Take one recent horticulture graduate, one corporate exec in world-wide product marketing (who happens to be a wine industry enthusiast), and one hospitality entrepreneur with capital, add the right piece of property becoming available at the right price, and you have the elements needed to make a dream become a reality.
Most of the vineyards and wineries of the Finger Lakes seem to develop on two models. There’s the family farm, in which current generations are keeping a long standing tradition alive. And then there is the rugged individual visionary model, in which a man with a mission follows his dreams with determination and hard work.
|Bob Madill - Sheldrake Vineyard||(Ted Crane)|
“We’re a bit different, cut from different cloth,” says Bob Madill, winegrower, general manager, and partner with Sheldrake Point Vineyard and Cafe.
Sheldrake Point works through ideas and imagination grafted onto a corporate model. All the parts are there: a business plan, corporate history, and mission statement. The team works together making plans based on what the group, which has been around the world both figuratively and literally, wants to achieve. “We’re a co-operative in the elemental sense of people cooperating because nobody had the wherewithal to do it on their own,” according to Madill.
Sheldrake Point Vineyard and Cafe started with a clean slate. In 1996, a team drew a picture which had previously existed only in their imagination of how wine making and hospitality should happen together. They built a package of wine, food, hospitality, and location in the Finger Lakes, using people with the proper expertise. “We were able to scrape together enough wherewithal to really get ourselves in trouble,” says Bob Madill.
Sheldrake Point is a vineyard/hospitality center operated by a different kind of business “machinery.” Many of the elements are not obvious at first glance. The beauty and potential of the property attracted founding member Craig Sandor. While Craig is now managing wineries on Long Island, it was his initial vision which brought the Sheldrake team together. The other “invisible partners” are Michael and Marjorie Adams who lend a global perspective on the wine industry. They are currently splitting their time between the Finger Lakes and Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, as they develop a wine-export business to China.
Chuck Tauck, Sheldrake’s managing partner, was attracted to the Finger Lakes wine industry while pursuing graduate studies at Cornell’s Cornell Hotel School. His background and energy in finance, management, and systems process has been instrumental in the organization and growth of the winery. This past November, he returned to Statler Hall to give a seminar on entrepreneurship entitled Dreamers vs. Doers: The Road to Successful Entrepreneurship. Sheldrake Point might well have been his case study. It started six years ago with a dream, but has grown by being nurtured with the shared expertise of a lot of “Do-ers.”
Bob Madill says, “While I have no clear idea why businesses succeed, it’s very clear to me why they fail. They have an entrepreneurial spirit with a lot of good ideas, and a lack of business sense, an incredible lack of cash, and a lack of understanding about how to deal with people. To make a small business grow, you need to cover the bases: capital and business experience.”
|Sheldrake Vineyard Grounds||(Ted Crane)|
“There was Lucas at one end, Hosmer at the other, and nothing inbetween,” Bob told us. The beautiful rolling hillside down to the lake front was a somewhat sophisticated resort area during the 19th century, but the area went into decline during the 20th century. The abandoned farm became a mess of old tires and junk. Part of Sheldrake’s mission is to not only develop a fine winery, but to preserve open green space and uplift the local community. They spent the first two years demolishing old buildings and cleaning out junk. “My guess is that slowly but surely this little area will be gentrified,” says Madill.
All the while the partners saw the great potential in the good soils and the slope to the narrow 400 foot strip of waterfront. The vast acreage and cluster of buildings that is Sheldrake Point (155 acres, including lake frontage, vineyards, rolling hillsides and forests, with a farm-style complex of reception house, tasting rooms, and winery barn) is constantly improving and evolving in an organic process.
Improvements provide new inspiration. For example, what was to be a parking area was done with such quality that the site quickly became a courtyard for event receptions. That court yard has evolved into an entire wedding reception complex.
Fine food has always been part of the equation. Scott Signori, then a Chef based in Washington, DC (now operating the Stone Cat Café), was part of the planning team in 1996. Today, a big part of what Sheldrake does involves exquisitely set hospitality centered in the Café, under the guidance of Chef Jack Carrington. Jack brings a special flair to the Sheldrake Point Cafe menu of creative appetizers, tapas, and tasty entrees, based on his extensive experience. During his career he has prepared fine meals in restaurants from New York to New England. Jack’s recipes are designed to complement the fine collection of Sheldrake Point and other New York State wines. For 2004, he has planned a series of special holiday brunches, good for the entire family, and Winemaker’s Dinners.
Bob Madill will host the Winemaker’s Dinner on Saturday, April 17, starting with a tour of the vineyard. The tour will put Sheldrake’s wines into context from the ground up. “It you go to Europe, the first place they take you is the vineyard and you spend hours in there just learning about what they’re trying to do,” says Madill. “If you don’t understand that you can’t understand the rest of it. So when we do wine tours at the Winemakers Dinner we always start with an explanation of what we’re trying to accomplish in the vineyard. It frames what we’re willing to do in the winery.”
Special events under the guiding hand of Jan Jorrin have taken off, and include a full season of wedding celebrations and other events on the Sheldrake patio complex. Jan left the bustling world of Madison Avenue marketing to return to her beloved farm on the shores of Cayuga Lake, just north of Sheldrake Point. The Sheldrake staff, luckily, was able to convince her that her promotional and managerial talents would ideallly their vision of special events. Visitors, whether in a gathering of twenty or a major event with two hundred, find Sheldrake Point Vineyards and Café a hidden gem for all seasons.
For years, Bob Madill and his partners have been impressed with the intrinsic value of the Finger Lakes as a place to invest both money and human energy. The region abounds in beauty, fresh water, and quality agricultural opportunities. “It’s not the Disneyland of the Napa Valley,” says Madill. “The Finger Lakes offers different values—a certain quality of life and a variety of offerings.”
|Kit Kalf at Sheldrake Point Café||(Ted Crane)|
This value is seen in the tasting rooms and gift areas, under the careful eye and guiding hand of Kit Kalf. He has designed the Tasting Room/Gift Shop to be a destination, not just a stop on the way out. Visitors can find unique local and regional products. It is staffed all year ‘round by knowledgeable women and men who are infused with an abiding interest in the wines, vineyards, natural beauty, and quality of life that makes the Finger Lakes so appealing to residents.
“When and if this place gets discovered, it’s going to blow the doors off it,” Madill says with passion. “And I think it will. I think people who are here now aren’t going to understand why millions will come here.”
While the Sheldrake Point team pays great attention to hospitality, there’s also a great passion to make fine wines. One of the ways they do things differently is to cultivate a team approach to crafting wines. “This is practical and pragmatic, but it’s also philosophical,” says Bob Madill. “This is the way we look at it. The vineyard manager and vineyard crew make the wine for the first eight months of the year. From bud break to harvest it isn’t the winemaker that’s making the wine, it’s the vineyard crew. We need committed, professionalism that understands what we need to do in the vineyard, or we’re not going to get there. Then the winemaker and his colleagues take over and complete the job.” Madill sees himself, as vineyard manager, as the chief architect of the wine team, choosing the framework and making the rough cuts. Then the winemaking team comes in and perfects the finish, bringing craft and artistry to the process. “It’s a cooperative effort, it’s collegial. There are areas where we strive hard because we disagree, but notionally it’s a team effort and I think that’s really important.”
Bob Madill’s commitment to a team approach spills over into other wine relationships as well. He, and other winemakers in the region, follow the quest of Pinot Noir (he calls it the, “Holy Grail of wine”), and he is very actively involved in the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance.
“If we don’t get our act together, people are going to eat our lunch,” says Madill. He’s thinking particularly of the Australians and renewed energy coming out of Europe. The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance is working to build “brand recognition” into Finger Lakes wines—an acceptance and awareness of quality—to get the wines “on the shelf” and selling beyond the Wine Trails. The group goes to national wine shows, articulating their issues and aspirations to a wider public. “For the first time we are truly, truly getting owners and operators of all these different wineries at the table,” says Madill. “We’re working together as people whose job and passion it is to be successful—not just making good wine, but making successful businesses.”
Sheldrake Point is committed to building a supportive network between wineries, sharing information, looking to those who are ahead of the curve. “The challenge is to have all of us successful, so people feel good about buying a bottle of wine from the Finger Lakes. All boats have to rise together. We’ve got to have that. It’s mandatory,” says Madill.