Following the path of the grape: Kelley O’Neill

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Kelley O’Neill of Randolph O’Neill Vineyard

On thirty-five Cayuga Lake acres, Kelley O’Neill has used his new vineyard and winery to make a purposeful life.  With the help of his wife Angela, he has converted formerly fallow property they bought in 2002 into a vineyard, winery and small tasting room.

Randolph O’Neill Vineyard is located just north of Hosmer Winery on Route 89.  About the name: “O’Neill Vineyard was already taken, and Kelley O’Neill sounded way to Irish, like I was a whiskey distiller” says Kelley.  Randolph is Angela’s maiden name, and using it made her father really happy.

Kelley currently has two acres under vine, one of Cabernet Franc and the other of Riesling.  “I’m very careful about the grape growing, and after it’s fermented, I try to be as hands off as possible. I’ll mess with the juice, but once it becomes wine, I don’t really do a lot like fining, or acid or sugar adjustment”  He firmly believes in the Hermann Wiemer philosophy: “Work hard in the vineyard so you don’t have to work as hard in the cellar.”  

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The winery is currently producing about 300 cases, mostly Cabernet Franc and Riesling, along with a small amount of Rose of Cab Franc.

Kelley is originally from the Buffalo area.  In the late 70’s he went to SUNY Fredonia to study Music and Sound Recording.  After spending some time working in a recording studio in New York City, he migrated to Atlanta and spent fifteen years there, doing “the music thing” including playing in some rock bands.  While in Atlanta, he met his wife Angela through his music.

“At that time, I had fond memories of spending summers at my grandparents cottage at the north end of Cayuga Lake.”  So, he decided to take a trip “up north”.  “I was expecting it to be all built up, but it was exactly the same as I remember it in the 60’s”.  Kelley and his wife then spent the next seven years making frequent trips, visiting wineries and beginning to think about buying property.

Kelley was new to winemaking.  “When I moved up here, I had never worked in a vineyard or even driven a tractor.” He knew he wanted to do winemaking for a living, but his path wasn’t clear until 1997 when he moved next door to the tasting room manager at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars.  She suggested he contact Mark Wagner about a job.  “I was really lucky because he offered me a fulltime job.  I started in the vineyard, and I ended up working in the cellar.  For seven years I learned about making wine working with Rob Thomas.”

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After taking a year away from the industry, Kelley took at job at Northside Wine and Spirits in Ithaca, selling wine.  “I followed the path of the grape in my education, starting in the vineyard, working in the cellar and finally getting some real world experience selling the finished product.”  Once day Richard Figiel, who at the time owned Silver Thread Winery on Seneca lake, came into the store.  His assistant had recently left, and he wound up offering Kelley part time work.  “Both Richard and Rob (Thomas) had wineries that were built on the same model that I wanted to build mine on, which is a smaller winery with attention to detail.” At Silver Thread, Kelley was involved in all aspects of winemaking.

By the summer of 2002, Kelley and Angela were seriously interested in having their own winery (and home).  They found 35 acres between Rt 89 and Cayuga Lake and were able to agree with the owner on a price. “We lucked out and got a good site for growing grapes.  The soil is well drained, and not much cold damage with the vineyards less than a quarter mile from the lake”.  In 2005 they did their first planting and were able to sell grapes in 2007. Kelley sold grapes to other wineries (keeping some for his own wine making experiments) until 2014, when he was able to produce his first vintage.

Randolph O’Neill Vineyard became an official winery in 2014.  Kelley converted a carport under his home into a combination winery, laboratory and tasting room as temporary facilities.   Plans for a future winery and tasting room are still in development, and they might include a new sunken building on the property or converting the existing barn, in any case, the tasting room and winery will occupy the same building.  “I’m a believer in multi-use spaces.  People like tasting where the wine in made”.

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“After we’d lived here for about a year, a peacock started showing up every day, preening around in the yard and driveway. Then every night he would leave. It turns out that Tom from Cayuga Ridge had peacocks, and this one decided he liked hanging out at our place during the day. We thought that the label was a little plain with just the lettering, so we added the peacock watermark in his honor. Our neighbor’s son named him Kevin after the peacock in the movie ‘Up’.”

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A third acre is currently being readied for new plating of Cab Franc vines.  Kelley hopes to increase his production volume, but still remain a small winery where he can keep it personal, and keep it enjoyable, and still have time to compose, play and record his music.

Current Offerings:

  • 2015 Cabernet Franc — Hand picked and sorted. Fermented on the skins for 10 days. Aged in older New York and Pennsylvania oak barrels for 10 months — $21.99
  • 2015 Dry Riesling — Hand picked and whole-cluster pressed. Cool fermentation for 10 weeks. Fermented nearly dry, then back-blended with sweeter component for balance. (0.8% residual sugar) —  $20.99
  • 2015 Rielsing — Hand picked and whole-cluster pressed. Cool fermentation stopped after 8 weeks to retain 2% residual sugar — $19.99
  • 2016 Dry Rosé — Hand picked and sorted. Overnight soak (16 hours) on the skins. Cool fermented for 6 weeks until nearly dry (0.4% residual sugar)–  $18.99

The website is http://www.rovwine.com. You may contact Kelley for a tasting by calling (607) 351-8890 or completing the form on the website.  The winery is located on Rt 89 in Ovid, N.Y.

Say “HI” for us.

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