Standing in Red Tail Ridge Winery's new facility recently, it occurred to me: The entire geothermal machine area looks like something out of a Star Wars movie. Can it get any cooler (or hotter) than that?
I stopped by Red Tail Ridge on Seneca Lake the other day with the primary goal of getting a harvest report. I was also excited about the winery's new production facility, which I assumed would have some interesting features.
The facility and its winemaking innovations blew my mind.
While I knew that owners Mike Schnelle and Nancy Irelan had built an environmentally conscious facility that is eligible for LEED certification, I had no idea that the building houses a thermal system that is incorporated into various elements of winemaking. By tapping into natural geothermal energy, the new production facility not only maintains a constant, energy-efficient temperature in general, but it also regulates the temperature of the tanks during fermentation.
Unlike most wineries in the Finger Lakes, the tank temperatures are not measured and reported manually, but through a computer screen, utilizing software specially designed for Red Tail Ridge.
"I can control the tank temperatures remotely," winemaker Nancy Irelan (at right) tells me. "When all the bugs are worked out, I could in theory monitor the temperatures from my kitchen table at home."
And while Nancy is hardly passive enough to rely heavily on remote control, the sheer efficiency of the system speaks to her dedication to environmentalism and sustainability. To be patient enough to commission a design for such a thermal contorl system is no easy or inexpensive task, which is indicated by the complex mechanics visible in the control-room area on the second floor of the facility. The geothermal system uses a mixture of extreme heat and extreme cold to regulate temperature on a constant basis.
With only a few Finger Lakes vintages in her portfolio thus far, the critics are already appreciating her efforts. My tasting of her 2009 riesling lots in tank revealed some tremendous early quality with complex fruit and pronounced minerality.
As for the 2009 harvest in general, Nancy is very pleased, although the cool and wet vintage was a "new challenge" for someone who cut her winemaking teeth in California. Despite the challenges of the growing season, especially the intensive vineyard management needed to keep ahead of potential problems, Nancy feels that most of the grapes are in great shape. "The pinot noir was really beautiful fruit this year with nice, even ripeness."
Energy efficient or not, one could point out that the production facility at Red Tail Ridge is more extensive than it needs to be for its planned output, yet the environmental features are so comprehensive that it seems almost certain that the long-term efficiencies will be significant and noteworthy. Furthermore, Nancy is the first to admit that such a facility is not a prerequisite for making good wine: these innovations are simply a reflection of her and her husband's dedication to environmental innovation.
In only a few short years Red Tail Ridge has become a Finger Lakes winery to watch. With a an adjoining tasting room slated for future construction as well as Nancy's propensity to experiment with different clones and varietals, the future looks even more interesting.