Carlo DeVito works as a publisher and editor in New York City, is the author of several books, including East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia (Rutgers U. Press, 2004), maintains a few blogs, principal among them is East Coast Wineries, and commutes home every day to Ghent, NY, where his winery and vineyard are located. Carlo is clearly a very busy man as well as a humorous one. Visit his blog and read his post for March 16: The Difference Between Beer People and Wine People . . . especially here on the East Coast.” It’s about dogs, too, but read the post for yourself. Another of his blogs is Hudson River Valley Wineries, which Carlo uses to publicize the sagas, tales, wines, and personalities of the region.
Hudson-Chatham Winery, in Ghent, NY (in Columbia County, to the east of the Hudson River) was established in 2007, soon after Carlo and Dominique, his wife, purchased the property—the last fifteen acres of what was once a 500-acre dairy farm—that had been left fallow for more than twenty years. The couple had been in search of a property with which they could realize the dream of having a winery and vineyard, and after a long and extended tour of parts of the East Coast, they had found what they wanted. One of Carlo’s criteria for the location was that it be in what was already an established winegrowing community. As he pointed out, in the wine trade, at least in the East, people aren’t cutthroat competitors but rather cooperative and helpful ones. After all, virtually all of the wineries of the Hudson River Region are very small operations. They all need one another. That mattered a great deal to Carlo.
So, in early 2007 they planted a small vineyard, then barely three acres in size. They also started the renovation of a 1780 farmhouse that had a long history, had character, and was in considerable disrepair. They had never owned a farm before, much less planted a vineyard or run a winery. Despite repeated warnings about the problems and difficulties of running such an establishment, Carlo persisted and Dominique, despite considerable doubts, joined him as a partner in the crime. Actually, Carlo was doubting his own sanity all along, but this, after all, had been an obsession of his for all of his adult life. (That obsession may well have been what was behind his writing his book on East Coast wineries, published three years before they bought the property.)
Carlo already knew that there were certain varieties that he want to plant and grow. They included Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, and Chambourcin—all French-American hybrids. The long-term plan was to first plant the hybrid varieties and over time introduce some vinifera as well. The first thousand stalks that they purchased were Seyval, DeChaunac, Chancellor, and Golden Muscat. In order to plant them they first had to rip the soil to a depth of about two to three feet in order to break up the hardpan. The soil was analyzed by both the Cornell-run Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY, and by Rutgers, in New Jersey. Both recommended adding lime to the soil to bring the soil to a pH that was good for the vines. The hybrids were vines that had good resistance to the harsh winters of the region, as well as tolerance for the high summer humidity. In the end, as Carlo said, “the vines even weathered us and all our mistakes.” (Sadly, that wasn’t true of the Muscats that were planted—they wanted warmer climes.)
Soon after they’d started the vineyard, he had the great good fortune to meet Steve Casscles, who has two vineyard of his own and grows some obscure heirloom varieties. Chatham-Hudson presently buys the entire production of Steve’s vineyards for its table-wine grapes. As a result, Hudson-Chatham has also helped bring back Chelois—Steve is the winemaker, after all—along with Léon Millot and Dutchess—hybrids all. Another vineyard, managed by the winery, in Kinderhook grows grapes to go into its Port and Sherry-style fortified wines. Yet another plot in Central New York provides most of the old-vine Baco Noir for the winery.
Meanwhile, Carlo is planting his own vineyard to Seyval Blanc, Chelois, and Baco Noir with the idea that eventually most if not all of the wines will be estate-produced. This is being phased in over time as production increases. By the end of Spring 2014 there will be 5 ½ to 6 acres planted to vines, with Baco Noir making up a third of that, and Chelois another third. In time some vinifera varieties will be grown as well, such as Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and even Gamay. Carlo would like to grow Pinot Noir as well, but doesn’t believe that it would thrive on his site, but he may purchase fruit from a vineyard in Columbia County further south and close to the River.
In fact, the winery buys its Cabernet Franc from Long Island, and it makes a “Burgundy-style” wine—actually a lighter kind of red wine than is usual for the variety. Indeed, Carlo prefers the lighter Burgundy style for all his reds, regardless of the variety. So Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, and other varieties that make heavier, bigger wines will not be part of the winery portfolio.
The predominant spacing in the vineyard is 8 ½ feet across by 6 between the vines; with vinifera it will be 8 feet by 4. Lucie Morton and others have demonstrated great success with the closer spacing of the vines—more vines per acre but less fruit on each vine by means of green harvesting. The resultant fruit is really fantastic. For now, all the trellising in the vineyard is VSP, though Greg Esch, the new vineyard manager, has some ideas about using different trellises for the newer varieties that will be planted. In fact, according to Carlo, there are issues with some of the hybrids. For example, Baco Noir “has some riparia in it so that it tends to grow kind of wild pretty quickly,” whereas Seyval Blanc has more vinifera in its genes and grows straight up and develops a nice fruiting zone. Baco grows in every possible direction so that it needs a good deal of hands-on attention. Clearly, the Baco is a candidate for another kind of trellis than VSP, whereas Seyval works very well with it. The same will be true of the Chelois.
According to Carlo, shale and river rock predominate in the schisty soil of the property.
With respect to sustainable practices in the vineyard, Carlo pointed out that his is a family farm, which is to say that his wife, his children, his pets, and he like to walk the property, including in the vines. Furthermore, there’s a pond nearby with brook trout; “If I leach, there are a lot of dead fish across the street.” He therefore uses inputs in the field as lightly as possible, including copper and sulfur. He wants his family to stay healthy, the trout to live, and the vines to thrive, so he is very careful with what he uses. He is not seeking to become organic, it’s too difficult to do successfully where he is. Just as close to it as possible.
Since Greg has come on board there’s been a great deal more leaf-pulling, hedging than before, resulting in a much better crop without requiring additional inputs. That wasn’t just because of the weather, as it also had to do with using netting for the first time (to protect the grapes from birds), and employing a number of other “best practices.” It was really a matter of not having the hands available to do that kind of work before this, and what Greg has done has yielded immediate results. Still, there are pest pressures all the time, if not from birds then from deer and groundhogs. Dogs and cats are useful here. We discussed chickens as a possible means of controlling insects, but for a long time there were too many foxes. Now the foxes seem to have disappeared and the groundhog population has exploded. At least now chickens are again a possibility.
It should be noted that for such a new micro-winery as Hudson-Chatham the results that it achieves in competitions is remarkable. In last year’s (2013) Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition, its 2010 Merlot Reserve won both a Double Gold and Best in Show. That wine and the 2007 Merlot were both made from Long Island fruit (Merlot grows very well there), and the 2007 won the highest score of any Hudson Valley-made red: 85 points. That certainly reflects the outstanding winemaking skills of Steve Casscles. Other wines include Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, also made from Long Island grapes, and a Riesling the fruit of which was sourced from the Finger Lakes. The Hudson RIver vineyards that provide fruit to the winery include Casscles Vineyard in Athens (14 acres across the river), Casscles MIddlehope, near Marlboro (4 acres, also across the river), Kinderhook AC Vineyard (1 acre in Columbia County), Masson Place Vineyard at Pultney Farm, near Hammondsport (5 acres, Lake Keuka in the Finger Lakes), and the estate vineyard, North Creek, located at the winery.
More recently, the March 2017 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine rated the 2014 Middlehope Casscles Vineyard Baco Noir (Hudson River Region) at 91 points, referring to its “surprising depth and complexity.” It awarded 90 points to the 2014 Columbia County Pinot Noir (Hudson River Region) for its “complexity . . . and neatly balanced yet silken palate.” The 2014 Old Vines Masson Place Vineyard Pulteney Farm Baco Noir won 88 points as did the 2014 Reserve Casscles Vineyard Baco Noir. The 2014 Casscles Chelois got 87 points–all highly respectable to excellent ratings for the outstanding 2014 vintage.
Hudson Valley grapes are used for all the hybrid-based wines. Two different Seyval Blancs—one of which is estate-bottled; one called Salmagundi, a blush wine made from Vidal Blanc and DeChaunac; a Baco Noir Reserve Casscles Vineyards and a Baco Noir made from 60-year-old vines from Mason Place Vineyards at Putney Farms; and a Casscels Vineyards Chelois. One wine, the Empire, is what the winery calls a New York State super-blend, which claims to be the first wine made from grapes from all three AVAs of the Empire State: Merlot from LI, Cab Franc from the Finger Lakes, and Hudson Valley Baco Noir. Many of these have also won awards, including gold medals from the NY State Fair, Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Association, NY Food & Wine Classic, and the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, among others. It has been positively reviewed by Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Edible Manhattan, Hudson Valley Wine magazine, Hudson Valley Magazine,Hudson Valley Table, Rural Intelligence, and All Over Albany.
It should be pointed out that the Merlot and Empire wines are the only ones that have the body and weight of Bordeaux reds, the others are all done with the heft of Burgundies, which is to say, lighter in body.
The tasting room is a cozy, attractive space where interesting events can happen, such as a vertical tasting of Chelois. On a Saturday in March they served a 2013 out of the barrel, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2000, and 1987. I’d no idea about Chelois, but I certainly do now, and in fact I bought a couple of bottles of the 2010. A fascinating range of aromas, flavors, color, and structure, and who would have believed that Chelois could age and last as well as it did? Vertical tastings of the Empire blend and the Merlot are planned as well. For only $25, a reservation to one of these events is well worth while, for they are both instructive and very enjoyable. Not too many wineries offer verticals, to my knowledge.
In July 2015 Hudson-Chatham opened a satellite tasting room across the Hudson River in Tannersville, which is in Greene County. It’s NNW of Kingston and accessible from the NY State Thruway, taking the Saugerties exit: 6036 Main Street, phone (518) 589-4193. It’s a tribute to the success of the winery that a satellite was even possible. In 2017 a new tasting room was opened in Troy, at 203 River St. It’s open Tuesdays through Sundays. Such is the success of Hudson Chatham’s wines. Perhaps, in the near future, they’ll open one in Kingston. (One can only hope.)
In a press release of May 8, 2020, Hudson-Chatham Winery, one of the notable New York State and Hudson Valley quality wine producers, announced that it has been sold to Steven Rosario and Justen Nickell of Boston, MA. The press release goes on to say:
“We are thrilled to have Justen and Steven assume stewardship of this historic farm that is now the winery,” said Carlo. “They have the desire and the know-how to take the winery to the next level. Both are successful food professionals and have a true passion for great wine and fine food.”
“When you can turn your dream over to people who share your passion,” Dominique added, “everyone wins. Steven and Justen love what Hudson-Chatham is about – the wines, of course, but also the experience.”
Steven and Justen are both graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. Both have been executives at the high-end, Boston-based baker and purveyor, Tatte. For Steven, former General Manager at Tatte Pier 4, who was born in the Hudson Valley, this is a return home to his roots. He will be taking over day-to-day responsibilities. Justen will maintain his fulltime position with Tatte. Both have extensive experience in fine food and retail.
Nickell and Rosario will take over the day-to-day operations of the winery in Ghent and the two satellite locations in Tannersville and Troy, NY. Bryan VanDeusen will remain as General Manager and winemaker, and celebrated grape historian Stephen Casscles (author of Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions) will remain as a grower and advising winemaker, as well.
So, while it is sad that Carlo and Dominique are no longer running Hudson-Chatham, they now can pursue other interests and we shall trust that the wines will continue to be outstanding, given that both Bryan and Stephen will remain on board, and we may well see some innovations in the tasting room and perhaps the vineyard as well. Always go forward!
The Hudson River Region has three wine trails, of which two are on the East side of the river and one on the West. The western one is the Shawangunk, of which Whitecliff Vineyards is one of the wineries on the trail, which has the oldest continually-operating winery in the United States, now known as Brotherhood Winery. Located in Gardiner, NY, Whitecliff is easy to get to from the New York Thruway at exit 18, at New Paltz, where the earliest vinifera vines in the valley were planted in 1673—unsuccessfully—as they knew nothing then about pests like the devastating root louse, Phylloxera. Today winegrowers know plenty about vine pests and diseases, and the Valley now has dozens of successful wine-grape vineyards planted to both hybrid and vinifera varieties.
Whitecliff is a family-owned, award-winning winery and vineyard with 20 varieties currently planted. Many are experimental, but the production wines include both vinifera varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Riesling, and hybrids like Seyval, Marquette, and Vignoles. Red, white, pink, and sparkling wines are made from these and other grapes. The owners are Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore.
As of 2018 Whitecliff has one of the largest vineyards in the Hudson River region. Its 32 acres are primarily in Gardiner, with six additional acres now established on the eastern bank of the river in Hudson. Focused on Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, their vineyards serve as the foundation for a 6,500-case annual wine production. Of the varieties on the 32 acres of vineyard in Gardiner there is a roughly a fifty-fifty balance of vinifera and hybrids. The experimental varieties may have just a row or two of vines. All the varieties are Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) trained, which is a standard system for vinifera vines. Other vineyards in the Valley may use high wire for their hybrids, but at the time of harvest it’s really difficult, as one has to “fight through this jungle of leaves and tendrils and shoots” in order to get at the grapes. Using VSP with the hybrid varieties doesn’t really have much of a downside, given that the ones grown here are all pretty tame, like Traminette, Noiret, and so on. They have pretty restrictive soil, so there isn’t too much vigor and VSP helps manages it well. The soil is composed of clay of three different types: Churchville soil, which is a heavy clay, Castile, and Cayuga. The latter two have more sand and are sandy loams, more like the soils in Long Island. Cayuga soil has larger stones, small gravel, and affords good drainage and runs down from the top of the hill, where the Castile and Cayuga soils appear on either side of the winery at the base. This was once a flood plain for the Wisconsin Era glacial melting. There’s visible evidence of washout and conglomerate rock from the glacial action. The acidity is naturally at about 5.6 pH so every other year lime has to be added to the soil so that the acidity is kept at about 6.5-6.6, which is pretty basic. Also typical of the soils of the Hudson Valley is a deficiency of phosphorus. That’s another reason that one has to get into the soil and really work it, because added phosphorus is not mobile. It can’t just be spread it on the ground in the expectation that it will get down to the roots on its own.
Michael is an organic chemist by both degree and experience; he spent years at IBM working on projects involving optical lithography among other things. He planted the vineyard one year after he started working at IBM in 1978, so it took a long time to grow it to what it is today. They originally purchased eighteen acres of land and later on added another fifty acres. The vineyard was started by planting a one-and-a-half acre plot and another three-acre plot. They now have twenty-six acres under vines. It is now one of the largest vineyards in the Valley. He and his wife Yancey opened the winery when he was still working for IBM in 1999, offering wines from the 1998 harvest. For years before that they had sold their fruit to other wineries until they finally had their own facility.
Michael’s prowess in both the cellar and in the vineyard is such that he not only has won awards but is also the role model for other wineries in the region. Indeed, he is also the current president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association.
The Vineyard plots sit in clear proximity of the Shawangunk Cliffs–the most important rock-climbing site on the East Coast–hence the name of the vineyards. The vines are planted about 4’ 6” to 5’ apart, and about 6’ for the Seyval–even that could be brought down to 5 feet. As Michael says, “If there’s anything that I’ve learned in thirty-six years of growing grapes, it’s that closer planting is better.” The rows are 9 feet apart but with replanting that may change over time.
Among red varieties Whitecliff has about an acre and a quarter of Pinot Noir, some of which is used for the sparkling wine, which has a cuvée that is 40% Pinot and 60% Chardonnay. Some goes into the sparkling rosé, which is 100% Pinot Noir. The rest goes into the still wine. It does well on the site, planted on a south-facing hillside with good drainage that seems ideally suited for the variety. They also grow Cabernet Franc and Merlot as well as some hybrids such as Noiret and Marquette.
There are roughly an acre-and-a-half each of the Pinot Noir and Cab Franc at 4’ 6” spacing, which is good for the soil in which they are planted. The other big red-wine grape here is Gamay Noir—in fact, Whitecliff is one of only two vineyards in the state that grow that grape. In fact, Michael thinks that this is more of a Burgundian than a Bordeaux-like climate in that Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cab Franc, and Chardonnay all do well here. There is also a small plot of Merlot but no Cabernet Sauvignon, which just doesn’t do well here due to the short growing season.
On the other hand, Riesling thrives at the vineyard. With respect to Rieslings from the Finger Lakes or Long Island, Michael finds that when they bring them in they lack acidity, so they have to add Whitecliff Riesling to give it some backbone, then it’s really good. There is one acre of Riesling as well as three acres of Traminette, Another three acres are planted with Chardonnay.
The Gewürztraminer x Joannes Seyvel 23.416 hybrid, Traminette, was released by Cornell, but it had been developed in Illinois by the hybridizer Herb Barrett in 1965. For Michael, Traminette is a great success story. Though he has both the Traminette and Gewürz planted in his vineyard, he finds the former easier to grow. It’s yields are higher, it’s less prone to disease, it’s more cold hardy. It has the core of the Gewürztraminer characteristics: lychee and rose aromas and flavors. Gewürz is more of a challenge to the winegrower in order to get the full range of flavors that it can offer. It needs to hang longer for fuller ripeness, but the more time it spends on the vine, the more prone it is to rot, for example. Now the Migliores have embarked on a new 75% Traminette-25% Gewürz blend called White Rose. The reason that Whitecliff doesn’t produce a Gewürz varietal is that the quantity grown presently doesn’t yield enough to reach a hundred cases, which is the minimum that they want for any of their wines. In truth, White Rose is a field blend—something that they’ve never done before. The Gewürz is added to the Traminette to bring up the blend’s flavor profile.
While they do use machinery for spraying, all the other field work is done by hand. They don’t need to use a curtain or recycling sprayer here because drip is not a problem with the neighbors so far away. The tower sprayer is more than adequate for the work that has to be done in the vineyard. At Whitecliff they try to follow an Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), but they are not organic or Biodynamic. They deeply care about the environment and use as much of the organic inputs as possible, including copper and lime and phosphoric acid (about which there is a debate about whether or not it can be considered part of a certified organic program. They try to use minimal spray inputs and are constantly monitoring what they use. If a sprayer is fully loaded and taken into the field it can be worked all day, but the cost comes to about $500 to $600 each time, so obviously there’s no incentive to spray too much. The idea is to spray before any fungi or insects can take hold of a field, a kind of prophylactic treatment. Once anything takes hold, it is far more difficult and expensive to get it under control. Besides that, the winery needs to keep a lookout for new pesticides that might be more effective than what it currently is using. (One reason for this is that organisms that survive a toxic application will beget resistant offspring. This is now a big problem in New York due to so much overuse.) Basically, the spray schedule for the season is from ten to fourteen days of spraying. They’ve done well so far, as they’ve not had any major breakouts in the vineyard.
Another problem with spraying is that many vineyard managers think that sprays contain systemic chemicals, which is to say that they remain in the plants and do not wash away in the rain, and they’re wrong. There are only a couple of them that are systemic, the rest need to be resprayed after a rain. Furthermore, as Michael says, “once or twice in every ten years you are going to have to use non-organic sprays because this isn’t the Napa Valley, it isn’t a desert; this is where it’s cold and damp.” All of which adds to the disease pressure. Last summer there was a great deal of rain. When a New York vineyard is hit by a lot of rain, it must be put on a seven-day spray schedule to save the crop and one doesn’t have much choice in terms of what must be sprayed. Copper, which is approved for organic farming, is an important input that gives excellent results, but over time it accumulates in the soil and is toxic, so one may have an organic farm but under these circumstances, but ironically, not be sustainable.
About disease pressure, Michael says that “Among the diseases that most press on the vineyard is Downy Mildew, which rears its ugly head every July. The next is Powdery Mildew, and then there’s Botrytis, which comes in at the end of the season. Black rot is another disease to reckon with, so it needs to be sprayed assiduously, and that includes the mummies that may be clinging to the canopy, where they can sporelate.”
The thing that Michael stresses about spraying is that the vineyard needs constant vigilance to always be ready to spray when needed.
It is because of Michael’s background as a chemist and years of experience with the high tech of IBM that he eventually invested in a state-of-the-art winery: a large, open structure built in 2011—the building could, in his words, also be called “an above-ground cellar.” It uses geothermal heating and cooling, costing about one-third of what it would be if doing it any other way. There are also supplemental heat exchangers that can also cool it off or heat it up. The heating comes up through the floor. This takes care of a space that is forty by eighty, or thirty-two hundred square feet. In addition, they have a fifteen by eighty-foot covered pad in the back, which though it has a roof, remains exposed to the outside.
Another way in which the winery is efficient is in using the glycol for the air conditioning for the cooling jackets for the fermentation tanks. When using the air conditioning for cooling the building, they use the extracted heat for their hot water. The winery is already oriented to the south so that if they install solar panels the energy use will be a net-neutral system. (Perhaps at that point Whitecliff will even have a surplus that can be sold back to the grid.)
According to Michael, the system that’s in place cost about 30% more than one using a standard energy system, but because so much energy is saved the RTO is about seven years.
With respect to Michael’s philosophy about winegrowing, he sums it up in one word: “Quality.” In his case this means that the first thing he looks for is quality in the grapes that they’re going to harvest. For Whitecliff, when they bring good fruit into the winery the winemaker’s first obligation is to “not screw it up. Work with what is given and the rest is very simple.” They look for a balanced wine, so if necessary they will chaptalize if the Brix isn’t high enough. If a wine is too thin or too acidic, they will take the necessary measures to bring the wine into balance. Given that this is not Napa Valley, and it’s a cold climate, and no two vintages are the same, adjustments of this kind will have to be made from time to time. Because of this, it is very challenging for the winemaker, and as far as Michael is concerned, if a winemaker can make good wine in the East, he or she will certainly succeed in Australia or California and have a much easier time of it.
When it comes time to harvest the crop, they typically bring in about ten people to help out. They also handle the fruit in other vineyards, so the crew can be kept busy for a number of days. In some cases they will work in a vineyard from which Whitecliff buys fruit—the owner may have a small crew and they supply the rest of the pickers. It’s all done by agreement.
In the winters of 2013 and 2014 deep freezes seriously damaged the Gamay Noir vines so Whitecliff has now purchased a six-acre plot on the East side of the Hudson near the foot of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and just below the hills of Olana, Frederick Church’s legendary home. Records indicate that this particular plot does not freeze, in good part because it enjoys the “river effect” where large bodies of water ameliorate the climate. The vines are being planted and should be productive in a couple of years or so.
When they harvest, they drop the grapes into lugs that they then bring to the crush pad and deposit them in macro-bins capable of holding about 1,200 pounds, and then do as much gravity-fed processing as possible. The crusher sits directly over the press so that there’s no need for pumping the white grapes. One thing that they do at Whitecliff that is different from what is done by most other East Coast wineries, is not to use gravity settling for its whites, but instead use flotation clearing. This began with their 2009 Riesling, which subsequently won a Double-Gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition. (More about this below.)
In Germany this floation process, called Floatclear, is widely used. After crushing winemakers add enzymes to the juice, then run it through a centrifugal pump and bleed in nitrogen at a 6-bar pressure at a rate of four liters a minute. This results in nitrogen bubbles in the juice adhering to the particulate matter in it, which floats up to the top of the tank instead of letting the particles settle to the bottom. It greatly speeds up the process of clearing the wine prior to fermentation, because they can clarify about 3,000 liters an hour: in an hour-and-a-half they can finish a whole tank of juice to be ready for the yeast to be added, instead of having to wait about 24 hours or so for the settling to take place on its own. Also, the normal loss [of juice] is about five to ten percent when using gravity for clearing the juice as opposed to about three percent with this process.
As Michael said, “The result is so much cleaner, much better–we’re so glad that we’ve gone down this path that they can’t believe that not everybody is using it. Not only that, but just think of the energy that’s involved in cooling the tank for twenty-four hours, then bringing it back up to a temperature where you can get the fermentation started. It’s a brilliant tool. We’re one of the first in the state to adopt it. I know that some up in the Finger Lakes are doing it but I don’t know of anyone out in Long Island that’s doing it right now.”
Whitecliff has recently undergone several changes to its processing. For one, they’ve gone to synthetic corks for the whites. Screw caps, the other alternative to natural corks, require a capital investment of about $15,000 in machinery. Synthetic corks demand no changes in the equipment used for natural corks. Furthermore, synthetics cost less than natural, on the order of 16 cents versus 26 cents. Screw caps cost about 6 to 7 cents, but the investment up front is very high so that it takes a long time to get back your return on investment. They’re really more suited to larger operations than Whitecliff.
Natural corks allow an ingress of oxygen of about 30 parts per million, whereas synthetic ones allow only five parts. Screw caps had a problem with the barriers that were used for a long time; even today they aren’t recommended for keeping white wine for longer than about two years. Instead, Whitecliff uses a top-of-the-line Nomacorc product that is especially designed to control and limit the transfer of oxygen.
Production this year is about the same as last year—about 7,000 cases. And they want to rebalance their production. That is, “We over-produced on some and under-produced on others.”
Whitecliff’s number-one selling wine is Awosting White, a Vignoles-Seyval Blanc blend. They had hugely boosted production of it, so they overproduced it, so they’ve got to cut back on it. Michael says that, “It’s probably our signature wine. It’s held up well. The production of Traminette is growing, but it’s a problem where it is in that field, which is shielded so doesn’t get any wind. So it tends to get Botrytis and sour rot, too. This is something we’re still trying to figure out.” But this year they decided to harvest it early as a result of an experimental program over the last couple of years, and they’re going to move it into the sparkling wine program.
The winemaker is Brad Martz. He came to Michael after tasting some wines and he asked if they needed any volunteer help. So he helped out in the cellar, and worked with them in the sparkling wine processing. After a couple of years he came on as assistant winemaker. He learned much of what he knows about winemaking on the job at Whitecliff. He also did self-study as well as earning a degree from UC Davis. “We worked together and he learned as we worked,” Michael said of Brad, “The thing about him is that he’s committed, he’s mature, and he has a good intellect and excellent palate.”. Brad joined the firm as winemaker in 2014; he is critical to the final decision of what goes into the bottle of every wine. He believes that it’s better to learn on the job at the winery than to go spend that time earning a degree in winemaking, after which the graduate knows the concepts but not the practice.
So to the extent possible, they try to make natural wines, but they won’t touch ambient yeasts for the most part, so they use yeasts that are commercially available. In Michael’s view, companies have done very well with their yeasts, and he can decide, for example, to cold-ferment Riesling for eight weeks and there will be a yeast to do that. With natural yeasts that cannot be done; one may get the desired result sometimes but at other times one can end up with a stuck fermentation. In fact, once a winery has used a particular yeast for many fermentations, and the pomace is thrown into the fields, then that strain will become the dominant yeast out there, even if it’s not native.
They use gravity feed instead of pumps because if the must goes through a pump connected to a hose at high pressure there is the possibility that there could be sheared seeds that release green tannins. When running the red grapes through the destemmer they remove the rollers because they don’t want to macerate the fruit, so the grapes go into the fermenter as whole berries. The grapes will then initiate an internal carbonic fermentation on their own, and that will release more subtle fruits, which is part of what Whitecliff is after.
On the other hand, it makes punchdown in the tank much more difficult, which is why the winery uses pumpovers. To make sure that seeds are not in the pumpover must the tanks have mesh filters that catch the seeds as they sink to the bottom, so the filter can be removed and the seeds discarded. Thus, if harvest had to take place before there was phenolic maturation, then the green seeds can be removed before they can add a green, harsh character to the wine.
Generally they look for balance and do not seek to make sweet wines, but they make many bench tests, primarily to balance out the acidity, which tends to be high with the sugar on the low side, as the grapes are usually brought in at 20 to 21 Brix. That often means that they have to chaptalize the must. The resulting Riesling then comes in at 1.3% RS.
As an example of Michael’s scrupulous care and attention, before Whitecliff even made a sparkling wine to sell, bench tests were made for six years. The result is North River (a historical name for the Hudson, not just long ago, but even today, when boatmen may refer to the North River along certain spots of the waterway), Whitecliff’s second label for its sparkling wine, which is made in the traditional method, where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle in which the wine will be released. They make a cuvée, a rosé, and a Blanc de Blanc. The cuvée is made up of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Both varieties are estate grown, but from two vineyards, The Pinot is grown here, while the Chardonnay comes from a vineyard on the Hudson in Middle Hope, that Michael owns with a partner, John Hudelson, who’s a professor of oenology and viticulture at Central Washington State University on the West Coast. The New Hope vineyard sits on limestone at the warmest spot on the entire river, so that it never freezes. They do everything at the winery including the second fermentation, the autolysis, riddling, adding the final dosage, and bottling. Whitecliff also getting ready to create another line—“it’s really expanding, and we’re committed.”
One thing that they lack and need is a sorting table. Michael observed that if he had to spend money on new equipment, the $15,000 that a screw-cap bottler would cost could instead go to buy a $10,000 sorting table. That will raise the quality of the wine, whereas a screw-cap will not affect it at all.
Michael went on to point out that “We’re a whole team here, not just Brad and myself. There’s also Santiago—the vineyard manager-cum-factotum—and Paco, who are key parts of the winery. You need people for processing the grapes, help in the vineyard, the cellar . . . cleaning out barrels, all sorts of things. The great thing about Santiago is that I can just tell him, ‘Go do this.’ And he goes and does it, I don’t have to watch to make sure that he does it right.” And it is a family business that involves two other members, Michael’s wife, Yancey, and their son Tristan. Yancey handles marketing and wholesale, keep the books, answers the phones, and so on. They also have a Tasting Room manager, Matt Student. The tasting room is a popular destination for tourists, but, he says, they have little curiosity or interest about what’s going on when they arrive at the winery. Work can be going on at the crush pad and they’ll just walk by without so much as a glance. Michael has had people ask, “When do you harvest the grapes?” Yancey recalls one visitor who saw a bin full of fermenting grapes and asked if they were cranberries.
In other words, visitors don’t see or care about the business side of a winery–the hard work in both vineyard and winery, the technology, etc.–but they clearly love the wine. After all, as one can see, they win prizes. I’d certainly give them a prize for their 2013 Pinot Noir–a light-bodied, red-berries and cherries on the nose and in the mouth, a touch of minerality, light tannins and ready to drink right now. A perfect summer wine and terrific with fowl or fish, as well as roast lamb–a versatile wine indeed! So too the Gamay Noir–it reminds one of Beaujolais (same grape variety) but with earthier flavors. The Traminette is excellent, and though made from a hybrid variety, it has much of the aroma and flavor of Gewürztraminer (one of the parents), albeit toned down a bit. The Riesling is just off-dry but extremely well made. All of their wines, in fact, are honest ones that reflect their terroir and varietal character. In fact, the 2012 Reserve Gamay Noir earned 90 points from the March 2017 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine for its tasty, elegant, sprightly character.
Another thing that is remarkable about their wines was pointed out by a rival winery not far away. That is the fact that their standard wines, Awosting White and and Red Trail are remarkably consistent blends from year to year, a very difficult thing to achieve in a small winery, particularly given the fact that the Hudson Valley is so challenging for winegrowing.
In March 2015 the New York State Wine and Grape Foundation’s Grower of the Year award was given to Michael, which is especially notable given that the preponderance of the state’s wine grapes are grown in the Finger Lakes and Long Island. Last December his Gamay won 90 points from Wine Spectator. Out of over a 4,000 entries in the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition (the largest, most influential international wine competition in America, judged blind by a prestigious panel of nationally recognized wine experts). Whitecliff’s 2009 Riesling won a Double Gold and Best White in Show and other awards have been given for the Reserve Chardonnay and Awosting White. Its 2013 Traminette won a double gold in the 2015 SF International Wine Competition.
In 2018 Whitecliff was awarded a coveted Double Gold Medal from the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition (SFIWC) for its 2016 Cabernet Franc. This makes 2018 a great year for Whitecliff: it marks the beginning of its twentieth year in business, and it began with yet another international Double Gold–for Whitecliff’s Gamay Noir at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. With two international awards for Hudson Valley reds this year, Whitecliff is chipping away at the outdated assumption that New York doesn’t produce great red wines.
This high level of achievement for Whitecliff’s Cabernet Franc, which was made from estate-grown grapes in their home vineyard in Gardiner, will no doubt contribute to recognition of the Valley as a significant producer of this variety. In fact, there is now a Hudson Valley Cabernet Franc Coalition, which has proclaimed the variety to be the signature red-wine grape of the Valley. Whitecliff, of course, has joined the Coalition.
If there are any doubts about whether Hudson Valley wines can age, we can report that Whitecliff’s 2010 Cab Franc, which was opened in 2019, had developed beautifully, with acidity and tannins subdued and well-integrated and aromas and flavors of red and dark fruit dominating. Their Gamay Noir, made from the grape of Beaujolais, was five years old when it was opened and it, too, had developed beautifully. Naturally low in acidity and tannin, it nevertheless offered strawberry and dark cherry aromas and flavors. We paired it with salmon, and it was a happy marriage.
Their Vidal Blanc earned a Double Gold at the Hudson Valley Wine Competition recently. Furthermore, In my own opinion, its barrel-aged Seyval Blanc defies all expectations of what a hybrid varietal should taste like. It tastes like a vinifera, close to Sauvignon Blanc in character. Then Whitecliff wins a Gold for its 2015 Merlot-Malbec blend at the International Eastern Wine Competition. What a track record. It seems that when it come to wine, Whitecliff can do no wrong. Perhaps they should invest in gold stocks, at this rate!
For several years there was a winery called Rivendell that called 714 Albany Post Road in New Paltz home. Then, in 2003, Harry Robibero and his wife Carole purchased the 42-acre property with the hope that someday the winery operation would become theirs. As a matter of fact, the owners of Rivendell, Bob Ransom and Susan Wine, gave notice in 2007 and left the property for a new location.
Harry mentioned this over family dinner one night. “Did you hear? Rivendell is leaving. Do you guys want to start your own winery? Should I look for another tenant?” Tiffany replied, “Let’s do it. Let’s start a winery.” Ryan, then her husband, agreed. So they took a chance and quit their jobs.
Very shortly after, Harry and his family were busy refurbishing and renovating the existing building. In May of 2010, Robibero Family Vineyards opened for business.
When I first visited Robibero shortly after they’d opened and tasted some of their wines I was frankly disappointed. The wines that I tasted, made from purchased fruit, were thin, sharp, and unbalanced. I told them so and did not return for a couple of years. But eventually I did go back and each time thereafter it was evident that the wines were improving, so much so that in 2014 Robibero won a Double Gold for their 2012 Cabernet Franc from fruit sourced from Sheldrake Point in the Finger Lakes, which came in at 24 Brix. It was aged for nine months in French oak, 50% of which was new. Once the wine was bottled they entered the wine in the competition before they even had an approved label. A Double Gold.
The change in quality came about in large part due to the winemaker who was hired soon after they started, Cristop Brown. Cristop came to Robibero after a stint in Washington State working for Long Shadows. He’d first worked at Millbrook Winery as the tasting room manager. After a few years, he went to Benmarl, in Marlborough, which has the oldest working vineyard in the country, and it was there that he learned to make wine from Eric Miller, son of Mark Miller, the owner. In fact, Eric made it clear to Cristop that a condition of his being hired was that he had to take courses in biochemistry so that he could better understand the processes that go on in the ripening of the fruit and in fermentation; making the wine was learned on the job. Soon he was assistant winemaker. In a few years, Eric sold the winery to Matt Spaccarelli and moved to Pennsylvania, and Cristop then became the Benmarl winemaker. Now it was his turn to teach Matt the art of winemaking and they worked together for nearly four years before he took off for Washington State to see how wine and grape growing are done outside of New York State.
By the time of his return from Washington, Cristop had become a very accomplished oenologist and had become committed to making clean wine marked by varietal typicity and good balance. In fact, it was Matt Spaccarelli who then directed Cristop to Robibero, which had placed a “help wanted” ad in a wine journal.
When we stepped out in the vineyard our conversation there went on for a while. We were standing on the east-facing slope of the acre of Vidal and Cab Franc, and discussed viniculture.
Members of the family do all the handwork in the vineyard. They try to use organic sprays to the extent possible. Cornell came and gave them advice on how to plant a vineyard, including the orientation of the vine rows, the density, the recommended varieties for the location, and so on. Spacing is about 8 by 8, with original fescue between the rows. Soil pH was just right so that no input was needed to neutralize the soil. According to Ryan, the Cornell team told them that rootstock 101-14 would work best in their soil and then provided a list of the vines and clones that they thought would do well on that stock. [101-14 is a rootstock that was developed in France and released in 1882 by hybridizers Millardet and de Grasset. It is the result of an interspecific cross between V. riparia and V. rupestris. It produces moderate vigor in scions—the vine cuttings that are grafted to the stock—and has very good resistance to the devastating root louse Phylloxera, scourge of European-variety vineyards.]
Cornell wasn’t the only source of good advice for Robibero. Another was John Whiteman, from Crop Protection Services in Marlborough. When they were thinking of digging up the soil and mixing shale and other matter, then grading to aerate the soil, Whiteman made an important observation: “You know what? It took nature ten million years to create that soil. Don’t mess with it. Just put in some drainage . . . .” He went on to explain that the colloids in the soil [the chemically most active part of soil] took millions of years to develop. Bringing in topsoil would not improve the vineyard because vines grow well in soil that may be too poor for other plants.
In 2015 it was decided to plant a new block of vines across the road–actually, the driveway–from the original plot. Following Whiteman’s advice, and given that Harry is a construction contractor with a great deal of experience managing building sites and the hydrological issues that need to be dealt with–particularly water drainage and runoff–they first excavated the soil along the length of each row to be planted. The 4-inch thin topsoil lies atop a clay stratum about 4 feet deep, beneath which is a layer of shale. By excavating down to the shale they were then able to install a drainage system so that any water would run out of the vineyard, and the clay, now broken up, then was returned to the excavation trench. Now, when the 1,000 Cab Franc vines were planted the roots would be able to penetrate all the way down to the shale and not be harmed by an excess of water held in by clay. The rows, set 9 feet apart with the vines spaced 5 feet from each other, ran almost exactly north to south, slighted angled askew from a true north-south axis so that surface water would run out of the vineyard onto the road. All had been very carefully thought through, thanks to Ryan’s careful research and Harry’s excavation skills.
So, Robibero is dealing with the land that it has by providing the drainage needed because there is lots of clay there and vines don’t like wet feet.
The winery’s cellar is very small but adequate for the level of production that they have at present. Cristop and Ryan worked together both in the vineyard and the winery, but since Ryan’s departure, Jonathan H. Lander, the current general manager, lends a hand. Concerning the wines, at present virtually all is made from purchased fruit from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and the Hudson Region itself. Most are made from vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and so on. However, one of their most popular wines, Rabbit’s Foot (non-vintage) has a base of 75% Baco Noir plus Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, of which 453 cases were made last year. They also have a Bordeaux-style blend that they call 87 South, made with Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, of which 210 cases were produced for the 2013 vintage. The 2013 New Yorkie Rosé is also a Bordeaux blend, and it quickly sold out.
Robibero has won a Best in Category White Wine in the 2014 Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition for their 2013 87 North as well as Gold Medals for their 2013 Traminette and New Yorkie Rosé, the last of which I find to be a perfect summer quencher—austere, dry, and delicately flavored. It goes well with anything you wish to serve, as long as it’s not too spicy.
Its newest red wine is called The Stray and was introduced in 2015. It is dominated by Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, with a dollop of Malbec. It’s a dry wine with a solid acidic backbone, mild tannins, and tasty red fruit. The 2015 has sold out, but the 2016 is now on offer. It’s worth laying down.
The tasting room is ample, well-organized, and offers a very good space for parties. A large veranda invites people to sit out-of-doors and enjoy the fresh air and the pleasant view. Because too many visitors seem not to understand that a small operation like Robibero’s depends on the sale of all manner of beverages including wine, a local craft beer, and bottled water, signs are prominently displayed telling visitors not to bring in their own drinks of whatever kind. But this is a problem all small wineries face.
Robibero Family Winery & Vineyards and its wines have arrived and the results are impressive. It is certainly worth a visit and a taste or two or three, or buy a case.
Interview with Ryan Selby & Cristop Brown 1 May 2015
updated 27 January 2019
Robibero Winery, 714 Albany Post Road, New Paltz, NY 12561
Owners: Harry , Carole and Tiffany Robibero
Winemaker: Kristop Brown
Manager: Jonathan Lander
Acreage: 42 in land, 3 planted
Varieties planted: Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc
Grape Sources: Estate, North Fork Long Island, Seneca Lake
Production: 3,800 Cases
With the publication of Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada, Stephen Casscles joins a small group of writers who have concentrated on winegrowing in the Eastern United States, including such august figures as Lucie Morton and Hudson Cattell as well as, most recently, Richard Fiegel. This book is a significant contribution to that literature and in important ways it is unique.
First of all, it is organized in an unusual but sensible way. It begins as such books should by providing his interesting “A Short History” of winegrowing in the Hudson Valley, with a focus on the region’s hybridizers. It then proceeds to discuss the benefits of wine-grape hybridization, and then explores the basics of cool-climate viniculture. There is some excellent information and advice to be found in Chapter Three: “Basic Principles of Cool Climate Pruning and Vineyard Management,” including “10 Points to Consider When Cold-Weather Pruning,” an illustrated section on pruning methods and training systems, controlling disease in the vineyard, and a concluding section, “Additional Thoughts on Vineyard Management,” bearing on sod and sod management, mowing, under-canopy management, fertilizers, and earthworms. It pretty well covers the field.
It is at Chapter Six, “Selected American Grape Species Used for Breeding,” that the organization then differs from all other such books of which I am aware. The following chapter is about Labrusca hybrids, followed by chapters on the Hudson Valley hybridizers, then the Early French hybridizers, the Late French ones, Geneva hybrids, Minnesota hybrids, Central European Vinifera and hybrid varieties, and closes with a chapter devoted to selected classic Vinifera varieties suitable for growing in the Hudson Region. Within each such chapter is a brief historical background followed by short biographies of each of the important hybridizers and then a detailed description of each significant grape of the related developer.
“Selected American Grape Species” is an important contribution as it describes the leading native vines used for wine production (six species out of more than 70 that grow here): Vitis aestivalis and some of its vinous varieties; V. berlandieri (Texas and northern Mexico), V. cinerea (which favors rich soil along streams), V. labrusca (its varieties are among the best know, including Concord, Catawba, Niagara, and Delaware), and V. riparia (sometimes call River, Riverside, or Riverbank). Also included, partly by way of comparison, partly because it is now so widely planted in America, is the European species, V. vinifera. It then compares and explains the differences between the species, including their dominant habitats, geographical range, winter hardiness, and wine quality. This section is especially useful in helping understand the different varieties and hybrid that emanate from these species.
For each variety of whatever provenance, the author provides a capsule statement, identifies the parentage, the typical harvest date (a range), and then displays five symbols: one for winter hardiness, another for disease resistance, a third for vine vigor, yet another for productivity, and the fifth for wine quality. Each is grade A to D. For example, Concord has a parentage of labrusca, should be harvested “mid-season to early late season” and its hardiness is A+, resistance is A, vigor is B, productivity is A+, and quality is rated B-. He does this for most of the 171 varieties listed in the index, though clones may be given more cursory treatment. Interestingly, Pinot Noir, that elusive Holy Grail of a variety, gets these ratings: hardiness is C-, resistance is D, vigor is C, productivity C+, and quality A+. But then, Concord is a Northeast native and Pinot Noir is from Burgundy, France.
All this is explained in a section of the Introduction, How to Use This Book (pp. xviii-xix), which defines just what the capsule descriptions mean:
for Harvest Dates in the Hudson Valley “mid-season” means (Sept. 20 to 30);
for Winter Hardiness “medium hardy” describes a variety that “Will sustain some cold damage in harsh winters . . . .” (a grade of B);
for Fungal Disease Resistance, “Slightly susceptible” is a grade of A;
for Vigorousness, “Moderately vigorous means a grade of C;
for Productivity, “Very productive” is represented as an A+;
for Wine Quality, “Medium” receives a B, so the Concord’s B- means less than of medium quality.
Discussion of the various grapes can be as long as two whole pages for Concord, as an example, though most get a far briefer treatment of a few hundred words. The vinifera grapes like Pinot Noir are extensively discussed. These variety notes focus largely on the viability of the vines in a region like that of the Hudson River and similar ones in Canada and the Northeast of the United States and other states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. For Casscles, winter hardiness and disease resistance are primary concerns, along with wine quality.
Another very important subject of the book is the history and biographies of the major hybridizers, beginning with those of the Hudson Valley in the 19th Century. A.J. Downing and his brother Charles feature, along with Andrew Jackson Caywood (1819-89), who developed Dutchess, Nectar, Poughkeepsie, Ulster, and Walter, with capsule mentions of his minor varieties. Dr. William A.M. Culbert (1822-90) is also given respectful space, as is Dr. Charles William Grant (1810-81), who bequeathed Eumelan, the important Iona, and other minor varieties. James H. Ricketts (1818 or 1830-1915) gave growers Black Hamburg, Clinton, Bacchus, Downing, Empire State, and Jefferson, and many minor varieties. And so it goes for other Hudson Valley breeders. Each biography is followed by careful descriptions of the respective varieties that each one bred. (It turns out that there are two different varieties named Bacchus: the Hudson Valley riparia/labrusca hybrid given to Ricketts as the breeder, and the German Bacchus (GF 33-29-133), an all-vinifera crossing of (Sylvaner × Riesling) × Müller-Thurgau.)
Then the author explores the Early French Hybridizers (1875-1925) in a following chapter, including Bertille Seyve, Jr. (1895-1959) who created Seyval Blanc. Yet another chapter is given over to the Later French Hybridizers (1925-1955), of whom Ravat gave us the now widely-planted Vignoles and Jean-Louis Vidal provided Vidal Blanc, a mainstay of the East Coast wine industry. Next are the Geneva (NY) hybrids from the NY Agricultural Experiment Station located there, which bred Chardonel, Melody, and Traminette (one of this reviewer’s favorites). After that come the Minnesota hybrids, with Elmer Swenson (1913-2004) featured, along with his own interspecific crossings such as the excellent La Crescent, La Crosse, and St. Pepin. Casscles remarks on the attitude of Swenson, who had “a very generous policy of sharing breeding material and grape variety selections . . . to anyone who requested them.” This generosity is seen as a great benefit to growers, and in Casscles view, “This should be a lesson to many of our current university-based grape-breeding programs, which seem to want to control the products developed, but in doing so they limit the scope of the field research that can be done by not widely disseminating their plant material for comment.” An important point and one well-taken.
In his thoroughness, Casscles also cover Central European Vinifera and Hybrid Grapes on pages 207-217, listing the German, Austrian, and Hungarian varieties that are suitable for planting in cold-climate regions. The final chapter is devoted to the leading vinifera varieties that can, despite disease pressure and severe winters, more or less thrive in the climates of the Hudson Valley and similar regions, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Gamay Noir, and Pinot Noir, including the latter’s many clones.
Thus Casscles approaches his main theme, which is about hybrid grapes and the how and why of their development over the course of two centuries in both the United States and Europe. The book is also about a personal voyage by the author and members of his extended family, the history of which goes back to the Eighteenth Century in the Hudson Valley.
This reviewer does have a grape of contention over a statement by the author that seems a bit misleading: “Running counter to the generally held belief of the Viniferists—especially those purists who would like limit production to a few “pure” classic vinifera grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, or Pinot Noir—all grapes are hybrids. Even the mighty purebred vinifera Chardonnay is a naturally occurring hybrid of Pinot Noir and the bulk grape Gouais Blanc.” -p.20.
However, this insistence that even intra-specific genetic mixing, whether occurring in nature or manmade, runs counter to the widely-accepted definition of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc is a cross, not a hybrid. Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible defines a cross as “A grape created by fertilizing one variety with another variety of the same species. While a cross may result from breeding, most crosses occur spontaneously in nature. . . . A cross is not the same as a hybrid.” To wit, “As distinguished from a cross, a hybrid is a new grape variety developed by breeding two or more varieties from different species or subgenera. The most common hybrids are part European species (Vitis vinifera) and part any one of several American species.” However, Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd edition) does cut Casscles some slack: “cross or crossing, the result of breeding a new variety by crossing two vine varieties of the same species, usually the European vinifera species. Thus Müller-Thurgau, for example is a cross. Crosses are different from hybrids, sometimes called interspecific crosses, which contain the genes of more than one species of the Vitis species.” –p. 197.
On the other hand, Casscles finds a couple of entries in Jancis Robinson, et al., Wine Grapes, regarding hybrid varieties are at times a tad off the mark. In his very extensive endnotes to each chapter he frequently cites Wine Grapes and where needed carefully provides corrections of that version.
The book is well-illustrated with many black-and-white photos, drawings, and diagrams as well as a set of color plates of 27 different varieties. It has but two maps, one of fruit-growing areas of the Hudson Valley, and another of the hardiness zones of NY State, showing the zones from 3a to 6b, but without explanation of what the zones actually mean. The map is based on the USDA Agriculture Research Service NY Plant Hardiness Zone Map, but if one were to go online to the USDA Website a far more detailed Zone map shows the entire range of the zone system, which is based on the minimum temperature range for each zone. Thus, zone 3b has a minimum range of -35 to -30° F., while zone 6b ranges down to -5 to 0° F. Indeed, the online map doesn’t even refer to zone 3a, which would have a range below -35° F.
But these are mere quibbles when one considers the overall quality and detail of the information provided in Casscles’ book. It is a real accomplishment and deserves respectful attention, particular from growers, winemakers, and anyone who is determined to cultivate cold-weather varieties and make wine from them, not to speak of serious oenophiles of any persuasion. Apart from the excellent and extensive endnotes to each chapter there is also a substantial bibliography as well as an index to the individual varieties covered in the text as well as a general index.
J. Stephen Casscles, Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada. Forward by Kevin Zraly, Preface by Eric Miller. Coxsackie, NY: Flint Mine Press, 2015. 266 pages, including the Introduction and Indices. Paperback, $29.99.
Casscles has been a government attorney for the NY State Senate for the past 28 years, and has drafted at least 22 laws bearing on the wine and spirits industry, working with six State Senators over that period. He has been growing wine grapes at his farm in Athens, NY, since 1990. He is also the winemaker for the Hudson-Chatham Winery.
The entirety of the Northeast, including New York State, was once covered by Laurentide ice sheets up to nearly two miles thick during the Late Wisconsin Glacial Period, which receded about 11,000 years ago. As the ice sheet melted it reshaped the landscape beneath it that was to take on the features that we know today, and it helped create the Hudson River Valley, leaving behind a complex and varied topography, soil, and climate–the terroir–, much of it appropriate for vine cultivation or other fruit.
1. Map from the Uncorked New York Web site.
The Hudson River Region AVA is the oldest continually-productive wine region in the United States. Though most people refer to this wine region as the Hudson River Valley or the Hudson Valley, on July 6, 1982 the BATF—in its wisdom—granted the AVA but chose to call it by another name in order to avoid confusion with a winery that already bore the name, Hudson River Valley Winery (no longer in production). If one were to look at different maps that depict the region, its geographical boundaries would not entirely clear, as the maps don’t all agree. (The best one is shown above.) Unfortunately, there is no official AVA map of the region, much less a map for its varied soils and climates. However, it is clearly described verbally in print: its western boundary is the Shawangunk Ridge (a northerly extension of the Appalachians) in Orange and Ulster Counties. It then follows the Delaware River to the New Jersey State line, from which it goes roughly east to its eastern boundary at the state lines with Connecticut and Massachusetts. It then extends north along those borders to the northeast corner of Columbia County, New York. From there it extends west to the juncture of Columbia and Greene Counties in the Hudson River. It includes all or some of several counties: Columbia, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, and Westchester.
It doesn’t quite encompass all of the Hudson River Watershed, which extends even further north and includes the Mohawk River (see map at left). From this it can be seen, by comparing it to the first map, that while it is primarily geographic, most of its boundaries are political, which is not unusual for AVAs all over the country; however, it also is not strictly based on a homogenous climate or soil types—the terroir—though many of the vineyards are planted on or near the slopes on either side of the Hudson River.
However, even today the true boundaries of the Valley are still in dispute, and the definition of the area of the AVA Region is questionable. Carlo DeVito, a wine writer and winery owner, commented that “The AVA is old and obsolete….it only covered the existing wineries that were around at the time of the filing, and makes no sense. More than half the valley’s wineries in the region are not covered by it. Here’s my take on it:” Where is the Hudson Valley?
Soil and Terroir
As can be made out from the soil map above, there is a range of soil that include “acid soils with neutral to acid frangipans” (pink color) that runs the length of the river valley, shifting to “medium to moderately coarse-textured acid soils with strongly acidic frangipans on glacial till from gray slate, sandstone, [and] slate” (red color). Contiguous to this is also “deep and shallow soils associated with hilly areas” (dark red). Along the mid to upper-length of the river we see “moderate to fine-textured soils on glacial lake or marine sediments” (pale blue). At the southern limits we see “muck” (dark blue, highly fertile) and “moderately coarse textured, very strongly acid soils from glacial till from granite” (brown color). As grapevines are not fond of acidic soils, this means that many if not most vineyards need alkaline additions such as lime to bring up the soil pH.
The most complete and accessible description of the soils and terrains of the Region may be that of the “New York Wine Course and Reference”, which is worth quoting at length:
This region crosses five [of the nine New York State] physiographic provinces and is composed of more distinct soil types than any other region. Moving north from Manhattan, the first province encountered is that of the Gneissic Highland Province, a hilly, complex region of highly metamorphosed ancient gneiss. This region encompasses the northern end of Manhattan Island and southern Rockland County, where it forms the Ramapo Mountains. The region continues across the Hudson, and the structure underlies Westchester, Putnam and a small part of southern Dutchess County. The hardness of the bedrock in this area and glacial action have resulted in shallow, rocky soils largely unsuitable for agriculture. Bordering the Gneiss Highland Province to the north is the Taconic Province, an area of lower elevation that extends from Orange County northward through southeastern Ulster County and across the Hudson River, encompassing Dutchess, Columbia, Rensselaer and Washington counties. The rocks in this province are largely shales, slates, schists and limestones, although the northern and eastern areas of Dutchess, Columbia and Rensselaer are underlain with hard metamorphic quartzite and gneiss. The topography of this province varies widely, starting as a valley in southern Orange County and progressing to rolling hills and valleys in the western portions of those counties on the east side of the Hudson, finally culminating the rugged highlands of the Berkshire Mountains in the easternmost section of the province. Given the wide variety of parent material and topography in this province, soil types and suitability to viticulture are extremely varied. Soils in the western portion of this province generally tend to have moisture problems and be low in fertility, although many good sites of limited acreage are under cultivation as orchards and vineyards. Soil conditions improve on the western side of the Hudson, with eastern Dutchess and Columbia Counties possessing the finest sites and consequently the greatest acreage of vineyards. Deep, well-drained soils with adequate moisture holding capacity and low to moderate fertility are present and available in large tracts of land, and offer the opportunity for the expansion of viticulture in the Hudson Valley. Two other physiographic provinces can be included in the Hudson River Region: the Catskill Province which borders the Taconic Province along the dramatic Shawangunk Ridge; and the Mohawk Valley Province which enters the region north of Albany. Neither has significant acreage in grapes, and discussion of the soils of these areas is not relevant to this subject.
A further explanation makes even more clear just how complex the soil profiles of the Region comes from the USDA soil series page:
The Hudson series consists of very deep, moderately well drained soils formed in clayey and silty lacustrine sediments. They are nearly level through very steep soils on convex lake plains, on rolling through hilly moraines and on dissected lower valley side slopes. Saturated hydraulic conductivity is moderately high or high in the mineral surface and subsurface layers and low through moderately high in the lower part of the subsoil and substratum. Slope ranges from 0 through 60 percent. Mean annual temperature is 49 degrees F. and mean annual precipitation is 39 inches.
The Region’s geographic setting is described as follows:
Hudson soils are nearly level to very steep on lake plains and lacustrine capped uplands and valley sides. Slope ranges from 0 through 60 percent. More sloping and dissected areas show evidence of slumping or mass slipping. Mean annual air temperature ranges from 46 degrees to 50 degrees F., mean annual precipitation ranges from 30 through 45 inches, and mean annual frost-free season ranges from 120 through 180 days. The elevation ranges from 50 through 800 feet above sea level.
The Hudson River is one of the great waterways of North America, but it only runs 315 miles (507 km.) from its source, Lake Tear in the Clouds, located in Adirondack Park (elevation 1814 ft. (553 m.). It is what is called a ‘drowned river’ in that the waters of the Atlantic Ocean flow upstream with the tide as far as Troy, NY (north of Albany) which means that it is a very long tidal estuary–in other words, a fjord. For this reason it was known to the Lenape tribe that lived along its banks as Muhheakantuck (“river that flows two ways”).
Indeed, it is the Hudson , with its moderating effect on climate, thanks to the tidal flow and winds that sweep upriver from the Atlantic as well as the so-called “lake effect” (or “river effect” in this case–except in the winter, if the river freezes and is covered with ice) of its wide, deep, flowing stream, that make it possible to grow grapes at all, as it would otherwise be too frigid for most varieties other than the native ones. Its growing season is short: 180 to 195 days. (By comparison, Long Island’s season lasts from 215 to 230 days, while the Niagara Escarpment enjoys 205 days, and the Finger Lakes AVA has 190 to 205 growing days.) Its production is also small, at 585 tons a year (about 2.5 tons an acre), whereas the Niagara Escarpment, with only 6 vineyards and 883 acres produces 4,648 tons (about 5 tons an acre), though some of this is for table grapes, which have much higher yields than do wine grapes.
The AVA covers an area that extends roughly within the confines of the river valley proper, encompassing as it does 224,000 acres (90,650 ha), but it has only 430 acres planted to wine grapes among 49 bonded wineries—some with, some without, vineyards—some of which buy fruit from the Finger Lakes or Long Island to make wine from varieties that do not thrive here, and in some cases from California. Many of the wineries produce fruit wine, such as raspberry, apple, strawberry, blueberry, and so on, along with grape wine. After all, the Hudson Valley is famous for its fruit production, and once was one of the largest producers of apples in the world. However, as pointed out in an article by Carlo DeVito, “Where is the Hudson Valley?” on his blog, HudsonRiverWine, the boundaries of the AVA as currently drawn lead to confusion and are no longer relevant, given that they were drawn when there were far fewer wineries, and the number of wineries and vineyards in the Valley has not only grown exponentially, but many new ones are being established within the Valley but outside the AVA.
Tradition has it that the first vinifera vines were planted by French Huguenots in 1677, at the time that they first settled New Paltz. However, this is unlikely, because these Huguenots had come from Belgium and were more inclined to drink hard cider, brandy, and brews. However, the earliest record of vinifera planting goes back to 1642, when the New Amsterdam patroon, Kiliean Van Rennselaer sent cuttings to his commisary in Fort Orange (Albany), which of course didn’t survive the winter. Settlers then resorted to American varieties, but the wines made from these were likely not pleasing at all to the French or Dutch palates, but at least it was alcoholic. The first commercially-successful vineyard was planted with Isabella and Catawba in 1827 by Robert Underhill at Croton Point, just above Tarrytown. The oldest continuously-operated winery in the nation is Brotherhood Winery, originally established as Jaques Brothers’ Winery in 1839 at Little York (now Washingtonville, in Orange County) to make wine that was mostly sold to churches. When the last of the Jaques family died in 1885, it was taken over by Jesse and Emerson, who promptly renamed it Brotherhood. The earliest-planted continuously-used vineyard, going back to 1845, was planted by William Cornell in Ulster County. His brother-in-law, Andrew Caywood became involved and began developing hybrid varieties that could better grow in the demanding climate; one of his efforts led to the Dutchess grape, still widely grown in the Northeast today. That vineyard is today part of Benmarl Winery, in Marlboro.
Farm Winery Act of 1976
Before Governor Hugh Carey signed the Farm Winery Act into law, there were only nineteen bonded wineries in all of New York State. Thanks to the tireless work and advocacy of people like Benmarl Winery’s Mark Miller, the new Commissioner of Agriculture, John Dyson (owner of Millbrook Vineyards and Winery), and the support of wine writers like Frank Prial of the New York Times, the restrictive post-Prohibition laws that then prevailed were replaced by a new set of laws that made it much easier for farms (i.e., vineyards) to establish new wineries for a small fee. The result was an explosion of winery growth in the State, and by 2008 there were about 255 across the State.
The vineyards and wineries with vineyards in the Hudson River Region AVA (excluding cideries, meaderies, distilleries, and producers of fruit wine only), as of 2014, number thirty-one by my own count, and these are highlighted in bold type. Vine acreage is not always certain and in some cases little or no information is given The Websites are rarely of any use in this regard.
A number of wineries purchase some or all of their grapes from other growers, both from within the Hudson River AVA as well as the Finger Lakes and Long Island. There are any number of perfectly good reasons for this. A winemaker may want to produce wine from a variety that he doesn’t grow. Some vineyards are too new to produce commerciable fruit. With a few exceptions, most of the wineries and/or vineyards are very small in scale–most are, after all, “farm wineries.” In no case does this reflect on the quality of any of the wines so made. The gamut of quality is there to be had.
(NOTE: this article and the series on wineries that follow are only interested in wineries and vineyards that grow and/or produce grape wine. This is not a prejudice, it is simply that the focus is on sustainable viniculture, or the growing of wine grapes, as well as on winemaking. Wineries that have been reviewed on this blog are shown with a link):
Adair Vineyards*, New Paltz (West Bank, Ulster County; 37 acres, all hybrid)
Altamont Winery, Altamont (West Bank, Albany County; no information on acreage or planting)
Applewood Winery*, Warwick (West Bank, Orange County; ? acreage, both hybrid & vinifera)
Baldwin Vineyards*, Pine Bush (West Bank, Ulster County, 35 acres, both)
Basha Kill Vineyards*, Wurstboro (West Bank, Sullivan County, 1.5 acres, hybrid)
Benmarl Winery*, Marlboro (West Bank, Ulster County; 37 acres; both)
Brimstone Hill Vineyards, Pine Bush (West Bank, Ulster County; 13 acres, both)
Brookview Station Winery* [no vineyard, purchased grapes]
Brotherhood Winery*, Washingtonville (West Bank, Orange County; 40 acres, all vinifera?)
Capoccia Vineyards and Winery, Niskayuna (West Bank, Schenectady County, not AVA; no information)
Windham Vineyard and Winery, Windham (West Bank, Greene County; no information)
*Twenty-two of the wineries are members of the Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Assoc., and owners and/or winemakers meet from time to time to compare notes and discuss issues that are common to the region. The mission of the Assoc. is “to conduct educational programs to advance grape growing and winemaking in the Hudson Valley AVA.”
NOTE: Winery Websites will not always tell about the varieties in the vineyards, nor will they necessarily indicate what varieties go into their blended wines, as they may use generic or invented names for their blends. This doesn’t mean that one can’t ask in the tasting room. The only dependable clue as to whether the wines are made from grapes blended from more than one AVA (e.g., Finger Lakes & Hudson River) will be found on the label: if it says Hudson River Region, it may or may not be estate bottled but is from the Region; if it says New York State the wine is made from grapes from more than one region. Caveat emptor, but only if these issues matters to the buyer.
The varieties that do thrive in the AVA are mostly hybrids as well as some cool-climate V. viniferas (hybrid variety information is from Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding, et al., Wine Grapes—listed alphabetically, so page number are not needed); Hudson AVA acreage information comes from the “NY Wine Course”, pp. 75-61 passim; data is for 2013):
Aurore or Aurora, aka Seibel 5279 (White, French-American hybrid; less than 10 acres)
Baco Noir (R, French-American hybrid, Folle Blanche x Grand Glabre [V. riparia]; <10 acres)
Cabernet Franc (R, vinifera; 7 acres)
Cabernet Sauvignon (R, vinifera; <20 acres)
Catawba (R, either V. labrusca or a natural hybrid, in any case American; <10 acres, in decline)
Cayuga White (complex American hybrid created in Geneva, NY; <10, decreased from 38 acres in 1996)
Chambourcin (Red, French-American hybrid; acreage not reported)
Chancellor, aka Seibel 7053 (R, French-American hybrid; acreage for the AVA not reported)
Chardonnay (W, vinifera; 32 acres)
Chelois (R, French-American hybrid; acreage for the AVA not reported)
Concord (R, V. labrusca x unknown vinifera?, decidedly American; 168 acres)
De Chaunac or Dechaunac (R, French-Canadian hybrid, by Albert Seibel; named for the Canadian enologist, Adhemar DeChaunac; <15 acres)
Delaware (V. labrusca x aestivalis var. bouriquiana x vinifera?, American hybrid; <10 acres)
Diamond, aka Moore’s Diamond (labrusca x vinifera American hybrid; acreage unreported)
Dutchess (complex hybrid by A. J. Caywood of Poughkeepsie, V. labrusca x aestivalis x vinifera; <10 acres)
Elvira (complex American hybrid, V. labrusca x riparia x vinifera; <10 acres)
Frontenac, aka MN 1047 (complex American hybrid from Minnesota; )
Gamay Noir (R, vinifera, a specialty of Whitecliff Vineyards)
Gewürztraminer (W, vinifera; <10 acres)
Golden Muscat (W, American hybrid ex-Cornell, labrusca x vinifera; acreage unreported)
Noiret (R, complex American hybrid created in Geneva, NY)
Pinot Blanc (W, vinifera, Alsace clone planted only at Stoutridge)
Pinot Gris (W, vinifera)
Pinot Noir (R, vinifera, almost unique to Oak Summit in the region; about 30 acres)
Refosco (vinifera, planted only at Stoutridge)
Riesling (W, vinifera; <10 acres)
St Pepin (complex American hybrid by Elmer Swenson in Wisconsin)
Sangiovese (R, vinifera, planted only at Stoutridge)
Seyval Blanc/Seyve-Villard 5-276 (W, French hybrid, vinifera x rupestris x lincecumii; 73 acres)
Teroldego (vinifera, planted only at Stoutridge)
Tocai Friulano (W, vinifera, planted only at Millbrook Vineyards)
Traminette (W, complex American hybrid based on Gewürztraminer)
Vidal Blanc/Vidal 256 (W, French hybrid, Ugni Blanc x Seibel 4986; <10 acres)
Vignoles/Ravat 51 (W, complex French hybrid, Pinot Noir? x Subéreux?; <10 acres)
As can be seen from the list, most of the wine varieties are hybrids, developed specifically for traits that would enable the vines to survive the extreme cold, humidity, and diseases. The French hybrids were often developed to produce vines based on V. vinifera that were resistant to phylloxera, as the original intention was to plant them in European vineyards. Once it was realized that grafting American rootstock to vinifera shoots would adequately protect against phylloxera, interest in hybrids dropped in Europe, but many of the hybrids have been successfully introduced to the United States. American (esp. New York hybrids) were often developed to thrive in American vineyards with their attendant cold-climate challenges and the diseases that are endemic to the region.
Bibliography and other References
Unfortunately, there is a serious paucity of books devoted exclusively to the entire Hudson River Region AVA. The only one still available, by Martell and Long, is out of print but can still be ordered.
De Vito, Carlo. East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia. Rutgers U. Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 2004. An excellent guide to the wineries of the region, though having been published ten years ago, it doesn’t even include the author’s own winery: Hudson-Chatham.
Figiel, Richard. Circle of Vines: The Story of New York State Wine. Excelsior Editions, Albany, NY, 2014. Written by the once-owner of a Finger Lakes winery, this is a well-written account of the story of New York wine, with a chapter devoted to the Hudson Valley and additional related material in two others. The entire book, a sweep of history going back to the Ice Ages and up to the present day, is a worthwhile read and the chapter on the Valley is especially complete and valuable.
Martell, Alan R. and Alton Long. The Wines and Wineries of the Hudson River Valley. The Countryman Press: Woodstock, VT, 1993. Given that it was published 21 years ago, it is seriously out of date, and at a scarce 48 amply-illustrated pages, it covers but 20 wineries and a meadery. It is clearly meant for the general public.
New York Wine & Grape Foundation (text by James Tresize), “The New York Wine Course and Reference.pdf.” 2014. Available as an online download, it is an excellent and very complete research source, although it has a promotional slant. It also includes very useful regional maps on the soils, temperatures, growing degree days, etc. (Note: It is curious that the AVA map in the Wine Course document does not match the one on the Website: Fact and Figures, which is the version that I use at the beginning of this article; it is the one that I consider the most accurate.) The Website is listed below. In citations, it will be referred to as “NY Wine Course.”
A handful of others touch on the region here and there, but superficially. For example:
Berger, Dan and Tony Aspler. North American Wine Routes: A Travel Guide to Wines & Vines from Napa to Nova Scotia. Reader’s Digest Press: Pleasantville, NY, 2010. Very superficial, with no useful background and only four wineries listed on the two amply-illustrated pages about the Region.
Castell, Hudson. Wines of Eastern North American: From Prohibition to the Present: From Prohibition to the Present – A History and Desk Reference. Cornell U. Press, Ithaca, NY, 2014. Its subject is rather broad so that the Hudson Valley is only touched upon here and there, but it is a fine work of scholarship and an important reference.
Morton, Lucie T. Winegrowing in Eastern America: An Illustrated Guide to Viniculture East of the Rockies. Cornell U. Press: Ithaca, NY, 1985. An important book but it only offers a very cursory coverage of the Valley.
Robinson, Jancis and Linda Murphy. American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines & Wineries of the US. U. California Press: Berkeley, 2013. For an ‘ultimate guide’ there are only two pages, mostly covered by illustrations and no useful map. It counts 33 wineries, mentions Millbrook Vineyards and Winery as the ‘Superstar’ and shows three wine labels.
Thomas, Marguerite. Touring East Coast Wine Country: A Guide to the Finest Wineries. Berkshire House Publishers, Lee, MA, 2002. Mentions only two wineries and is out of date.
For grape varieties:
Casscles, J. Stephen . Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada, Flint Mine Press, Coxsackie, NY, 2015. An important an indispensable guide to the varieties of the region. (See my review of the book at Grapes of the Hudson Valley.)
Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding, & José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. HarperCollins: New York, 2012. Simply the best and most complete reference to all varieties available in the English language.
Benjamin, Vernon. The History of the Hudson River Valley from Wilderness to the Civil War. Overlook Press, New York, 2014. Using up-to-date scholarship, this is a serious and significant contribution to the literature of the Hudson Valley but, alas, there’s very little about wine. Nevertheless, a very worthwhile book to own.
Be aware that most of these sites may not be up-to-date or may contain misleading or incorrect information.
HVNet.com: Wineries The Hudson Valley Network is more about tourism in the Hudson Valley than it is about the Hudson River Region AVA, and includes at least two wineries that do not belong in the AVA. It is also out of date.
HVWineGoddess.com A light-hearted but informative romp through the Valley. It is currently maintained with fresh material, but it isn’t clear if it updates old posts.
HVWineMag.com The Hudson Valley Wine Magazine is probably the source with the most up-to-date information about what is going on regarding wine in the Valley.
NYSAES (Cornell U.)* The academic/scientific go-to Website for all matters agricultural and horticultural, which means viticulture as well, in the State.
Also indispensable for New York State wines is the New York Cork Report by Lenn Thompson, with its many interviews, coverage of wine tastings, reviews, and more.
NewYorkWines.org New York Wine & Grape Foundation, aka Uncork New York, covers all the wine regions of the state. Though it states that there are 41 wineries in the Hudson region, but that includes 3 cideries, 2 distilleries, and 1 glögg producer, so strictly speaking there are really only 35 wineries in the region. “The New York Wine Course and Reference.pdf.” can be downloaded from here.