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Hudson Valley Wine In Pursuit of Excellence


New Pioneers Lay Foundation of Excellence in Americas Oldest Wine Region

By Carlo DeVito

Hudson Rivershed Map by Karl Musser, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Hudson Valley, New York has long been a hotbed for innovation in American wine. Not only is it the home of Brotherhood, the oldest continually operating winery in America, but it is also home to the oldest continually operating vineyards in North America with the old Caywood Vineyards at Benmarl Winery.

The region, in modern times, also spawned the first ever Farm Winery in the US (Benmarl), the first Farm Distillery (Tuthilltown), and the first farm brewery (S&S Brewing), and farm cidery (Nine Pin Cider)! Through organizations like the Hudson Valley Wine Country (which has sponsored tastings for media) and the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Growers Association (growing, winemaking, best practices), Hudson Valley wines have advanced in an amazing way over that last 7 or so years.

The region was originally formed by the Wisconsin ice sheet, which creased the valley with the trench that became the Hudson River, as it withdrew across the northeast. Being a tidal river (the water rises and falls twice a day with the tide all the way up to Albany) the warm and cold waters offer hundreds of small micro climates in one of the most bountiful and fertile growing farm regions in the US. Peaches, apples, and grapes are grown in huge abundance.

John Graziano
John Graziano

Here, there are artisans at work. First among them is John Graziano, of Millbrook Vineyards & Winery. Nestled in the rolling hills of Dutchess County, and long considered the jewel of the Hudson Valley (owned by John Dyson, who also owns William-Selyam), the winery has earned honor after honor, and is known for its famous Tocai Fruiliano, its delicate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc. They were the first commercial winery to plant solely vinifera and make it work in the Hudson Valley, and their efforts have paid off. 

Cornell was indispensable in helping to identify rootstocks and the clones appropriate for the region. Millbrook now makes 3,000 cases of the Tocai Fruliano alone, with even more vineyard space planted to that variety. Graziano is among the quietest winemakers one will ever encounter, that is unless you ask him for help.  Many of the new wave of vineyard owners have consulted with him, and he has freely and graciously shared information without hesitation. He is the foremost winemaker in the region and is highly respected.

Michael Migliore
Michael Migliore

Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery is owned by Michael and Yancey Migliore. Michael has long been the visionary of the valley, and has been instrumental in helping it transform from a sleepy viticultural backwater, into one of the most dynamic and rising regions in the state. He has helped organize classes for local growers with the help of Cornell University to improve growing techniques and knowledge.

Migliore also championed “best practices” for vineyard management, organizing classes in recognizing bud damage, leaf pulling, cluster thinning, and specific pest management systems, as well as helping many winery owners come into compliance with DEC codes for waste water management. He and Cornell also pushed for and received a grant to implement micro weather stations up and down the valley to better understand the climate of the region. With Cornell’s help, Migliore championed the growing of more vinefera in the valley. Migliore (with winemaker Brad Martz) has crafted Riesling and Gamay Noir that have won awards and notices from around the world, and have been featured in numerous publications around the country. Using personal funds and state grants Whitecliff established the second largest vinifera vineyard in the region, with consulting from Cornell, which is now in Columbia County, on the banks of the river itself.

“Ten years from now, I think the valley will be known for quality wines of uniform style and consistency. And I think the valley will be a major wine and food destination, like Napa Valley or the Willamette valley in Oregon,” said Migliore in an interview. “There will be one Hudson Valley not several trails. I think there are a lot of similarities with the Hudson Valley and the Hunter Valley outside Sydney, Australia. The Hunter Valley is a fertile growing region just outside a major city. Our Valleys have a lot in common.”

Matt Spacarelli
Matt Spacarelli

Matt Spacarelli of Benmarl Winery is another innovator. At Benmarl which houses the oldest continuously operating vineyards in North America, Spacarelli has transformed the winery that was once famous for hybrids, and issued a series of blends and vinifers wines that have achieved scores of 90 or more. Their Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnays are highly coveted. He also makes another series of award winning wines at Fjord Vineyards also in the Hudson Valley. At Benmarl, Spacarelli ripped out all the old tanks and installed newer equipment for their press pad and tanks, and instituted a new barrel program in the cellar. In both instances, he incorporated much of the winemaking practices put forward by Cornell enology professors to improve the quality of his wines, combining them with information from winemakers in the Finger Lakes and Long Island.

 “We are not focused solely on quality and consistency, but also on progression. Our environment is consistently changing. Global warming is creating new challenges as well as opening doors to opportunities that were never there before. New technologies and winemaking practices are aiding us in crafting exceptional wines while at the same time, allowing us to address issues of sustainability. The decisions that we make today will inevitably shape the environment we will have to work in down the road. This is not only a challenge, but a responsibility.” Spacarelli was also an innovator by housing a flock of sheep which mow his vineyards naturally, and in an effort to reduce the winery’s carbon foot print.

Bruce Tripp, winemaker at Milea Vineyards, with the encouragement of Migliore and Spacarelli, has begun a series of regional in-process tasting panels, where valley winemakers can gather monthly to taste each other’s wines in a double blind situation, and discuss winemaking techniques, faults, and cures, to improve the overall quality of winemaking in the region, and bring more consistency of product.

Stephen Casscles
Stephen Casscles

Last but certainly not least is Stephen J. Casscles of Hudson-Chatham Winery. His wines have been reviewed on NPR, received 90+ scores, and have been featured in Forbes and many other magazines. He has been an authority on statewide winemaking issues for two decades and was instrumental in helping overturn the ban on growing currants in the state. Most unique about Casscles is that he is a champion of the old hybrids generally discarded by many. He is a published grape historian (The Grapes of the Hudson Valley – which can be found in the libraries of Cornell, Harvard, and Yale) and has been responsible for reviving many long since discarded varieties. “The Hudson Valley indeed holds a special place in our nation’s viticultural history, as it was here that some of the nation’s most noted grape breeders and viticulturalists cultivated and experimented with native and European grape varieties.” His Baco Noirs and Chelois have received universal praise, and are on wine lists from the Culinary Institute to New York City. He has revived at least three varieties for commercial production. These varieties are cold hardy, require less spray management, and produce award winning wines. As a result of Casscles efforts, Cornell has begun to examine some older, discarded hybrid varieties for reconsideration.

With winemakers this impassioned, it is no wonder that the Hudson Valley’s wine reputation have sky rocketed in recent years. Travel numbers are up greatly, and sales are more robust than ever. There was never a better time to explore the wines of the Hudson Valley.

Additional wineries to consider for a taste of quality Hudson Valley wines:

This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.

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  1. great article Carlo! i can attest to the quality of the Hudson Valley wine scene, as i have recently purchased and tasted my first Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir and Leon Millot now being a BIG fan of these hybrid grapes! there is a lot of exciting winemaking going on in the east coast and it will not be long before the rest of this country and wine world will discover something new!


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