A Winemaking Odyssey

Shaw Vineyard, located on the southwestern shore of Seneca Lake, does not boast a grand entrance, and the tasting room appears no less prominent than the production facility located next door. A visitor looking for owner and winemaker Steve Shaw might find him doing any number of tasks dressed in his boots and work shirt, from pouring wine for customers to riding his tractor in the vineyard to tinkering with the equipment in the tank room. When told that his operation looks like an elaborate workshop, Shaw replied, “Well, making good wine is hard work. I don’t hide the winemaking process here.”

A 30-year veteran of the Finger Lakes wine industry, Shaw’s long journey toward independent winemaking reveals many of the important historical developments that have occurred in the region. A son of an insurance broker who grew up in Hammondsport, Shaw met many of the early vinifera pioneers who laid the groundwork for what he and many other Finger Lake winemakers do today. “Dr. Frank had an account with my father, and as a teenager I did a lot of odd jobs for him. Through the business and in finding summer work I also knew Charles Fournier and Guy DeVaux (of Gold Seal) who experimented a lot with European grapes. Through just casual work with these men and other social situations, I began to pick up an appreciation for what they were trying to do.”

In 1980 Shaw bought an established native-grape vineyard on Keuka Hill Road overlooking the Keuka Lake Bluff. He began to plant some vinifera grapes with the hope of joining the industry as a winemaker. Unfortunately, the timing was off. “I was a 24-year-old who wanted to be a winemaker by the time I was 30,” Steve explains. “But the banks wouldn’t hear of anything to do with a young kid with no money who wanted to dabble in vinifera. We look back and celebrate what Frank, Fournier and DeVaux did in the ’60s and ’70s, but in the early 1980s it was all about hybrids. Cornell University was convinced that hybrids were the key to quality wines for a cool climate.”

Rebuffed in his initial attempt at winemaking, Shaw concentrated on his insurance business and on selling his grapes to established wineries. He dabbled in home winemaking with his own grapes, but only a few gallons at a time. “The 1980s were not an easy time to get started in vinifera,” he recalled, “so I’ve always been in awe of what Herman Wiemer (his current winery neighbor) accomplished in those years.” By the early 1990s, however, Shaw decided that the tide had turned and he sought a new opportunity to begin a winery business.

That opportunity came in 1996 in the form of an arrangement with Richard Fiegel at Silver Thread winery on the eastern side of Seneca, where Shaw served as a business partner and a general assistant in farming and winemaking. Silver Thread was an obvious match for Shaw, who was in harmony with the winery’s adherence to sustainable vineyard practices. “At Silver Thread I furthered my knowledge about the minimalist approach to vineyard management. I don’t call myself organic, but I still try to limit any synthetic chemicals in favor of what can be accomplished with natural fertilizers and herbicides. I try to practice sustainable agriculture when possible.”

Shaw left Silver Thread in 2000 and purchased a 60-acre plot on the western shore of Seneca Lake with the intention of building his own facility and winery label. In order to enhance his informal winemaking education, he went on a series of fact-finding trips to storied wine regions like Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. “I observed how these regions handled their grapes. I talked to whomever I could. I noticed, especially in Bordeaux, that there was a lot of emphasis on how to handle grapes carefully in a cool climate. I compared a lot of what I saw there with what I’d observed and experienced in the Finger Lakes.”

The production facility at Shaw Vineyard was built in 2002, and contains a subterranean barrel room under the tasting bar and an energy-efficient tank building. Almost immediately, Shaw began to implement some unique production methods. He contacted Europress and had the company build a special crusher/de-stemmer machine that has no crusher and a variable toggle, allowing for a very gradual de-stemming process. “The trick for cool-climate red wines is to handle the grapes very carefully. We pick by hand and then feed the grapes onto a conveyer, not through a pump. The grapes are de-stemmed at a minimal impact point and are released fully intact into vats for a cold soak and whole berry fermentation.”

“Everything is done by hand,” he emphasized. “No whole grape clusters or berries are forced through a must pump and hose. Punch downs are also done by hand. We lift what berries are left after fermentation into the press with a conveyer, and we press at a very, very low 1 bar of pressure, Champagne style.”

It’s the result of this careful and tedious approach, Shaw believes, that his red wines are fully expressive and flavorful despite their cool-climate origins. In addition to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc – red wines that are commonly offered in the Finger Lakes – Shaw Vineyard also sells Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, two varieties that are challenging to grow in the cooler vintages. Shaw maintains that careful methods can create consistency across vintages, even in years when the weather does not allow for easy decision-making. “I’ve left my fruit hanging well into November,” he said. “I push for the quality I want.”

In a nod to a practice that is common in other wine regions, Shaw is adamant that his red wines age for several years before they are offered to the public. The most recent vintage available in the current red lineup of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is from 2005. “It’s a luxury I have,” Steve explains. “I created the business in such a way that I can hold on to my wines and let them age in the barrel. I think it makes a difference and I’m lucky that I can do it.”

Shaw’s white wines are also made through a delicate process, although the vineyard has a slight marketing twist with its version of Pinot Grigio. “The Li Bella marketing concept and label was my son’s idea,” Steve says, referring to his winery’s limited second label, “and it’s worked out great. The Pinot Grigio is made with the same standards as all Shaw wine, but it’s just a touch more approachable in its style, the packaging is fun, and the price point is different. It’s been a real success.”

Asked to reflect on his long winemaking journey, Steve admits that he’s always still learning but that he’s confident in what he’s accomplished. “I guess I really had to scrape together a whole lot to get to this point over the years, but I feel like I’ve earned every little success along the way. It’s a capital-intensive business and there are a lot of pressures, but it’s really a lot of fun and I’m proud of the wines.”


by Jason Feulner