In a region where Riesling is king -- and red wines are fickle, due to the short growing season and cruel winters -- it's surprising to come across a vineyard that specializes in red. And red only.
Welcome to Shalestone Vineyards, on the east side of Seneca Lake. We've driven by the picturesque tasting room and vine-covered production room overlooking the lake many times, but had never stopped in until recently.
Owners Rob and Kate Thomas established their vineyards in 1995, in the area known as the "Banana Belt'' of the Finger Lakes, which is said to be warmer than other areas. They now have about six acres near the lake, devoted to grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Lemberger and Pinot Noir.
When we arrived on a Sunday in August, Rob Thomas was putting the "open" sign out by the road and Kate was setting up in the tasting room. For a minute or two, we had that feeling one gets when one arrives a little early for a party, and finds the host not quite yet ready for guests. But as the room began to fill, everyone got to chatting.
Our tasting ($3 each) included five wines -- none of them with the usual descriptions, like "big," "bold," "jammy" and "juicy.''
Consider this description for the 2011 Lemberghini (a blend of Lemberger, Merlot and Syrah): "Like a ride at an amusement park that you get back in line for. A scenic drive to the state of ZING." And the 2012 Pinot Noir: "Oh, the fickle femme fatale! Some are like a cold shower and others give you multiple orgasms. They are always worth a try.''
We liked the Harmony, "an inter-vintage blend'' of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot "that sings with pleasure from balance and understanding, helping to elevate the quality of your life.''
We found something to like about all the wines we sampled. They made us think about fall and winter nights and warming meals. The Harmony would work well with a steak off the grill or a pot roast. The Red Legend would pair nicely with pasta or pizza -- who knows, maybe even barbecue. We left with a bottle of 2013 Beyond Rose (Zwiegelt and Lemberger). We've grown to love dry Roses from the Finger Lakes -- they seem to go with everything. This one had deeper color, flavor and body than others we've tried. Kate recommended serving it at room temperature (a surprise) or chilled.
I was tempted to get a bottle of the Synergy ($25; Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) but it was our first stop of the day and I didn't want to spend all of my allotted wine allowance in one place.
We're close enough to come back, we told ourselves. I'm sure we will.
Asked why they do only red, Kate said they like the complexity of red wine, they wanted to do something different and they don't like Riesling.
Their philosophy: "Tune into nature, go with the natural ebb and flow of life. Red wines best reflect the complexity of life as they are built in layers, much like experiences and relationships.''
Shalestone isn't one of those loud, raucous wineries with a carnival atmosphere. It's small and intimate and you get to talk and learn from the people who grow and harvest the grapes and craft the wine. Groups of more than eight are discouraged from visiting. Visitors are asked to shut off their cell phones and enjoy the moment, the view -- and of course the wine.
The dry red wine. Red is all they do.
Shalestone Vineyards is at 9681 Route 414, Lodi. The tasting room has limited hours: Fridays in October (noon to 5 p.m.) and Saturdays in November (noon to 5 p.m.), plus Friday, Nov. 23 (noon to 5 p.m.). Information: 607-582-6600.