Photos courtesy of Ryan Kiernan
Bruynswick Winery at Kiernan Farm produces small-batch estate wines and hosts pastoral Hudson Valley weddings in Ulster County.
The latest winery to join the Hudson Valley’s growing list of vineyards, vintners, and vino bars was a labor of love. Literally.
Brynswick Winery opened its doors at Kiernan Farm in Gardiner during Labor Day weekend of 2021. Husband-and-wife team Ryan and Johanna Kiernan brought this little farm winery to life after a decade of effort and a history spanning hundreds of years.
“We’re trying to make wines that really show our terroir and highlight exactly what Hudson Valley grapes are like,” Johanna says. When she opens a bottle of the floral, lychee-forward Traminette for a customer, for instance, it reveals centuries of history in Ulster County.
Bruynswick Winery stands proudly on three acres of Kiernan Farm, a second-generation family cattle ranch and horse farm in the Hudson Valley. However, the land itself has been farmed for hundreds of years.
“As far as I know, just from reading, the farm goes back to the 1600s. It started out as a timber operation; plus, they cleared land for pastures…They used to chop ice blocks out of the pond below and put them in the roots,” Ryan explains. Gertrude Bruyn—of the Instagrammable “Gertrude’s Nose” hiking trail in Minnewaska—included Kiernan Farm’s 140 acres under a land patent in 1682. The land has been in continuous agricultural production ever since.
Ryan discovered hand-hewn posts and a beam barn that date back to the Revolutionary War. In a similar vein, the 1800s farmhouse creates great intrigue for any history nut. The Kiernans bought the farm in 1982, when Ryan was just two years old. His father, Marty, bought the then-dairy farm for race horses. When that business soured in the ’90s, Marty brought cattle to Gardiner. The family has produced high-quality beef ever since.
“My brother [Shane] was the one who came up with the idea for the vineyard. First, he had to convince me to move back home from Europe,” Ryan recalls. For a little over three years, he traveled Europe as a semi-professional soccer player. He started in Cologne, Germany, and made a little home in Poland. There, Ryan taught English by day, and honed his athletic skills at all other times.
He came back to New York in 2010 and planted rows of grapes with Shane and their sister, Keri. None of the Kiernans were vintners by trade, so it was a learning process for everyone. They started with Chardonnay and Traminette, a hybrid of the aromatic Gewurztraminer and a new varietal developed by Cornell in the Finger Lakes.
“[Traditional grape varietals], they’ve been successful for decades, hundreds of years even, in France, Germany, and Italy, and more recently in California. But the Hudson Valley is not any of those places, it’s not even the Finger Lakes. It’s just got its own thing going on, a unique terroir. But, with its own climate comes its own trials and tribulations,” Ryan explains. Consistency is a rarity when growing heritage grapes in the Valley. For the first three years, Ryan and Johanna focused on hearty growth.
Instead of harvesting grapes as soon as they were ready, the couple tried to develop strong roots. Their vines needed to survive winter chills and summer droughts. Eventually, they started providing Whitecliff Winery with Traminette, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc. However, they battled several stinging polar vortexes.
To illustrate the hyper-specific conditions growers face in the Hudson Valley, Ryan draws parallels between Kiernan Farm and Whitecliff. Bruynwick Winery’s grapes are on the western side of the Shawangunk River, while Whitecliff stands to the east. With an increased elevation and denser clay, Kiernan Farm faces difficulty with its soil. Whitecliff’s vines flourish in the floodplains, closer to sea level than Bruynswick. On the other hand, cold air flows downhill, creating more of a frost problem in the spring. According to Ryan, every winery in the Hudson Valley faces its own myriad of challenges. Though he and Johanna speak to regional terroir, even a half-mile makes a massive difference. Slight discrepancies in geography can manifest unique characteristics in the exact same vino varietals.
The pair also contend with downy mildew, fungi, hungry birds, and an assortment of vine- and grape-eating insects. Years of pruning, trimming back growth, debugging vines, and family harvests revealed what worked and what didn’t. A few years later, they started selling to Wild Arc Farm as well. Their relationship with other local vintners helped them become full-blown winemakers. Bruynswick Winery was once a dream, and now it’s a reality.
“[Todd Cavallo of Wild Arc Farm] gave Ryan some pointers, specifically about the winemaking process. But, Ryan also helped him with the vineyard, with understanding the grapes, so it was kind of it was a nice partnership in a way,” Johanna says. At the same time, she dove into the science of making wine. “I’ve also been working on my winemaking certificate. Right now [I’m] finishing that up, so I’m getting that experience and learning more of the chemistry.”
All members of the Kiernan family value sustainable methods. They sort grapes by hand, and check for about six different metrics before each harvest. These range from the flexibility of stems (lignification) to their change in color during ripening (veraison). Whites turn a golden hue when ready, while reds morph from white to a purplish-red.
Both Johanna and Ryan are teachers to this day, always hungry to learn something new. Ryan spends his daily commute to Kingston listening to podcasts on grape-growing and winemaking. The couple devoured countless books together on the history of wine, agricultural studies, and emerging varietals. Their research—and bad experiences with heritage grapes—led them to newer varietals, bred to thrive in New York.
“The other experimental grapes were planted last year. They were Itasca, La Crescent, Vidal Blanc, and Marquette. Those varietals are suited to cold climate and the heavy wet soils that we have here on our side of the farm,” Ryan says. Polar vortexes have set vines back years, so Ryan and Johanna adore the newer hybrids. “The Traminette grows unbelievably well. We got about 40 cases this year. It’s resilient up to -20 degrees. Marquette and a few others can survive past -25 or -30.”
They even found a way to use the cold to their advantage. Bruynswick Winery vinos undergo cold stabilization in which larger molecules bond together and precipitate out of the bottom, balancing the wine and cleaning out the tanks. How do they achieve this?
“We just open up the barn doors where we keep our stainless steel vats [and wooden barrels],” Ryan says, with a mirthful chuckle.
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In fact, all Bruynswick Winery white wines are aged in stainless steel tanks. The Kiernans crush these grapes and put them into the tanks the very same day they’re harvested (typically in September or October). Most of them are ready within six to eight months. This process has a precise effect on the wines.
“Because our Chardonnay is stainless steel-aged, it’s gonna be more crisp than usual. Next, it doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation. That’s usually what gives a Chardonnay the buttery finish that a lot of California wines have when they’re aged in oak and go through that process,” Johanna explains. The Chardonnay is her favorite vino at Bruynswick Winery. Ryan, on the other hand, is partial to the Traminette, due to its high acidity and green apple notes. The pair released a Vidal Blanc at the start of autumn, and will have more bottles ready for a pending “grand opening.” Though Bruynswick Winery remains in a “soft opening” stage for now, it already hosts wine tastings and serves other Hudson Valley delights. The Kiernans source spirits and cocktails come from Stoutridge Distillery and Winery, and pour beers from Sloop Brewing Co. and Long Lot Brewing.
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Plus, Bruynswick Winery also hosts scenic vineyard weddings. Marty Kiernan started this tradition about 20 years ago, when he married his wife on the farm. The family started with one or two weddings a year, after people driving by began to inquire about Kiernan Farm as a venue. Ryan and Johanna aim to host about a dozen a year, because they’re a farm first.
“The land needs time to breathe. We’re a farm first, not a wedding mill. But, you should know, we do this because we enjoy it. So, with only one or two weddings a month it’s a lot less stressful for us and for the couples. We provide a wedding weekend, and they essentially get the farm from Thursday through Sunday for setting up and stylizing it for their dream wedding day,” Ryan says. He and Johanna aim to curate experiences bigger than their little slice of the Hudson Valley.
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Using Kiernan Farm as a base camp, families in town for weddings can go hiking, cycling, and even skydiving. Of course, there are also plenty of other breweries and wineries worthy of a visit. The Kiernans want to support their colleagues in the beverage industry, and do so by reimagining the “destination wedding” concept.
Above all, it’s inspiring to see Bruynswick Winery come to fruition. Kiernan Farm was passed down from one generation to the next, and Ryan hopes to continue that tradition.
“I like to say that my father created it. My wife, brother, sister, and I improved it. And, hopefully, our children—our daughter is 15 months old—and my nieces and nephews will get a chance to perfect it. That’s that’s the way I look at it.”