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EXPLORING OUR ROOTS
by J. Stephen Casscles
The Hudson River Valley’s Grape and Wine Industry    

With four major grape growing regions, New York is the nation’s third largest producer of grapes and wine. Officially noted as one of the State’s eight viticultural areas, the Hudson River Region of the Hudson Valley lays claim to both the oldest vineyard and winery in America, and was known as a pioneering region in developing new grape varieties and viticultural practices that are still used today. Here, long-time local vintner Stephen Casscles explores the origins and recent history of the Hudson Valley’s wine industry, and its future in the forthcoming decade.

 

The valley of the Hudson, birthplace of American Viticulture www.desolateplaces.com

"THE VALLEY OF THE HUDSON HAS MORE REASON TO BE CALLED THE BIRTHPLACE OF AMERICAN VITICULTURE THAN ANY OTHER OF THE GRAPE-GROWING DISTRICTS OF THE COUNTRY."

This statement was made exactly 100 years ago by U.P. Hedrick, horticulturist and Director at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva and one of the most preeminent chroniclers of America's grape and wine industry. So it's no surprise that, even today, the Hudson River Valley is home to not only America's oldest commercial winery - opened in 1839 as Blooming Grove, and now Brotherhood Winery - but also to the oldest continuously farmed vineyard in the United States - now Benmarl Winery. As a member of a family that has cultivated grapes in our valley for more than 150 years, it is with special pride that I have been asked to contribute to this premier issue of Hudson Valley Wine magazine, and discuss the development of the Hudson Valley Region grape and wine industry.

It was the French Huguenots who, in 1677, planted the first vines in the Hudson Valley region, in present-day New Paltz, Ulster County - over one hundred years before any vines were planted on the West Coast. Although early explorers to the New World found an abundant variety of wild grapes, it was the European, Old-World vinifera varieties that were planted and cultivated, though usually with disappointing results.

Weather has often been an unpredictable aspect of grape growing in the Hudson Valley region. While the river helps to moderate the climate, and the area's location is roughly parallel to southern France and central Italy, the Hudson Valley receives more precipitation and is much more humid. It is also generally cooler than these areas, often with shorter growing seasons. Most of these early vineyards failed, as the European vinifera was not able to thrive due to local insect pests and fungal diseases. It took nearly two centuries for American viticulture to realize that, with existing technology, any grape-producing industry must depend in part on the native labrusca species which would be hardy enough to survive local growing conditions.

The Hudson Valley indeed holds a special place in our nation's viticultural history, as it was here that some of the nation's most noted grape breeders and viticulturalists cultivated and experimented with native and European grape varieties. From 1840 to 1910, famous pioneers, such as W.D. Barnes (of Middle Hope), A.J. Caywood (of Marlborough), Dr. C.W. Grant (at Iona Island), J.H. Ricketts (of Newburgh), and Stephen Underhill (at Croton Point) developed some of the nation's most important new grape varietals. Quality grape varieties, with local names such as Dutchess, Iona, Eumelan, Bacchus, Jefferson, Empire State, Ulster, Walter, Croton and countless others were all developed and hybridized here in the Hudson Valley. More importantly, these varieties became genetic building blocks for the breeding of a new generation of American grape varieties such as the noted Moore's Diamond.

Our Valley also produced the noted viticulturalist William Kniffin of Clintondale. In the mid-late 1800's Kniffin developed new grape training systems such as the Hudson River umbrella, and the four- and two-arm Kniffin pruning systems that are still extensively used today. Andrew Jackson Downing, of Newburgh, a well-known American landscape designer and writer, is another famous horticulturalist from the region, who often incorporated the cultivation of grapes into his numerous rural and urban landscape designs. In sum, our Valley's viticulturalists were not only the first to grow grapes, but supplied America's burgeoning grape industry with new grape varieties, innovative viticultural practices, and highly trained personnel.

From 1870 to 1930, local vineyards annually shipped tens of thousands of tons of table and wine grapes by evening riverboats down the Hudson River to New York City. Fruit brokers, such as my grandmother, Rose Casscles, of Marlborough, bought grapes from local growers to assemble shipments large enough to send to Boston markets by truck and rail.

The Valley's proximity to large metropolitan areas reduced the need for local grower cooperatives and for standardized grape containers to market grapes. This lack of centralization in the sale and transportation of grapes, in turn, enabled local growers to cultivate a greater number of grape varieties than most other grapegrowing districts. By 1890 over 13,000 acres of grapes were grown here in the Valley region. Some of the varieties grown, in order of popularity, included New World labruscas like Concord, Delaware, Niagara, Worden, Moore's Early, and locally-bred varieties such as Bacchus, Dutchess, Iona, Pocklington, Empire State and scores of others.

Some of our more famous growers during this veritable "Golden Age" included the naturalist John Burroughs of Esopus and Franklin D. Roosevelt of Hyde Park. To relax, Roosevelt, first as Governor of New York, and later as President, would often visit neighboring fruit growers to discuss new growing techniques to be used for his own orchards and vineyards.


Hudson Valley Quote

During Prohibition, local wineries continued to make wine for medicinal and sacramental purposes, and provided grapes to home winemakers. It was during the Great Depression, however, when the national economy collapsed and transportation costs declined significantly, that more and more table grapes were being shipped back East from California, much to the detriment of our area's vineyards. As local grape cultivation declined, farm acreage shifted to apples and other fruits. From the 1940's to 1960's, growers gradually ceased producing fruit on small, diversified ten to thirty acre farms. Instead, those who stayed in farming consolidated smaller farms into larger holdings of up to 100-300 acres. Ultimately, these small diversified farms that had produced a mix of grapes and berry crops such as raspberries, currants, gooseberries, and other orchard fruits were supplanted by farms that concentrated on apple cultivation.

As a child growing up in the early 1970's, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to witness the beginnings of a rebirth of the Hudson Valley grape and wine industry. New York Governor Hugh Carey appointed a task force that consulted local vintners and organizations, and the result was the Farm Winery Act of 1976. Annual fees were lowered considerably, making it more economically feasible for smaller winemakers to own and operate a winery producing under 50,000 gallons of wine. This paved the way for rapid growth of the Hudson Valley wine industry, and wineries such as Benmarl Winery, Brimstone Hill, Cascade Mountain, Chateau Georges (now Rivendell), Clinton Vineyards, and Walker Valley Vineyards were all established between 1971 and 1979.

The decade that followed was also an exciting time in the Valley's winemaking history. This is because, unlike California - which relied on a few select vinifera grape varieties to produce quality wines - we worked with many new grape varieties, and turned these grapes into new and exciting wines. Shying away from making Concord and other labrusca-type wines, local vineyards now began to grow and experiment with red French-American hybrid grapes such as Baco Noir, Cascade, Chambourcin, Chancellor, De Chaunac, Leon Millot and Marchael Foch, and white varieties such as Aurora, Seyval Blanc, Ravat 51, Verdelete, and Vidal. These wine styles included serious Frenchstyle reds and whites that had great aging potential, and fun seasonal wines such as spring wines and nouveaus, as well as ros, sparkling wines, and dessert wines.

For the next fifteen years, from the mid- 1980's onward, while the Valley slowly added a few additional wineries each decade, the industry became somewhat static. However, since 2000, the Hudson Valley wine industry has reawakened with a proliferation of new wineries. The Valley now boasts thirty-three wineries and continues to add one or two new wineries each year. Also, there is a growing interest in planting new vineyards by hobbyists, and more importantly, large commercial apple growers who are looking to partiall diversify out of apples. Local wineries are expanding their use of Old World vinifera grapes such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Riesling. Others are expanding the use of French-American hybrid grapes such as Baco, Seyval Blanc,


Hudson Valley Quote

Vidal, Ravat, and Verdelet to create wineries are also successfully using new Minnesota hybrids such as Frontenac and St. Pepin, and newer Geneva Experimental Station hybrids such as Corot Noir, Noiret, and Traminette. Dynamism and innovation has come back to our local industry.

In 2002, under the leadership of State Senator William J. Larkin, Jr. the New York State Senate established the Hudson Valley Task Force for Fruit Growers. This Task Force, after conducting roundtable meetings with growers and wineries, developed an action plan to encourage local viticulture. The Task Force introduced over forty-five bills in the State Legislature, eighteen of which have so far been signed into law. These include recognition and encouragement of micro-wineries, the reduction of license fees and annual taxes for wineries, technical and financial assistance to expand or replant vineyardsand a push towards direct interstate shipment of wine. Most recently, in 2006, Senator Larkin, along with State Senators Stephen Saland, John Bonacic, Thomas Morahan and James Seward, secured $85,000 on an annual basis to establish a new grape program at the Hudson Valley Fruit Laboratory located in Highland, New York, in Ulster County.

Without doubt, this next decade should prove to be an exciting time for our wine industry. As in the late 19th century, the Valley is beginning to accumulate a critical mass of people, money and talent to establish a truly nationally-recognized wine district that can produce wines of exceptional quality. With the increasing number of local wineries, increased interest by growers to plant grapes, and even the establishment of this new magazine - all centered within 60 miles of Albany and New York City - the Hudson Valley is poised to once again reassert its presence in the American wine scene. By just picking up this magazine, visiting our wineries, and becoming familiar with the diverse varieties of grapes and wines, you are doing your part to become part of this exciting new venture. An exciting time indeed!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

J. Stephen Casscles is the winemaker at Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent, NY and has been growing grapes in Middle Hope and Athens, NY since 1976.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Michael Bowman was born and raised on the banks of the Hudson River, and his connection to the history of the region and it’s people is clearly expressed within his works.

Michael currently resides in Cold Spring, NY with his wife. He is available for assignment work and his portfolio may be seen at www.desolateplaces.com.

 

Hudson Valley Wine magazine Summer 2014 issue

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