Sheldrake Point Vineyards celebrates 15 years
This Sunday, August 12th, Sheldrake Point Vineyards on the NW side of Cayuga Lake will celebrate 15 years since they first planted vines on the 70 acre patch of land that once was a dairy farm. For $12 in advance or $15 at the door, you can eat a freshly grilled Spiedie, have a little birthday cake with Cayuga Lake Creamery ice cream and sip some of SPV’s fine wines while listening to tunes from local musicians.
But before you go, we thought you should have a little history lesson about Sheldrake and what happened over the last 15 years of winemaking and grape growing and how it became one of the most prestigious wineries in the Finger Lakes. The following is an article from our special collector’s Wine Issue that we published in 2011. Read it and be a smarty pants to all the other guests on Sunday who aren’t as savvy as you are.
From Cows to Corks
The Humble Roots of Sheldrake Point Vineyards
By David Falchek
Maybe the cows never appreciated the stunning view of Cayuga Lake. They certainly had little appreciation of their grazing site’s potential terroir for wine. But someone did. An ad hoc collection of investors bought the former dairy farm in 1997 and turned it into a vineyard, winery and locavore restaurant: Sheldrake Point Vineyards and what is now known as the Simply Red Bistro [Ed. note-the restaurant is now closed]. Even more surprising than what preceded the winery is the critical acclaim it attracted after barely a decade of making wine.
The New York State Wine and Food Classic named Sheldrake its Winery of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Wine & Spirits magazine named it among the Top 100 wineries and a top American value brand for two consecutive years. But the past is not forgotten at Sheldrake. Bones sometimes jut from the soil in remote areas of the farm where cows were led to die, a reminder of a decade of creation and recreation for one of New York’s leading wineries.
Those bones once belonged to livestock that belonged to Seymour Diamond, who had as many as 160 milking cows on the 160-acre farm. When he put the farm up for sale with a three-line classified ad, Greg Sandor, then a master’s student in viticulture at Cornell University, fell in love with the site 20 miles north of Ithaca. He shared a “crazy dream of growing grapes and making wine,” Diamond recalls, drawing up some of the skepticism he had at the time.
The site was rare, right on the water, and Sandor imagined rows of vines enjoying the moderating influence of the deep lake: a coolness that extends into spring and suppresses premature budbreak, and a warmth into the fall that combats frost and prolongs ripening. It all seemed to be there.
The initial partners were Sandor and his wife, Bernice; culinarian Scott Signori and some others, including Bob Madill, a Canadian high-tech exec in a second career in the wine business. Investors got together to discuss how much money it would take to get the winery going. They were way, way short. But they decided to go ahead anyway.
“It was a shoestring operation, run like an employeeowned company,” says Signori, who left a Washington, D.C., eatery to run Sheldrake’s restaurant. He ended up planting, pruning, swinging a weed whacker and eating lunch along the creeks that flank the property, all of which he recalls fondly. “I’m best at starting businesses that require not much capital, but lots of work.”
For several years, that’s how it was. But vines consume lots of capital before producing a crop and generating revenue. Times were lean. Partners decided to take their last $4,000 and throw a party—like it’s 1999 (it was). They invited potential investors. Signori cooked specialties over a cement-block fire pit.
Enter Chuck Tauck, Connecticut-based owner of a highend vacation business, who offered to be an investor. He, too, wanted to be in the business and had met Madill at wine events in California. Tauck’s entrée was a windfall for Sheldrake. But the relative share and say of others diminished and so did the communal atmosphere. A vineyard manager quit, an investor died in a car crash. Debates over company direction got more complicated. Signori and the Sandors departed, with Signori opening the Stonecat Café in Hector and the Sandors returning to their native Long Island. Madill took the helm as general manager.
The Sheldrake team was nothing if not ambitious—and somewhat naïve. They were armed with business plans, spreadsheets and ideas. With a goal of making great wine from the get-go, they hired consultants and laser-planted vines with carefully matched rootstocks and clones. With those vines about to produce, the partners held a retreat at Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario to refine their direction and prepare for their first crush. Cave Spring owner Len Pennachetti happened in, met the team and asked if he could sit in.
He listened quietly, but upon hearing that the winery expected to produce 20,000 cases of wine, could not contain himself. “Do you have any idea how difficult is it to sell 20,000 cases of wine?” he asked.
Sheldrake has about 40 producing acres of wine, and still produces between 3,000 and 5,500 cases. “We are not even close to 20,000,” Madill laughs today.
Tauck professionalized the operation, sharpening the hospitality focus and helping to design the IT network. When he speaks at trade events about winery finances, he tends to deflate budding winery owners’ enthusiasm. He tells them to revise their business plan—triple expenses and halve the revenue— then they may be closer to reality.
Sheldrake winemaker David Breeden has a love-hate relationship with his laboratory. “I do all the tests and I get all the numbers, then I either ignore them or do nothing,” he says. With advanced degrees in chemistry and philosophy, he can come off as an ambivalent guru. “When you have the opportunity to do something, you probably shouldn’t. Science is important—and also useless, because in the end, it is all about taste.”
Yet the less Breeden has done, the better Sheldrake’s wines have become. He credits this to the quality of grapes overseen by Sheldrake’s other Dave, vineyard manager David Wieman, who cares for 40 acres of vineyard, all vinifera save for a few vines. The two have lunch daily and jointly decide when to pick—squeezing, splitting and chewing grapes to determine when Gewürztraminer berries have desiccated just enough to create the floral perfume notes for which it is known, or when Cabernet Franc tannins have browned and softened.
Breeden’s “lazy winemaking,” as he calls it, shows in the tasting sheet. When he came on board after four years working on the other side of Cayuga at King Ferry Winery, Sheldrake was making an array of 30 wines. “It was obscene, obnoxious, all sorts of ob- words,” says Breeden, who craved focus.
For the 2010 vintage, Sheldrake is down to about 12 estate wines, representing their strengths. Breeden’s favorite performers are aromatic whites—Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer —and the red Cabernet Franc. An unusual offering for the Finger Lakes, Gamay Noir, impressed him for the first time recently, thanks to 2010’s ideal conditions for reds and Wieman’s idea to blend it with Syrah. From its inception, fine food has also drawn visitors to Sheldrake.
Since 2007, the co-located restaurant has been home to Simply Red Bistro under executive chef and owner Samantha Buyskes, a culinary rising star who focuses on local, fresh ingredients with a tapestry of herbs and spices drawn from her South African roots. With an esprit de corps that also has been part of Sheldrake’s DNA, Simply Red Bistro pours a range of Finger Lakes wines, offering a place where their mouthwatering acidity and nuanced character complements carefully crafted dishes.
Sheldrake has another a hook to draw visitors: Winery of the Year. Not once, but twice. Naturally, people ask Madill how team Sheldrake did it. The question prompts him to reflect on the ups and downs, the mistakes and miscalculations. He thinks about all the help Sheldrake had from other industry players such as Tunker Hosmer, the Lucases, Fox Run’s Scott Obsorn and the Cornell extension team. “It’s not one step—it’s many, many steps over time that you hope are generally in the right direction,” he says. “It’s not even just me and the others who are or have been part of Sheldrake. Our success to date is a portrait that has been painted by many, many people.”
David Falchek is a wine columnist for the Scranton Times-Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers.