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There’s Something Different Going on at Shaw Vineyard in the Finger Lakes Wine Country

HomePageBarrelsIn Himrod, New York, on the western shore of Seneca Lake, Shaw Vineyard sits in the heart of Finger Lakes Wine Country.  This area is well known for producing excellent white wines, more suited to the cooler climate of this more northern area.  The lakes moderate the temperatures to be sure, but I’ve spent significant time on Lake Seneca in the winter, and I can absolutely confirm it is cold.  Sometimes it is extremely cold.  Here Riesling shines, and we have had many excellent examples.  Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and other white varieties seem reasonable.  Reds generally appear to be the exception, at least rich, fuller bodied versions.  That all makes sense.

One of the reasons we love wine is that is never ceases to surprise us, and here comes another one.  We ran into Shaw Vineyards at the 2014 Greenwich Wine and Food Festival.  As usual this event was much more food than wine (and you can read about it here), but there were some pleasant surprises.  Shaw Vineyard certainly was one of them.  SignSteve Shaw Jr. was pouring several of Shaw’s wines, and two were reds, along with some specialty spirits (more on that later).  We tried the Pinot Noir and the Bordeaux grape blend with some reservation, as we had sampled far too many mediocre wines that day.  We were to be gob smacked.  The Pinot Noir was complex and very Burgundian.  The Bordeaux blend was elegant and rich.  What was going on here?

Then we learned that these wines had spent four years in oak (that is not a typo).  Now it was really getting intriguing.  After a few questions and answers we left to finish covering the Greenwich event, but with a promise that we would get back to Steve, and his father Steve Sr., to talk more about what Shaw Vineyards is all about.  We finally got a chance to do that over the holiday break this year.

As coincidence might have it, the Shaws spend some of their Christmas time holidays in Newport, RI, just over half an hour from us.  We took advantage of that to meet Steve Sr. and Steve Jr., and enjoyed an excellent Italian dinner, two bottles of Shaw Vineyard red wine, and two+ hours of conversation.  Let’s start by thanking the Shaws for their time, their company and the very gracious way they accommodated our questions.  They represent yet another example of fabulous people in the wine industry.  We plan on continuing the discussions in the near future.

So how about some background?  Steve Shaw Sr. has been growing vinifera grapes in the Finger Lakes region for 30+ years, 7100_10152464988177965_8111140720861392577_ninitially supplying them to local wine makers.  Steve began studying the wine making craft in the 90s, and visited many famous regions and producers before launching the Shaw Vineyard label in 2002.  During those travels he saw different techniques and approaches to the craft, and he has absolutely no compunction at all about mixing them together and experimenting.  Lengthy barrel aging was evident at Heitz Cellars.  Whole berry fermentation was practiced in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  Neutral oak has its practitioners as well.  Take all of these and much more, mix them together with a desire to produce wines in the style of cooler climate, European, dry wines and shake it all up a bit and you’ll end up with Shaw wines.  Take it from us it is a happy result, and we can’t wait to see what Steve Sr. does next.

The wines are extraordinary, unexpected and excellent values.  You just don’t expect this kind of rich, deep, quality red wine from the region, at least we don’t.  These are not light quaffers.  The reds are significant, serious wines which still drink very well.  We tried a Reserve Cabernet and Merlot with our dinner and they were excellent, with the Cab really standing out.  Add them to the Pinot Noir and red blend we tried in Greenwich and you get the picture.  Please don’t think we’re disregarding the whites either, as the Riesling we sampled in Greenwich was excellent as well.

So what is going on?

The Shaws grow almost all of their own fruit, and are very active in the vineyards.  Crops are left heavy into July or so, and then are thinned aggressively.  They’ll sweep through multiple times dropping immature grapes, letting the remaining grapes get the full attention of the vines. The vines are not trained in standard systems, such as Vertical Shoot Positioning (known as VSP and fairy Tankswidespread) but rather in a manner Steve refers to as “wild vine growing”.  Of course it’s not really wild, it just looks a little unruly.   Harvest is gentle, and there is no crush here.  All grapes go through whole berry fermentation, without getting pulverized and pumped at this stage.  Lately Steve Sr. has even been letting fermentation start spontaneously, some of which are allowed to finish that way (not something you see very often) while others are inoculated with his favored yeast strains at some point during the process.  The reds have been seeing co-fermentations for years now, and Steve believes it lends a complexity to the finished wines.  Skin contact is long, with 5-10 days cold soaking and up to 40 days on the skins.

After fermentation the reds sit, and sit, and sit.  There is very little racking done here.  Because of the whole berry approach cap management can be a challenge during fermentation, but once that’s over it’s a wait and see game, and the wait is years.  Check your red wines as you drink them, and you’re unlikely to find anything that sees four years of barrel time, or even close to it.  Steve prefers neutral oak, and never uses more than 25% new (generally less than 20%), still the four years has a profound effect and produces rich and complex reds.

The operation is not tiny, but also not very large, with annual production averaging in the 2-3 thousand case range.  Did we mention that it gets cold there?  The winter of 2013/2014 was one of the worst in some time, and a lot of damage occurred in the vineyards.  There will be no 2014 Merlot at Shaw Vineyard.  Root stocks survived but they lost primary and secondary buds.  Total production is down to 1500 cases.  Mother Nature still rules this business to a large extent.

So let’s look at some wines.  We’ve only sampled five, but certainly look forward to trying many more when we visit the winery.  Here is our current experience:

2009 Pinot Noir Reserve– four years in oak results in a complex wine with surprising depth.  You immediately think Burgundy and terroir,IMG_0937 as the earthy notes and wood massaged fruit flavors meld together into a smooth experience.  It’s long too.  Runs about $30 at the winery.  Very good, unexpected, and as our first sip of Shaw wine it really made us sit up and take notice.

2007 Keuka Hill Reserve Red Table Wine – first of all, calling this table wine is like calling Tignanello table wine.  Well, that might be a bad analogy as they DID call Tignanello table wine.  Still, you get the IMG_0936point and this is serious stuff.  The only blended wine from Shaw it uses Bordeaux grapes (40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot) and results in a complex wine that you could easily believe comes from the left bank.  Elegant, long and complex too.  Around $35.  We are now officially fans.

2012 Single Vineyard Riesling – this is what we expect in quality Finger Lakes wine – clean, crisp RieslingRiesling in a definite German style.  Petrol aromas are clear markers.  The wine is dry, finishes beautifully and is pretty delightful.  So they make whites too.

Now the Newport dinner wines:

2007 Merlot Reserve – deep red in color, the nose was a bit reserved at first.  We let it sit for just a short time and the bouquet opened up nicely and presented dark fruits, with plum and blackberry.  On the palate the wine is rich and grippy, with tar notes.  Cherry makes its presence known.  The finish is very long.  My first glass of this crossed into my veal dish, and it went well with the rich tomato sauce.  This told me the wine carried a bit more acid than I perceived, and the balance was there.  We were impressed (yet again).  Around $30.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve – in case you haven’t noticed, we like Shaw wines to this point.  Well, now it was about to go up Caberneta notch, because this wine was exceptional.  Steve Sr. opened this shortly after the Merlot, and I was immediately captivated with it.  Also deep red in color the wine showed more oak on the nose, although it still was far from dominant.  Fruit is front and center.  On the palate the oak is evident, but it slowly fades and then the core of fruit comes screaming through.  Rich, pure Cabernet flavors of currant and other berries.  The tannins are firm but well integrated.  The wine has beautiful structure.  If you put this in a lineup with five $75-$100 Napa Cabs it would not be out of place.  It’s about $30.  It’s fabulous, and we are buying a case when we visit.

That’s all we have tried to date, but you get the picture.  There are unusual and great things going on at Shaw Vineyards.  Actually that’s even more true than you might think, as they are experimenting with orange wines as well, currently producing an orange Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, with an orange blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio coming.  What might be next?  We don’t know, but are pretty sure Steve Shaw Sr. won’t be afraid to try something else.

Father and son teams can make great wine making teams as well.  We published an article on the Foley team at Seamus Wines a little while back (see that here).  There the father handles more of the business aspects and the son make the wines.  Here we have the opposite, with Steve Jr. getting involved in the winery but more in the marketing for now, 3084521and Steve Sr. very much making the juice.  Winemaking is frequently about family.  In fact it tends to usually be about family at some level.  This enterprise fits that mold, although for now Steve Jr. is also busy in New York City with his company, SDS Enterprises, working with product distribution, branding and personal representation.  They represent Iceberg Vodka and Cockspur Rum.  Part of the SDS connection with Shaw Vineyard was the launch of the LiBella line of wines in 2007.  Currently a Pinot Grigio, there are plans to expand to other varietals in the future.

We’ll be in the Finger Lakes region this August for a week of relaxation and wine.  Shaw Vineyards is our first stop when we get there.  If you’re in that area it should be high on your list as well.  Here’s their contact info below.  Try the 2008 Cabernet Reserve (and the others!)

A votre sante!



3901 State Route 14, Himrod, NY 14842

General Inquiries – Steve Shaw < >

Wholesale Inquiries – Steve Shaw, Jr. < >

(607) 481 – 0089

2014 Hours of Operation
Call or email to confirm seasonal hours.
Individual appointments available upon request.

Junemid-November Mon. – Fri. and Sun. 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
Saturday 11:00 am – 6:00 pm
(Weather permitting)
Saturday 11:00 am – 6:00 pm
Sunday 11:00 am – 5:00 pm

No large buses or limos. Small limos or groups by appointment only before 12:30

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