The Hudson Valley is the oldest wine-making and grape-growing region in the country.
Legend has it that the French Huguenots planted the first vines in New Paltz in 1677. But it’s only in the last few years that the wineries have seen a meteoric rise in both quality and popularity. “When I compare what I was tasting back in the late ’80s to what I’m tasting now, what an incredible difference,” says wine expert Debbie Gioquindo, a local entrepreneur whose popular blog, the Hudson Valley Wine Goddess, chronicles the sweet successes and compelling stories of our local vintners. “The quality, the number of wineries, and what is being produced in the Valley — it has just grown and grown and gotten better and better,” she says.
Gioquindo attributes the spike in quality to several factors, including the cultural fascination with farming and eating (and drinking) locally grown produce. “Wine-making has improved,” she says. “The technology is updated all the time. Wine-makers go to conferences to see what people are doing in different parts of the country and the world, and they bring that information back with them and implement it here. They’re trying completely different techniques. For instance, Stoutridge is a gravity-flow winery, and Whitecliff just built a new geothermal building. Vintners are also planting new grapes. Personally, I like traminette, which is a hybrid grape that grows well in the cold climate here.” Gioquindo notes that three local wineries — Palaia, Applewood, and Whitecliff — are currently growing this grape and making wine from it.
A black grape that is grabbing attention these days, both locally and nationally, is Cabernet Franc. “Pinot Noir and Cab Franc are actually my favorite wines in the region,” says Gioquindo. “I just came back from a tasting camp in Virginia where we immersed ourselves in the wine region. One thing I got out of this trip is the realization that the Hudson Valley makes much better Cab Franc. Whitecliff makes a good one; Millbrook makes a really good one.”
These days, Valley wines are attracting national, and even international, attention. Whitecliff, for instance, took Best White Wine at the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition, and Best Chardonnay at the 2011 Atlantic Seaboard Competition; their popular Awosting White was recently honored as the first hybrid-based wine on the wine list at New York City’s famous Gramercy Tavern.
Casks of character: Giant barrels of wine are stored in Brotherhood Winery’s underground cellars (the largest in the U.S.)
Of course, the weather continues to be one of the main challenges to wine-making. “That can make or break you,” says Gioquindo, adding that 2007 and 2010 remain stellar growing years. “Last year was a fantastic growing season until Hurricane Irene came along. Mother Nature is funny that way. But everybody has their own challenges, based on what they want to produce. A lot of times they have to ask, ‘How much wine am I going to produce this year? Do I have storage capabilities for all this wine?’ You can have wine in your tanks, but not have time for bottling. Whitecliff built a new winery that is much larger than their old space. Brookview also just did a huge addition.”
With the growing agritourism trend, savvy wine-makers realize that a wide variety of weekend events helps to draw customers. “It can be as simple as serving wine and cheese every weekend while bands play,” says Gioquindo. “People are looking for things to do, and with the price of gas, you can spend the day locally at a sangria festival or a pig roast or just having a picnic with your friends. It’s all enjoyable.”
At Whitecliff, though, the wine remains front and center. “We don’t have music, restaurants, or huge venue spaces, because we are focused on wine,” says owner Yancey Stanforth-Migliore. “This is a region that still has work to do. The more we publicize that the Valley has these amazing wines to offer, that’s a step towards more recognition.”