Nancy Irelan and Mike Schnelle, co-owners of Red Tail Ridge Winery (Photo courtesy of Red Tail Ridge)

By Lenn Thompson, Editor-in-Chief

Red Tail Ridge Winery, situated on the west side of Seneca Lakes in the Finger Lakes, is a winery that has gotten a lot of press lately, both for the construction of its LEED-certified winery building or its wines. I have yet to meet owners Nancy Irelan and Mike Schnelle (they are at the top of my list for my next visit to the region) but I was able to track Nancy down to take part in our almost-weekly Q&A series.

I say almost weekly because, well, it's harvest season and getting winery folk to sit down in front of their computers isn't always easy this time of year.

Nancy and Mike moved to the Finger Lakes from California in 2005 to develop their new vineyard and winery in the Finger Lakes. Nancy has over 20 years of experience in the wine industry and was most recently at E&J Gallo Winery where she served as Vice President of Enology and Viticulture Technology. 

She now offers technical consulting and contract services to the wine and food industry, and serves as the Research Director for the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Pierce’s Disease Research Program. She is a member of several grape and wine industry organizations and currently serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Cornell Food Science Department.

And now, our standard questions:

What (and where) was the first bottle of wine you remember drinking?

Boone's Farm Country Quencher. I was 21 and vacationing on a lake in New England with my friends. We were canoing on the lake at midnight, under a full moon.

What event/bottle/etc made you decide that you wanted to be in the wine industry?
I was working as a chemist at DuPont and applying for graduate school at various institutions. While looking into possible research assistant positions, I stumbled upon an opening in the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis. 

Given how little was really known about grape physiology/genetics/biochemistry at the time (in comparison to other, more well-studied plants — tomato, peppers, etc.) it sounded like a really neat challenge. So I took the plunge.

Which of your current wines is your favorite and why?
OK…this is a really tough question. Its like asking a mom which of her kids she likes the best. 

In reality it depends on what my mood is, what I'm eating (or not eating). and who I'm with. 

Ok, Ok…I guess I'd have to say my 2006 Blanc de Noirs. I love bubbles.

What has surprised you most about being a member of the Finger Lakes wine community?
The amount of rock-picking required on an annual basis. Clearly the rocks are procreating during the winter. They are pretty prolific, so every spring thaw we are once again harvesting rocks in the vineyard to protect the vineyard equipment. 

Kidding aside, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of collaboration between winery principals, growers and winemakers. Michael and I feel very fortunate to be members of such a hard-working and dedicated community.

Other than your own wines, what wine/beer/liquor most often fills your glass?
My husband's homemade Pilsners. It takes a lot of really good beer to make great wine.

Is there a 'classic' wine or wine and food pairing that you just can't make yourself enjoy?
No. But if you asked me pair a wine with liver, I'd have to decline.

Wine enjoyment is about more than just the wine itself. Describe the combination of wine, locations, food, company, etc. that would make (or has made) for the ultimate wine-drinking experience.

For me, the experience is crystallized by the people you are with. Sure location and food enhance the experience further. For the sake of time I'll provide one example: Taking a lunch break from snow skiing with good friends in the Sierra Mountains–drinking vintage riesling with sausage, cheeses and smoked trout.