By Erin Scherer
Photos by Heather Ainsworth
Dave Breeden thinks the Finger Lakes has come a long way. “Ten or 12 years ago, if you looked at Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast or Wine Advocate, there’d be no Finger Lakes wines. Now there’s a New York section in all three of those publications. I think there’s a perception where there wasn’t a perception before.”
Breeden’s own wines for Sheldrake Point and his contributions to Bruce Murray’s Boundary Breaks label are among those that regularly appear in those publications. His 2017 Dry Rosé for Sheldrake Point received a 90 in both Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits. He’s been making wine for nearly two decades, but in recent years, Breeden has emerged as a winemaker with a reputation for consistently high-quality wines.
Not bad for a guy who, despite having attended the University of California at Davis for two years, didn’t fancy himself as a winemaker until he arrived in the Finger Lakes. Having spent his childhood in suburban Detroit and outside of Glendale, California, he later acquired advanced degrees in philosophy and chemistry (with a concentration in plant chemistry).
“I was meant to finish my PhD and go off and be an academic nomad in search of a tenure-track job,” he remembers.
That changed when his then-partner landed a job at Cornell, and they relocated to Ithaca in 1997.
“It was beautiful here and I decided to stay,” he recalls.
With the odds of landing a teaching job locally stacked against him but having an interest in wine, Breeden wrote Thomas Henick-Kling, a professor at Cornell who specialized in wine science (Cornell did not have an Enology Department at the time), and later enrolled in his wine production course. Breeden followed Henick-Kling’s advice and interned at King Ferry Winery in Aurora, and later became their winemaker.
In 2002, Sheldrake Point’s first winemaker decided to move on and Chuck Tauck and the other owners decided to look to King Ferry for their successor.
“We always appreciated the quality of wines that Pete Saltonstall and the folks at King Ferry were making, and Dave was part of that team,” says Tauck, and the feeling was mutual on Breeden’s end.
At the time Breeden joined the winery, Sheldrake Point was producing 35 different wines, which Breeden characterizes as “insane for the number of cases we were making at the time, which was 4,000–5,000 cases per year.” Gradually, Breeden chipped away at the number of wines. During this time, the locus of his winemaking technique shifted from being centered around the cellar to being focused on terroir.
“When I started here, my winemaking philosophy shifted from ‘OK, let’s make the best wine we can possibly make every year, regardless of the circumstances’ to ‘Let’s make the best wine the vineyard can make on any given year that reflects the property and the year,” he says.
Breeden credits this shift to Sheldrake Point’s Vineyard Manager Dave Weimann, and Weimann’s greater understanding of the property and increased confidence as a vineyard manager. He’s also moved away from utilizing additives like additional alcohol or tannins and using acid reduction; he mostly keeps to using exogenous yeast and sulfur dioxide, and has recently experimented with using ambient yeast. His goal is to go in the direction of Hermann J. Wiemer and dispense with exogenous yeast altogether.
For many wineries in the Finger Lakes region, sweeter wines can often provide a financial baseline and offset debts sometimes incurred producing drier wines. But for Breeden and Sheldrake Point, producing sweeter wines turned out to be a liability.
“We played with what I call ‘cheap sweet,’ and Dave danced with ‘cheap sweet’ over the years,” says Tauck. “But for us, they never became the big sellers that that they are for other wineries.”
Breeden recalls an attempt to make a sweeter red wine (Think Knapp’s Pasta Red or Anthony Road’s Tony’s Red) but with Vinifera varietals. “I was working with what we had here, and that was an epic fail. Just awful, and not a well-made product,” Breeden remembers.
Then there was the Luckystone Riesling, produced from the 2012 to 2016 vintages that was meant to emulate Red Newt’s Circle Riesling. Production ended on that wine when Breeden realized that sales of the Luckystone Riesling were eating into Sheldrake Point’s bottom line. Eventually, Sheldrake found its financial footing with its Dry Rosé, which has become the winery’s best-seller and constitutes up to 40% of the winery’s production any given year.
The success of their Dry Rosé has allowed Breeden to conduct winemaking experiments, primarily with his Riesling crop. This includes “Acid Head Riesling,” made from grapes picked five weeks prior to the usual harvesting time. Picking at 17 Brix in the past would have led the product to tasting like “lemon water,” but the result turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
“That’s not what happened here. The result was very pretty, and we’re really happy with it.” Another Riesling, named “Select Halbtrocken,” came at the suggestion of Red Newt Winemaker Kelby Russell, and goes in the opposite direction. Made in the Auslese Trocken style, the grapes were harvested late and fermented dry. Says Breeden: “On the face of it, it should not work because high alcohols are unbearable in Dry Riesling, but it turned out beautiful.”
Finally, there’s a wine Breeden hopes to name “All The Dead Things.” A Cabernet Franc made in an appassimento style that involves letting the grapes dry out on the vine for several weeks. Breeden has wanted to pursue this style for years, and 2017’s overabundant Cabernet Franc crop made that possible. “We had so much fruit, we couldn’t bring it all in even if we wanted to,” he says.
This past year has brought a new development that will allow Breeden and Sheldrake Point to further streamline production. An additional building was built that will house tanks that until recently were kept outside. While Breeden doesn’t think it will impact his winemaking creatively, he does believe that it will make his and Assistant Kim White’s lives more pleasant, especially in the realm of Dry Rosé production.
“Kim is mainly working outside in December and January, when it’s about as nasty as it gets in New York, on top of 12-foot-tall snow-covered tanks. It’s neither safe nor sane. With this new building, all of the tanks will be inside. That will greatly facilitate the Rosé production, which is a large part of what we do.”
Chuck Tauck, however, sees more opportunity for Dave to take on more custom-crush clients and expand his reach. “That should keep Dave busy for another 15, 20 years.”
Erin Scherer has written about the Finger Lakes food and wine industry for several regional publications. She lives in Geneva.
Heather Ainsworth is a freelance photographer whose work can be seen regularly in the New York Times.