce an incredible wine in a good region if you take proper preparation and use good ingredients.” With her background in viticultural science and her dedication to vineyard experimentation Irelan is confident that Red Tail Ridge will offer some new and interesting wines to the emerging Finger Lakes wine scene.

Red Tail Ridge Winery is located at 846 State Route 14 in Penn Yan. For more information call 315-536-4580 or visit

by Jason Feulner
Jason Feulner writes for, a New York wine website. He lives in Syracuse.

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