By Rochelle Bilow, Finger Lakes Food Correspondent
Photos courtesy of Sheldrake Point winery

Mention Sheldrake Point Winery on Seneca Lake and, chances are, you’ll be corrected. “It’s on Cayuga Lake,” I heard a half-dozen times over the course of the last month from friends and Finger Lakes wine fans. They aren’t wrong, but neither am I. On September 26, 2011, Sheldrake Point opened a second tasting room on Route 414 along the southeast side of Seneca.

The tasting room has opened quietly, not for lack of marketing and outreach on their part, but because they were just getting started as the tourism season wound down. The lack of tasting room traffic in the winter months has given owner Bob Madill and tasting room manager Christine McAfee a few months to get their bottles in a row. In a phone conversation and visit to the tasting room, I spoke to them about Sheldrake’s two-lake presence.

Like all business decisions, the addition of a new location was made with profit in mind. Unlike many wineries in the area, Sheldrake’s original location on Cayuga grows all of their grapes in one vineyard. “Every wine we have is a single-vineyard wine, for all intents and purposes,” Madill said. “But we were selling just about half of our grapes.”

Sheldrake never entered into a long-term partnership with other wineries, choosing instead to sell grapes as needed, to places as far away as Pennsylvania. “If we made all of those grapes into wine, we’d never move it.” Ready for a challenge, Madill and his team figured that if they increased their presence in the area, they could very well sell enough wine to make up the difference.

The team began looking into remote locations out of the area but the cost and logistics of managing a tasting room or storefront far away didn’t seem to Madill to be a worthwhile gamble. Then they stumbled across Busca Books on Seneca Lake, a convenient location with lots of room to spare. Owner Michael Cooper agreed to sell 2,500 square feet, the majority of the space, to Sheldrake, moving his business to the back third of the store.

SPWSenecaLakeTastingRoomIntA deck with clear glass paneling was added to the front and trees were cleared from the property to open up the view of the lake. The result is a modern, clean space with clean lines and lots of natural light. To keep the room from looking minimalistic, Sheldrake is decorating the walls with work from local artists.

The bars where servers pour might look different on any given day – they’re on wheels and can be rearranged or removed to accommodate for parties and events. “We searched forever for those bars,” Madill said. “We visited other tasting rooms, measured to find the perfect height and looked for the best material.”

That attention to detail is apparent in more than the decor. McAfee told me that when Sheldrake opened, she wrote letters introducing herself to the surrounding neighbors. “They’ve been really supportive so far,” she said, adding that many of them don’t actually drink alcohol. This “hey, neighbor” mentality is reminiscent, says Madill, from over a decade ago when Sheldrake moved into their space on Cayuga.

“In both locations, we’re basically in the middle of a residential area. We try to keep that in mind,” Madill said, recalling with a laugh (and a bit of a groan) the large white fence that was constructed then taken down in the parking lot at Seneca, after realizing it obstructed a resident’s view.

At the heart of the decision to expand Sheldrake’s presence in the Finger Lakes was a desire to rework and revitalize the winery’s portfolio. “We’re going to focus more on distinguishing where in the Cayuga vineyard our grapes come from,” said Madill, recognizing that the climate and character in vineyards can be drastically different even just a few yards away. They currently cultivate 43 acres with the potential for planting more vines, providing the doubling of production goes well in the next few years.

Riesling and cabernet franc make up the largest percentage of the vineyard, with the 2011 vintage shaping up to include a Dry Riesling, Semi-Dry Riesling and an Ice Riesling. Madill also has hopes for a Reserve Riesling, as it is “developing nicely” but isn’t yet certain it will be up to Sheldrake’s standards.

Consumers will also see the disappearance of Sheldrake Point Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Dave Breeden and vineyard manager Dave Weimann will continue to grow the varieties, but have decided to blend them with cabernet franc in a Meritage, a Bordeaux-style blend.