“Tastemaker” is a term typically used to describe a person — either a sommelier or writer in the wine world — who decides what is good, cool or otherwise interesting. With our new #NYTastemaker profiles, I’ve decided to usurp the term to mean someone who actually makes the wines, ciders, spirits, etc. that we love. A “tastemaker” should make something, after all.

One of the true highlights of my trip to the Finger Lakes last month was meeting Nancy Irelan, co-owner of and winemaker for Red Tail Ridge Winery on the western side of Seneca Lake. Nancy (and correctly so) suggested that if we planned to meet in the late morning or afternoon, I’d be behind schedule — so I made her my first visit on my first full day in town. She put me right to work, asking my opinion on a dosage trial she was doing and blind tasting me on a couple red wine projects that she never ended up telling me anything about.

Nancy is focused and meticulous — I’ve never seen such a pristine cellar — but also a lot of fun to taste with. I like when a winemaker tastes a tank sample of her latest riesling and says “Mmmm” just because she thinks it’s so delicious.

By the way, that picture above is one that I took of her climbing to the very top of her barrel racking to pull a sample for us to taste. The barrel room is decidedly more designed for someone her size than mine. Let’s just say it was cramped in places to the point that I had to suck in my stomach to squeeze through.

Look for a story I’m working on about the estate riesling vineyard — a special place that doesn’t get enough attention — soon. But in the meantime, get to know Nancy just a little bit…


Location: Geneva, NY

Current Job: Winemaker, Co-owner, Red Tail Ridge Winery

Wine of the moment: Pinot Nero from Alto Adige

My winemaking style in 1-5 words: True to the vineyard

First bottle of wine I remember drinking: Boone’s Farm Country Quencher, 1976. Under a full moon, in a canoe in the middle of a lake in Vermont with three friends. It was cold, sweet, inexpensive and available at the local Stop and Shop.

How I got here: Michael and I moved here a little over 10 years ago from California. Sometimes, it’s all about timing. The region was just beginning to be recognized for premium wines, but it was still very young with lots of potential. We wanted to join the region and contribute to the growth of a premium wine destination.

My winemaking style — in more words: Winemaking starts in the field in partnership with the winegrower. As harvest approaches, you should already be very familiar with what’s going on in the vineyard and how the fruit is tracking. When the fruit finally arrives at the crush pad, there should be no surprises. Fundamentally, I pay attention to the little things, because I think in combination all these little details have a big influence on the final wine.

Mentors: Zelma Long

Music playing in the cellar right now: Sirius satellite radio station: Caliente. Currently, Grupo Niche by Gotas de Liuvia.

Favorite thing about Finger Lakes wine industry: The farming culture and work ethic of the community.

Least favorite thing about Finger Lakes wine industry: Labeling wines as “Dry…” when they are not perceptibly dry.

One surprising thing that I’m really good at: I am highly skilled at hailing a cab.

What I drink: Whatever I can manage to get my hands on. In my previous life, I used to participate in sensory tastings/training daily. I try very hard to avoid developing a cellar palate, so I taste as many different things as I can to keep expanding my sensory knowledge. I’m on a perpetual quest for deliciousness.

My “Desert Island Meal” — wine included: A mag of good bubbles and a family size bag of Doritos.