Meet Jeff Dill: Owner & Winemaker at JR Dill Winery in the Finger Lakes
Last Updated on October 20, 2022.
It was an uncharacteristically warm day in February when I first walked into JR Dill Winery. Winetraveler had a special breakfast tasting appointment with the owner, Jeff Dill. We were greeted with mimosas and a breakfast prepared by none other than Laury Ward of Finger Lakes Wine Country for the special occasion. The tasting room as aglow with the morning sun and the lake glass pieces that create a mosaic on the bar top were glistening in all their glory.
Now despite numerous trips to the Finger Lakes, I had yet to make it to JR Dill Winery (So many wineries – I never seem to have enough time – thus why I need to buy a house here!), so this was my first experience. Jeff detailed the story of his inspiration for getting into wine, his passion for Seneca Lake, how JR Dill Winery came to be before walking us through his array of wines. We also got to walk through the cellar and taste some Riesling in-tank that he would be bottling later in the year. It was an enlightening experience and one where we again instantly felt like family.
If you’ve been reading my articles on Winetraveler about the Finger Lakes or follow us on social media, you know my love and passion for this region runs deep. One of the reasons I love the Finger Lakes region of New York is the sense of community. Everyone we come across at the wineries, in the restaurants, along the hiking trails or in one of the many quaint towns along the lakes is friendly, helpful and welcoming. They are always excited to share the stories behind the wine, their wineries, the fresh local fare and creative recipes as well as the many places to visit and things to do – but they’re also just open to simply making friends and sharing experiences.
This was again the case at JR Dill Winery. The passion, willingness to share that passion, and the commitment to expressing what is so special about this region is evident in the hospitality, the wines and the experience overall. So, let’s meet Jeff Dill and JR Dill Winery – and be sure to follow along on social media this Memorial Weekend for a special Riesling blending experience that you too can take part in starting this summer.
Winetraveler (WT): When was JR Dill established?
Jeff Dill: (JD): We officially began 10 years ago in 2009 when we first bought the land on the east side of Seneca Lake. We opened doors to the new winery and tasting room in 2010.
JD: I was previously a commercial financier, mostly in Philadelphia. However, when the mortgage crisis hit in 2008, business took a hit and it seemed like a good time to get back home to Seneca Lake and do what I’ve always loved. My mom and I had been making wine in her basement for years and that combined with my entrepreneurial spirit and love of the Finger Lakes wine community, it seemed like the natural next step. I not only get to create a product that people love, but I also get to be involved in all aspects of the business, from the manufacturing and sales to the marketing and financing. And it is really awesome to see your hard work in a bottle that people get to enjoy.
WT: What makes the Finger Lakes and Seneca Lake in particular, a good viticulture region?
JD: I’m certainly biased when it comes to Seneca Lake having grown up on it, but it does offer some of the best spots for growing grapes. It has great soils, slopes and aspect. And from a business perspective, it has a large and communal wine culture.
WT: What is your winemaking philosophy?
JD: My personal philosophy is to touch the wine as little as possible. I want to shepherd the grapes and let them express what they are and the terroir from which they come. I do extensive research into winemaking and new techniques and never cut corners. It’s not worth it. I want people to know they will get a high-quality product and to expect that of us.
WT: What has been one of your biggest challenges as a winemaker?
JD: Well, it’s always challenging to start a business and grow that business from scratch, but I also love that challenge. There’s a lot of trial and error involved in learning what works and what doesn’t. But I think one of the biggest challenges is the preconceived notions of the average wine taster. Many still think that most Rieslings are sweet and that the Finger Lakes doesn’t make dry, European-style reds. This is why wine tastings can be so much fun too though – you can walk people through the various grapes, styles and sometimes even surprise them.
WT: What is your favorite experience as a winemaker to date?
JD: That’s a tough question! I have so many favorite moments, but it was nice to have our 2014 Dry Riesling be recognized at the New York State Wine & Food Classic with Double Gold, and our 2015 too. Also our Vidal Blanc was best in show for a white hybrid.
WT: What grapes do you grow on the property? And where do you source the others?
JD: We source all of our grapes from Seneca Lake growers. This gives us the ability to switch vineyards if we need to, work closely with the growers and to choose different sites which will present with different terroir. The wine community here is incredible. Everything is done on a handshake and everyone wants to help each other succeed. It’s a very special place.
As for our varieties, we choose Riesling, Cayuga (for our sparkling wine), Sauvignon Blanc if the weather allows, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. For the reds we have Cabernet Franc first and foremost, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Lemberger and Cabernet Sauvignon.
WT: What has been the best wine/vintage under your ownership?
JD: Well, the 2014 Riesling solidified our blend of three different vineyards. The percentages may change each year, but we found the combination of these three is what works best for the style of dry Riesling we’re looking to make. 2010 was also a good year for reds, as were 2012 and 2016. In fact, in 2016 our Cab Franc and Cab Sauv blend was our number one seller – we moved a lot of that wine!
WT: What advice would you give those traveling to the region for wine tasting?
JD: Well, there are so many choices! It would take at least two to three weeks to hit all the wineries. So, I would say to look at the style of wines you like and decide on the wineries you’ll visit accordingly. And also, I’d suggest knowing the hours of operation while you’re planning. Many of the wineries will close between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. so if you’re planning to visit two or three wineries, you’ll need to plan your schedule in advance.
WT: Describe a tasting at JR Dill. What can a visitor expect?
JD: We’re a very laidback group and want our tastings to be friendly and casual. Tastings are done at the bar where you an see the production room through the back window. We offer five tastes for $5, or free with the purchase of a bottle. There’s no pressure to buy anything or try wines you’re not interested in, but we do encourage people to keep an open mind – it’s what tastings are for.
We also have some news. This summer we’ll be offering a special tasting and blending experience. For groups of six to 10, we’ll set a time aside in the morning where the group can taste from three different tanks of Riesling and then create a unique blend of their own to bottle and take home.
WT: Do you have a wine club or offer sales to the public?
JD: We do. It’s not an auto-ship club. Once you purchase a case, you’re considered a member and receive member pricing and benefits. You only purchase the wines you want, when you want. Members receive free tastings and discounts, as well as the opportunity to participate in three member events per year.
WT: And finally, are you also a Winetraveler? If so, what’s your favorite destination outside of home?
JD: Well, I’m not a Winetraveler per se, but I do usually find wine where ever I go. So maybe I’m a subconscious Winetraveler! In terms of wine destinations, I very much enjoyed seeing behind the scenes in Champagne, Tuscany was beautiful and Temecula, California was fun; but if I had to pick, Sonoma would be my favorite. I love the casual and easy pace, the dry reds and the beauty.
It was a pleasure to get to know Jeff Dill and experience the hospitality and passion evident at his winery and in the wines. If you’re in the Finger Lakes and on the east side of Seneca Lake, make sure to stop in and say hi. For hours and additional information click here.