Laura, of Madderlake Café, suggested that Nancy Irelan and I do an interview for the web, and we have been e-mailing for a while! We’ve both been so busy that I have not even made my way to Red Tail Ridge Winery, but between the emails and this interview, I know you’ll join me in planning to head there one of these days! As you’ll discover, the winery opened its Tasting Room in 2007 and . . . .
Bibliochef: Can you tell us when you opened Red Tail Ridge Winery and how you came to do so?
Nancy: We opened our tasting room on August 4th, 2007. Prior to this, my husband and I were pretty focused on vineyard development and planting our Pinot, Chard and Riesling. It took us about 3 years to complete the 20 acre plantings. Michael and I had been looking for a piece of property for our vineyards and winery for about 5 years prior to purchasing the parcel on the western shore of Seneca Lake. We looked at a number of opportunities on the west coast before setting our sights on the Finger Lakes, in each case it just wasn’t the right match— either price- or size-wise. We wanted an undeveloped 20+ acre parcel, yet we still wanted enough funds left over after the purchase to develop the vineyards and get our business underway. I knew about the Finger Lakes because of my interactions with the research community at Cornell University and the Geneva Research Station. I would come visit every year or so, starting about 1994 on. Each time I would come visit, I’d tour some of the wineries and taste. As time went on I started noticing some really nice vitis vinifera wines coming from several local wineries. So around 2003, Michael and I started routinely checking out Finger Lakes real estate websites every Sunday morning. After several months, we hit upon the property that we have now—34 acres of undeveloped land with a small house. We pulled up a satellite map of the location on the web, and I knew exactly where it was located….vinifera vineyards on either side, and great neighbors. Seemed like a great opportunity so Michael flew out and evaluated the land with a good friend of ours—Dr. Bob Pool. Bob was the extension viticulturist for the Horticulture Dept at Geneva Research Station. Based on their assessment of the soil profile and health, terrain and layout, we made an offer and were able to obtain the property. Bob was a really great help to us. Sadly, Bob passed away a year or so ago. Michael and I miss him. I think about him almost every time I walk the Pinot and wish he was still with us to share in our adventures.
Bibliochef: I know you were Vice President of Viticulture and Enology R&D at a large corporate California winery; what is that exactly? And how did you get into viticulture and enology in the first place?
Nancy: As V&E VP for E & J Gallo Winery, I was responsible for overseeing research and development projects, technology applications and troubleshooting relating to grape growing (viticulture), and winemaking (enology). My department was composed of research groups that included Grape and Wine Chemistry, Applied Fermentation, Microbiology and the small-lot research winery. The scientific training of my researchers included analytical, process and flavor chemistry, wine microbiology, biochemistry and enzymology, food scientists, research winemakers, horticulturists, plant physiologists, molecular biologists and chemical engineers. We worked on all kinds of neat projects like optimizing various winemaking processes—like fermentation, separation, and extraction (like cap management in reds). We also worked on the development of new tools and assays to measure quality parameters like color, flavor, aroma, texture/mouth feel—tools we could use to monitor fruit development and maturation in the field and then measure quality components during the winemaking process. We also did a lot of team projects with the company grape growers and winemakers and provided problem-solving and troubleshooting for problem fermentations, potential wine spoilage issues; we assisted with commercial process activities during harvest that related to quality assurance and management of fermentation yeast and bacteria and their use in the winemaking process.
I’ve been in the wine industry for a little over 20 years now. I got my training at UC-Davis and I was a graduate student in the Viticulture and Enology Department there. Before I went back to grad school—I was a chemist at DuPont where I worked on environmental fate studies of experimental pesticides—crop improvement through chemistry. I decided I wanted to pursue crop improvement but through something a little more “whole plant oriented”---plant breeding. So, I accepted a graduate research assistantship to work on grapes in the V&E Department at UC Davis. At that time relatively little was known about grapes—so I thought of it as a great challenge and a great opportunity too, because there was so much to learn. As a result, my academic training is concentrated more on the basic disciplines of biochemistry, organic and analytical chemistry and biology—but I obtained my hands-on practical experience with grape growing and winemaking through my winery job. Once I started working on grapes and making wine…well…., I never looked back. Somebody asked me in an interview one time, “if you weren’t doing what your doing now, what would be you do instead?” I was speechless, didn’t have a clue how to answer that question because I’ve never thought of an alternative path. Weird huh?
Bibliochef: Actually, that's wonderful! So few people are so obviously in the right field. Your web site explains why Red Tail – “two nesting pair of hawks who live in the woods next to our property.” And, of course, the Ridge is related to geographical features of the winery. But why did you decide on Seneca Lake?
Nancy: It’s the lake itself and its climatic influence over our vineyard. Also, of all the lakes I prefer Seneca because it’s just so expansive and incredibly deep—particularly out front of where our property is located. It’s unpredictable and can be a bit overwhelming at times—I like that “wildness” about it. You can stand on the shore, look in one direction and literally see a wall of hail and sleet move across the lake in one direction. Then look in the other direction and it’s a beautiful sunny day. The wind can whip up without notice, creating enormous white caps that are pretty hard to manage in a small craft. I couldn’t ask for a better neighborhood to live in either. We have good friends at the neighboring wineries and they have given us a helping hand on a number of occasions.
Bibliochef: Your description of Seneca Lake is so vivid. Thanks. Your site indicates “We currently have 3 acres of multiple Pinot Noir clones, 2 acres of Chardonnay, a small plot of Teroldego, a few rows of Dornfelder and 14 acres of Riesling. Teroldego is a red Italian grape variety grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto; the wines produced from this variety have been compared to Zinfandel due to their deep color, brambly blackberriness, solid acidity and moderate tannin structure.” So, can you tell us what led you to choose to plant these varietals – and a bit more about each?
Nancy: We picked vinifera varietals that had a track record of quality production under cool climate conditions, and we added a couple new varietals that we felt would do well here given their production history in other viticultural regions.
Our Pinot plantings are located on the front slope of the property overlooking the Seneca Lake. We have planted seven different clones, from bottom to top: Pommard, 667, Mariafeld, 113, 114, 115 and Swan. I chose this mixture because I felt that the combination would yield the most value in terms of number of wine styles that could be produced, given our small parcel. Unlike many red varietals, Pinot Noir clones exhibit enormous variation in berry size, cluster architecture, skin thickness/texture; and of course they can yield substantially different aroma, flavor and color in wines produced from them. Pinot is probably my favorite wine to make, primarily because when the planets align, the vineyard performs and the winemaking process succeeds—the Pinot wines produced have unprecedented richness, structure and complex fruit flavors. Thus far, I’ve seen marked difference in maturation and final flavors among the various clones. This past harvest (2007) we were able to harvest and co-crush several clones to make our first estate Pinot. The wine is maturing very nicely in barrel now, and I’m seeing distinct differences between the barreled clones. I will most likely pull aside a small number of the barrels and keep them separate because they are demonstrating some unique characters. I was also able to use separate Pinot clones to make our limited release estate 2007 Dry Rose and our Blanc de Noir. I’m a big bubbles fan and I can’t image not making a little each year…after all, what’s life without a few bubbles?
Other reds on the front hill include around 430 vines of Teroldego (as you mentioned earlier) and a couple rows of Dornfeld. We planted the latter last year and have not seen the fruit yet, but we believe that it will add nice texture and balance to the mid-palate in a blend. We were able to obtain some fruit from our Teroldego last year, and we have 32 gallons of wine. I’ve been playing around with it in blends and it adds a completely new sensory dimension to the reds. It does equally well with Lemberger and Pinot. We are optimistic, but want to wait a while before making a decision about this variety, as we want to see how it fares with the local winters. I may consider making a Teroldego varietal; but, I have to see how it develops as the vines mature.
We have two acres of Chardonnay and although the vines are very young, we were able to harvest really lovely fruit to make two barrels of wine. Having Chardonnay will also allow us to consider Blanc de Blanc production, depending on the year.
We finished our plantings of Riesling this past Spring. We have 14 acres of multiple clones, and this variety will most likely become our flagship white. I continue to be amazed at the depth and complexity of Finger Lakes Rieslings and I’m looking forward to tinkering around with our clones. I’ve already seen some clonal differences in maturity and flavor and I’m looking forward to creating different styles of dry wine. Depending on the year, we may make an off-dry or semi-dry style; but for the most part we are shooting for premium, dry wines across the board.
Bibliochef: Also, when did you plant? How long does it take from planting to being able to produce wines? I know you have a chardonnay and Riesling already? Is that right? What else can we expect?
Nancy: The Pinot was planted in the Spring of 2005. In 2006 we were able to harvest about a ton of fruit—which we made into Blanc de Noirs (our first estate wine…yah!). The following year (2006), we planted the Teroldego, Chardonnay and 10,000 vines of Riesling, which we harvested fruit from in 2007—two barrels of Chard, and about 450 gallons of estate dry Riesling…and the 32 gallons of Teroldego. We also have about 20 barrels of Pinot from 2007. We obtained some fruit from our local growers: Lemberger, Chardonnay and Riesling. This fruit adds variety to the winemaking toolbox for creating different wine styles.
Bibliochef: I always think “Tasting Rooms” are an odd phenomenon – though of course necessary. What do you think about them – as marketing tools and as a cultural phenomenon?
Nancy: Well, our tasting room is pretty small in comparison to some our neighbors (Fox Run, and Anthony Road). But I think it is my best opportunity to have a direct line to the consumer. I don’t get to spend too much time behind the counter because of the other tasks I have to attend to, but when I do I really enjoy meeting people and pouring our wines for them. Usually I get a chance to learn a little bit about them...where they are from, when they started enjoying wine, what they like—or don’t like about our wines. Sometimes I get to meet their relatives, or even their pets. I am a big dog fan, so I always enjoy talking about their critters with them. We keep a doggy bowl of biscuits close by, just in case a furry friend has come along and is waiting in the car. This summer we will be adding a “doggy promenade” area adjacent to the tasting room. So our guests will be able to walk their dogs and let them stretch their legs a bit.
All in all I think tasting rooms are fundamentally a positive experience for all. Of course we limit the size and number of groups that we take at the tasting room because we are so small. And yes, it can get a little rough when you have to turn away a limo full of people because they did not call ahead and make an appointment; but we are trying to ensure that all of our guests have a positive wine experience. Given our small selection of dry wines, we understand that we probably won’t appeal to everyone’s palate. However, there’s really nothing more fun and rewarding than meeting someone over a glass of our wine; and its even more fun when we’ve hit the mark and they really enjoy it.
Bibliochef: I assume that days vary immensely at wineries, depending on season and related matters. But, could you describe your day in the work life of a winery?
Nancy: My days vary widely depending on the season. During the winter months, I split my time between winemaking activities, sales/marketing inquiries and my consulting jobs. In order to develop our vineyard and winery, I have been supporting the effort financially through my technical consulting job as The Answer Grape. So during the winter months, I spend a lot of time on the road, primarily on the west coast, consulting and supporting my wine industry clients. I split this with processing, blending wine and conducting trials. Michael and I have not constructed our own winery yet, so we are custom crushing at Fox Run Vineyards. I’m fortunate that while I’m on the road, the Fox Run winemakers Peter Bell and Trish Renshaw provide daily oversight, and keep an eye on my wines in my absence; they’ve teamed up with me to help in moving the wines forward through the various processing steps to get them ready for bottling. This allows me to make my deadlines—even though I traveling so much. Peter and Trish have been incredibly helpful and we have a great time tasting and assessing the wines as they mature and develop. I’m a firm believer that the more heads and brain power, the better when it comes to creativity—and this has proven out in my experiences working side by side with other winemakers through the years. Regarding the sales and marketing component, right now I’m spending a lot of time introducing myself and our wines to local restaurants and liquor stores. We are the “new kids on the block” and relatively unknown at this point. So I’m currently doing the “leg work” to make introductions. We don’t have a distributor yet, but I’m checking into possibilities now. Up to this point Michael and I have been a bit concerned about moving forward with a distributorship because we are so small and are offering a limited selection of premium dry wines. We are trying to find the right relationship, and it will probably take some time to do that. The restaurants that carry our wines have been incredibly helpful in pointing us in the right direction and actually making some introductory phone calls for us—but we are still looking for the right fit at this point. This is also the time of year that I work on label and package design.
When Spring comes around my travel schedule slows down and I begin spending more time on site at the vineyard. Michael is the vineyardist, but I like to assist when I can and we work to together on the decision making-side in determining what approach to use for certain grape growing practices. We are also bottling up the whites from our previous vintage. The wine festivals also start up and the number of guests at our tasting room begins to pick up. This is also the time that we start logistical planning for the coming harvest and making sure that we have sufficient cooperage and all the ingredients for grape and wine processing. Still doing some technical consulting and contract projects.
Summer is focused on day to day assessment of the vineyard and keeping an eye on vine health and fruit maturation. Work continues in the winery to assess reds that are aging in barrel and tank, and determine final blends and bottling dates. Lots of sales and marketing events to participate in. Still doing some technical consulting and contract projects.
Late Summer after veraison (fruit softens and colors) I walk the vineyards tasting and assessing the varieties and clones regularly to determine trends in flavor development, skin and seed maturity and vine status. Berries samples are taken to conduct chemical analysis of pH, TA, etc. The focus is really on preparing for harvest and determining the optimal time to pick the fruit. Generally speaking varieties, different clones of varieties, and even certain sections of the vineyard will ripen at different rates—potentially needing to be picked at different times. Keeping on top of this takes some time. Still doing some consulting and contract projects.
Fall is harvest, crush, and winemaking activities. At this time of year, we are pretty much slaves to Mother Nature. Once the fruit is ripe—it must be harvested at the optimum of its potential for wine production. Usually crush is non-stop for about 6 to 8 weeks. This involves keeping an eye on the fruit in the vineyard, ensuring the fruit is picked at the right time, then harvesting and bringing the fruit into the winery where its weighed and processing begins. On any given day you could have both red and white varieties coming in on the same day. So you could be spending your time doing significant multi-tasking: crushing, pressing, filling and racking off tanks, cleaning tanks, cleaning and filling barrels, monitoring fermentations (temperature, sensory, etc), managing skin contact in reds,… the list goes on and on. Its not uncommon to come in before dawn and leave after mid-night. Of course those long days are usually ended with a really beautiful bottle of wine shared amongst fellow cellar rats—a night cap of sorts. As harvest comes to an end and the ferments are completed, I find myself back on the road consulting and doing contract projects. And the cycle starts again.
My aspiration is to be able to get our winery and vineyard up and running and financially self-sufficient. After this I can trim down the amount of side projects and start focusing on our vines and wines.
Bibliochef: Working with a long established winery and/or vineyard must be very different from working with a new one – and working for others very different from working for yourself. Any reflections on those contrasts?
Nancy: I guess the biggest contrast is the level of risk that you personally incur. You always do everything that you can to ensure your making the right decisions whether its your own company or if your working for someone else. But if things don’t pan out, the consequences hit home a lot harder if it’s your investment that’s on the line. While Gallo remains a privately held, family-run business they were/are very progressive in their business strategies. But clearly, there’s a big difference in how the decision making process takes place. As a VP, I had to build consensus around every investment and strategic proposal I made to my peers in management. This could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years…and sometimes it would not happen at all. In contrast, when Michael and I make a decision about our company—we simply run with it. Good or bad, its pretty straightforward and we inevitably live with the consequences. As far as old/established versus new—at Gallo I actually worked on various projects relating to maintaining quality in older vineyard sites and also helped establish new vineyards too. I worked on winemaking lots as small as 70 Liters, all the way up to multiple 200,000 gallon tanks. Being on the research and troubleshooting side of things you get to experience it all.
Bibliochef: I see from the Red Tail Ridge web site as well, that you have lots of roles beyond those directly associated with Red Tail ridge winery! You own a vineyard and winery technical consulting company called “The Answer Grape” which provides troubleshooting, consulting and contract research support to the wine and grape industry. In fact, you mentioned The Answer Grape earlier. Can you say more about that and your role as Adjunct Professor for the Food Science Department at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva?
Nancy: I think I covered a lot of this in previous questions. My current consulting/contract projects include Research Director for the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Pierce’s Disease Research Program and management of the wine and grape research funding program for the American Vineyard Foundation in California. I also have projects with various California wine industry companies involving technical consulting and troubleshooting commercial winemaking processes. I am really honored to be an Adjunct Professor with the Food Science Department at the Station. Unfortunately I’ve been so busy developing our vineyards, producing our wines and maintaining financial support for our venture that I haven’t been able to devote as much attention to this voluntary appointment as I’d like. Right now my responsibilities are fairly minimal. When things calm down a bit, I’d like to be more involved in departmental activities and support of graduate students.
Bibliochef: One of the themes of Cooking with Ideas has to do with women’s lives and/or feminism. Are there many women in viticulture and enology?
Nancy: The number of women in viticulture and enology has increased significantly over the past 10 to 15 years. Of course it's not 50%; but I guess you could say the same thing about most agriculturally-based industries. I will say that the wine industry is very progressive and there are plenty of opportunities for talented men and women who are passionate about their craft. Of the two areas, the number of women in winemaking is probably higher than grape growing. How does being a woman affect all this? A very good friend of mine, who also happens to be a one of the first female pioneers of the California wine , once said to me, “If you allow the fact that you are a women to be an issue—it will become an issue”. The fact that I’m a women has never been an issue in my career or in my various roles in the industry.
Bibliochef: If you were cornered and asked what your absolutely favorite wine is what would you say? Your favorite wine/food pairing?
Nancy: These are really tough questions. I’ve had so many outstanding wines and incredible dining experiences…I’d have to say that my favorite wines have been cellar-aged wines that were coveted and meticulously cared for by a friend. You know, those wines that had been saved for a long, long time—until the right audience and social atmosphere was available to truly appreciate its character and all the work that had been invested it is creation and maintenance. I feel unbelievably privileged to have participated in some of these types of tasting. They are once-in-a-life time events. In these cases, it’s really not just the wines that make the experience, it’s the experience itself—and sharing it with a friend. I know this may seem like a cop-out, but I really can’t be more specific than this. As far as a favorite wine and food pairing, I’m going to go with something that I enjoy on a fairly regular basis: Blanc de Noir and homemade pizza (thin cornmeal crust, sundried tomato sauce, extra cheese, pepperoni and marinated artichoke hearts).
Bibliochef: Hmmm. That pizza sounds tempting. Now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Nancy: The meal that my husband and I shared on our wedding night in Carmel, California. We were married at a dog-friendly bed and breakfast (owned by Doris Day) called Cypress Inn. We invited our closest friends, one of whom married us—after getting his mail-order minister’s license. After the ceremony we walked down to a little French restaurant where we had arranged a multiple course dinner, accompanied by wine pairings. Our table was right next to the French doors that went out to a little porch area. During the dinner, our dogs hung out on the porch and were basically a part of the dinner party. Michael and I ended up walking the beach in the wee hours of the morning with our dogs. We still had our wedding clothes on, but had switch over to teva’s (sandals).
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food and/or wine would you recommend? Why? (These could be about scholarly or otherwise!)
Nancy: I’m a big Julia Child fan, so it’d be 1) The Way to Cook, and 2) Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I like her philosophy about cooking and I particularly like her technique with roasts, and all things stew-like. I would also recommend The California Cook by Diane Rossen Worthington. [Editorial insert: for her website, click here.] I like her use of interesting ingredient combinations and fresh spices. I also like The Foods & Wines of Spain by Penelope Casas—really flavorful seafood recipes and topas. [Editorial insert: for La Tienda's questions/answers about Spanish food with her, click here.] I’m a fan of spicy, hot foods (with flavor) and would recommend: 1) Southeast Asian Cooking, by Barbara Hansen; and 2) True Thai by Victor Sodsook. I’m still looking for a good Mexican cookbook. [Hey, bibliochef inserts: when I googled "Barbara Hansen" and cookbooks, I came up with this link which is about her Mexican cookbook. Hmmm. She is a Ph.D. and has loads of cookbooks out there; for some background, click here and scroll down.] As far as wine goes—I’m really a “textbook gal”. I’m a member of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture and also the Australian Enology And Viticulture Society. Each society publishes a technical journal. I like to stay current.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Nancy: Roast chicken cooked with root veggies in a clay pot. Don’t forget the garlic…
Bibliochef: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes?
Nancy: We frequent a number of really nice restaurants locally; some of these carry our wines: Red Dove, Nonna’s Trattoria, Port’s Cafe and Madderlake. After a really hard day in the vineyard and/or winery, Michael and I like to stay close to home so we head right down the street to Madderlake. Scott and Laura are friends of ours and we like to catch up with them when they have a free moment. We can usually be found eating at the bar in the front.
Bibliochef: What am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What's your answer? (Ok, Ok, I suppose I really ought to have asked about the dogs – and your role in the Cayuga Rescue. . . . )
Nancy: Yes, well I love my dogs. They are an integral part of our family. Being the usual dog owner, I could talk your ear off about them—but I think I’ll save that for when you come to visit the winery.
Bibliochef: Wow, what an interview. Here are the details on where Red Tail Ridge is -- see you there one day!
Red Tail Ridge Winery
846 State Road 14
Penn Yan, NY 14527