By Carlo DeVito
J. Stephen Casscles was recognized as some of Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2018 and on that occasion Steve shared some of his experience with growing hybrid grapes, rediscovering old grapes varieties and creating new ones.
When did you first learn of hybrids?
I first learned of French- American hybrids working at Benmarl Vineyards, in Marlboro, NY from Mark and Dene Miller and especially from Eric Miller and Kim Miller, their sons. I started working at Benmarl when I was in 8th grade, (1975). The red varieties that we grew then were Baco Noir, Chancellor, DeChaunac, Chelois, Foch, and Leon Millot. They grew such white varieties as Seyval Blanc, Vidal, Vignoles, and Verdelet, Villard Blanc, and Riesling.
After becoming interested in growing hybrids and making wines, I traveled in the late 1970s and early 1980s to meet and talk to many leaders of the eastern wine industry like Philip Wager, Walter Taylor, Bill Wagner, the Christie’s of Dunkirk, Doug Moorehead,, the Knapps, Art and Joyce Hunt, and Lee Miller (Eric’s wife) and Mark and Dene Miller.
I had visited their wineries after they had just set them up in the late 1970s,as well as Hudson Valley winemakers like Bill Whetmore (of Cascade Mountain), Ceasre Beaza (of Botherhood Winery), and many more. I also got to meet Leon Adams when he was touring the eastern US for his book Wines of America. After publishing my book, I finally got the opportunity to meet and work with Lucie Morton. In fact, she brought my book as gift to Pierre Galet on his 80th birthday. This is one reason that I wrote the book (Grapes of the Hudson Valley) to memorialize the work and stories of those people and grapes. As a young man, I was there at the birth of the eastern wine industry.
Did you have a mentor or someone who inspire you?
My biggest mentors were Eric Miller formerly of Benmarl Winery and Chaddsford Winery, and Ceasar Beaza of Brotherhood Winery.
Where did you get some of the obscure vines you have recovered?
Most of the varieties I got from cuttings from Benmarl or from the facility at Geneva, NY. Also some from Philip Wagner.
You have written about Hudson Valley hybridizers…are there any other region’s grapes that interest you?
When I was writing the book on Cool Climate grapes, it was initially to be only French-American hybrids, but it got expanded to include other groups of hybrids such as those of Minnesota and Cornell. I also learned of the many hybridizers who worked in the Hudson Valley, such as Ricketts, Caywood (who lived and did his hybridizing work at Benmarl, in Marlboro), the Underhills, and Grant. In the 1850s to 1880s, the Hudson Valley was a hot bed for grape hybridizers. So I learned of these varieties and now grow them. They are great grapes in the field and in the cellar. I grew grapes such as Jefferson, Empire State, Croton, Bacchus, Dutchess, I have been promoting those varieties ever since. Also, I am writing a new book on grapes developed in New England, especially by E. S. Rogers of Salem, MA. (1824-1899). I grow those as well, which have more of a Muscat influence.
I am also about done with a book on the Prince Family of Flushing NY and the Linnaean Botanic gardens. (1720-1869). They brought in most of the grape varieties from Europe and ornamental plant material from East and Northeast Asia and Europe. They were a fascinating family that had a long lived influence on American horticulture.
Are you developing your own hybrids?
I have been breeding my own hybrids. Not very scientific, they are all chance seedlings that I found in my compost pile after placing skins and seeds from my wine making hobby. I selected them based on if they grew strong, had an upright growth habit (ie. they had more vinifera attributes and genetic ancestry), and their leaf pattern. After setting them out in the field, I evaluated them for growing and wine making.
I have named three of them: Palmer (my father’s middle name) that is a deep rich red like a Malbec; Annie Noir (for my great grandmother, she had a hard life, so wanted to name something for her) that is a productive and good for Rose wines, with soft cherry and strawberry flavors; and Lynwood, (for my grandfather of Charlottsville Virginia and West Palm Beach who moved the valley in 1917), which produces more of a Gamay Noir kind of a wine. I am working on a new grape that I call “Mystery Red” which is a clone or hybrid of Le Colonel.
I am also dedicated it to identifying “new” hybrids that had been developed in France and the eastern United States from 1850 to 1920 and reintroducing them. I have identified several that should be planted by eastern growers and those in Asia. They are Le Colonel, Burdin 6055, Burdin 11402, Humbert #3, and propagating the Wagner clone of Leon Millot. I am also working on evaluating white wine grapes such as Burdin 4672, S. 10.868, and others.
You have your own vineyards….how many different grape varieties do you have in your vineyard?
At my farm Cedar Cliff in Athens, NY I grow about 75 different varieties that I am evaluating. I am looking to secure and grow some hybrids that were developed in Korea. Korea has a very similar growing climate as the Hudson Valley. The wines made there are quite good. They also grow grapes that are common on the east coast of the U.S. like Campbell Early, Delaware, Verdelet.