Sheldrake Point's Bob Madill, a Canadian native, got the wine bug early. While working in tech and software, he was already moonlighting with Ontario wineries such as Lakeview Cellars in the 1980s and early '90s.
"I was a cellar rat, a cellar master and then I learned how to sell wine too," said Madill, a spry 65. "The selling part was the hardest."
In 1997, he cashed out of the tech side and, along with a partner, bought a 155-acre run-down dairy farm, with 200 feet of lakefront. Two years later they bought the house next door, with an additional 200 feet of lakefront.
"It was a mess at the time and it all needed a lot of work. But you wouldn't be able to put that kind of property together today," he said.
By 2001, Madill had planted 44 acres at Sheldrake Point, in various parcels that ascend up the slope from the western side of Cayuga Lake. Riesling accounts for a good percentage, along with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot and more. Madill has watched the Finger Lakes grow up over the past 15 years, and not without its dips and challenges along the way.
"When we started, I didn't care about viability. I figured what could go wrong? Then there was a time I realized if I didn't get things figured out, it was going to eat my lunch. And now we realize if we're really going to do something here, here in the Finger Lakes I mean, we need to get our wines appreciated on a more demanding stage to be successful," he said, noting that while the weekend tourist trade has helped get the region going, Finger Lakes wineries are starting to look to New York City proper and markets further out to place their wines.
Madill's desire for the Finger Lakes to spread its wings is tempered though: He still takes a bottom-line approach to many aspects of the business. Ice wine for instance, arguably his winery's best bottling, isn't made in every vintage. As long as there's inventory from a previous vintage, he'll wait to produce the next one.
"No matter how good it is, the region isn't known for it, so the consumer doesn't go for it," said Madill matter-of-factly. "It's not like Ontario ice wine, or Napa Cab. It's not a category in and of itself. A couple of hundred cases of ice wine, at $60 or $70 per half-bottle, can last us quite a while."
But shouldn't wineries work to pull the region and its consumers along, rather than wait it out?
"Yes, we should try and do more of that," said Madill. "And it's happening. But with caution. Look, I've now got a Pinot, which sells for $30, and it moves. That wouldn't have happened—couldn't have happened—five or 10 years ago. So things are changing here."
The Sheldrake Point vineyard features fertile gravelly loam soils over a bed of shale that ranges from between two and six feet below the surface. The variation in soils within the property results in varying vigor and, consequently, the need to manage the vines and canopy differently throughout the property. The Riesling parcel at the top of the slope is on shallow soils and has low vigor, thus it carries less crop naturally. The deeper soils in the middle of the property result in more naturally vigorous parcels, where the vines want to produce more fruit, and can, with a double canopy. With two main canes, half the canopy is folded down and the vine is then able to ripen twice as much fruit. It's a very different approach from Old World vineyards where more often old vines and naturally low vigor sites produce vines with minimal canopy and naturally low yields. Why not manage these vines with severe canopy management and hard pruning back? It would require a constant maintenance to fight against what the vine wants to do, and Madill would rather have the vine in balance, as naturally as possible, even if it means what can look like a heavy crop load (see the accompanying video as Madill explains the differences).
When it comes to terroir in the Finger Lakes, things are still being sorted out. There's a distinct difference between wines from the cool western side of Seneca and the warmer eastern side, known as the banana belt. But I've seen less distinction between Keuka and Cayuga Lake wines, the lakes that flank Seneca. Is there a big difference from Cayuga Lake wineries versus Seneca or Keuka, I asked? Madill isn't so sure.
"I see more wineries trying to make specific styles, like Ravines, for example, which focuses on the drier, minerally style, or Lakewood, which is riper. Most wineries have vineyards that have so much variation within the vineyard—soil, elevation, temperature—that you can't make macro definitions of the various lakes profiles. Sure, there are some specific vineyards that clearly offer a distinct sense of place—Ingle Vineyard from Heron Hill, or the Argetsinger vineyard, for example—but those are in the minority and the region is still trying to sort those out," said Madill.
When it comes to Riesling, the best grape at Sheldrake in its various dry and sweet forms, the winery's style offers solid, juicy forward apple and slate notes. The 2011 Riesling Finger Lakes Dry, from a challenging year, shows the vintage's slightly tangy side, with apple peel, fennel and citrus oil notes and a brisk finish. The 2011 Riesling Finger Lakes shows juicy, lively yellow apple and melon rind notes and is a very solid, friendly bottling that provides an excellent choice for consumers new to the region.
When it comes to Riesling, Madill takes a relatively hands-off approach, preferring lots to ferment to a dryness level on their own, rather than push through to fully dry and then back-sweetening.
"Trying to stop a ferment is like trying to stop a train on a dime. We let them do what they want to do, and if a lot winds up too dry or austere on its own, we blend it in with other lots for balance," said Madill.
The 2011 Pinot Gris Finger Lakes is light and breezy, with bitter lemon and white peach notes. It's a brisk, slightly lean style and Madill is wondering if a little skin contact might bolster the wine. In contrast, the 2011 Gewürztraminer Finger Lakes gets three days of skin contact, and it shows lots of spice, lychee and pink grapefruit notes. It's ripe and forward but delivers solid varietal character.
Madill believes aromatic whites are ultimately the best the Finger Lakes have to offer.
"If I had to do it over again, probably more Riesling and less Cabernet Franc," he said. "But when we planted, we just put rows here, rows there. We didn't really know what we were going to get. Now, Riesling of course, but other aromatic whites such as Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer—these are the grapes that are starting to prove themselves."
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.
David A Zajac — Akron, OH — October 4, 2012 10:32am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — October 4, 2012 4:17pm ET
Chad Dikun — NJ — October 4, 2012 7:48pm ET
Bob Madill — Ovid, New York, US — October 5, 2012 8:58pm ET
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