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By Carlo De Vito

By the early 1800s, the Hudson Valley's fledgling wine industry was in flux. The vinifera that so many European settlers had brought with them and knew how to work had come to naught. The plants could not survive the extreme weather, and those that did succumbed to disease, rot, and the deadly phylloxera insect. The wild, native varieties such as labrusca, riparia and vulpina mystified even the Huguenots, who could not find a way to make decent wines from them. The Valley was stymied for wine - a common occurrence throughout the newly-formed nation - as the farmers had neither tamed their grapes nor learned to work their "terroir." Without decent local wines to distribute throughout the states, beer, cider, and hard spirits, especially rum, began to fill the void. The best wines available, for a time only, were mostly imported through New York City, and came from European countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain. This was a trend that would continue for the next century. In the second part of this two-part article in honor of the Quadricentennial, winemaker Carlo De Vito explores the rise and fall and rebirth of the Hudson Valley's wine heritage.


SUCCESSFUL GRAPE GROWING in the Hudson Valley finally came with the discovery, recognition, and cultivation of the New World grapes such as Alexandra, Concord, Isabella, Niagara, Iona and Catawba, among others. In the early 1800s, these grapes could be grown in great abundance here in the Hudson Valley, and farmers worked to understand what made them so successful.

Eventually grape production began to pick up, although winemaking lagged behind, because these grapes produced wines that emanated a "foxy" quality that was then considered unattractive in wine. But with the successful growing of these grapes, farmers and botanists began experimenting and breeding new strains of grapes.

Until the early 1800s the native grapes were often pressed into wine by the early colonialists, but vineyards were an unknown quantity. Things began to change in 1804, when Quaker Robert A. Underhill bought 250 acres on Croton Point in Westchester County for farming. When Underhill died in 1829, he left the property to his sons Richard T. and William A. Richard, a practicing doctor in New York City, initially planted grapevines brought from Europe with the intention of making wines to sell, although attempts to cultivate these vines failed. Over the next two decades Underhill experimented with cross-breeding native and European vines and the results paid off - grapes growing on vines hardy enough to survive the Eastern climate. Growing mostly Catawba and Isabella grapes, the vineyard soon grew to seventy-five acres, and as the first successful, commercial vineyard, supplied grapes to the city markets north and south in the Valley.

The Underhills were also the first winery established in the Valley, although they did not commercially sell the wines they produced until 1859. Dr. Underhill aimed to produce a characteristic American wine, and his preference was the production of a "perfectly natural wine" - the pure juice of the grape - that was advertised as "neither drugged, liquored nor watered." Their Croton Point wines and grapes won many awards, and were sold in New York City from an establishment called "Pure Wine and Grape Depot." Underhill's wines earned a reputation that stretched practically around the world, and Richard T. Underhill himself attained national reputation as one of the first great hybridizers of the Hudson Valley.

Robert A. Underhill wine vaults on Croton Point on the HudsonIn 1816, French Huguenot Jean (John) Jacques purchased a farm in the Hudson Valley and began planting grapes. By 1937, needing more land, Jacques purchased and planted additional vines of Isabella and Catawba in Washingtonville, in Orange County. Just two years later, in 1839, he introduced the first commercial vintage under his label, Blooming Grove Winery. For nearly two decades Jacques and his family made wine for popular consumption as well as altar wines. In 1858, his property and winery passed to his three sons, and was renamed "Jacques Brothers' Winery.

"While Underhill and Jacques Brothers were cornering the wine market, across the river in Amenia, in Dutchess County, a cultish utopian community that called itself the “Brotherhood of New Life,” founded their own winery at one their communes. Led by Thomas Lake Harris, “Brotherhood” made wine in the Hudson Valley between 1860-1864, in the belief that wine had divine and miraculous powers. Harris’s wines proved to be popular, and were sold throughout the United States, Europe and Africa. In 1865, the commune moved to a new location on Lake Erie, and continued to produce their “blessed” wine until 1881, when they relocated west to California.

In 1845, William T. Cornell established a vineyard of Isabella grapes, in Ulster County near Clintonville, and his endeavors greatly interested his brother-in-law, Andrew Caywood, who settled in Marlborough and began experimenting on his own with grape hybrids. Caywood's successful crossbreeding of vinifera and native grapes made him a leading authority on hybrids, and contributed greatly to the region and the Eastern wine industry - in fact, one of his more well-known hybrids, the Dutchess grape, is still grown there today.

The Hudson Valley soon became a hotbed of grape experimentation, and by the middle of the nineteenth century led the country in both hybridization, varietals and new techniques. In addition to the hybridizers, such as Underhill and Caywood, were names like W.D. Barnes (of Middle Hope), Dr. C.W. Grant (at Iona Island), and J.H. Ricketts (of Newburgh), who helped developed some of the nation's most important new grape varietals. Noted viticulturalist William Kniffin of Clintondale developed new grape training techniques such as the Hudson River umbrella, and the four- and two-arm Kniffin pruning systems, which quickly spread beyond the Valley region.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, grape growing in New York and the Hudson Valley had been one of the most successful fruit industries. By then, Concord, Catawba, Champion, Cottage, Clinton, Brighton, Bacchus, Delaware, Elvira, Empire State, Hartford, Moore, Martha, Niagara, Pocklington, Dutchess, Worden, Wyoming and Ulster comprised nearly all the varieties that were grown for market.

Despite the success, the earliest wineries had undergone a transformation - Underhill's 1871 vintage was their last, with the passing of Dr. Underhill that year, and the remaining wines in the vaults were sold by Thurber & Company of New York City. New York Wine merchant Jesse Emerson and his son Edward acquired Harris's "Brotherhood" operation when they relocated west, and in 1886 purchased Blooming Grove from the last surviving Jacques brother. The Emersons consolidated their operations at Washingtonville, and transferred the Brotherhood Wine Company name to the current location, where it has remained ever since.

By this time, Pellham Farm had become one of the largest producers of grapes in the Hudson Valley. Pellham Farm was the name of the magnificent Hudson River estate of Robert L. Pell, Esq., in Esopus, Ulster County. In addition to his rather sizeable orchard and fruit operation, Pell had a 50-acre vineyard of Isabella grapes, originally planted in 1854. The vineyard produced one hundred bushel-and-a-half baskets in a single day during harvest season, and Pell's farm required four steamers a day to transport his goods to market. Pell wisely grew Isabella because it was picked at a different time than Concord, Iona and others, and gave him an advantage in the marketplace, his grapes arriving when no others were to be had.

Meckes’s Vineyards in MarlboroughNoted author and naturalist John Burroughs, also well-known as "the vine-dresser of Esopus," cultivated Delaware, Niagara, Worden and Moore's Early from his nineacre Riverby Vineyards, at West Park in Ulster County. As Burroughs grew into old age, he could no longer tend the vines, and he eventually gave way to his son, Julian, who also tended the Riverby Vineyards for many years.

Other well-known vineyards of the time included Young's Farm and Meckes's Vineyards, both of which were located in Marlborough. The Meckes were descendants of the Caywoods, of the Caywood property on River Road. There were also many growers, whose families continue to farm: Baldwin, Greiner, Borchert, Fino, Quimby, Weed, Lyons, Cosman and Shrieber.

The grape industry in the Hudson Valley grew rapidly towards the middle of the nineteenth century, and reached its height between 1880 and 1890, when the Census Report recorded that there were some 13,000 acres under cultivation. In some sections grape growing was found to be so profitable, that it assumed gigantic proportions and many vineyards were heavily over-planted with worthless commercial varieties, or in areas which were totally unsuited to grape growing. Within a short time, the use of table grapes for eating and juice and jellies began to surpass the amounts used for wine. Competition from other districts became stronger, viticulture began drifting to the Finger Lakes, the Midwest and California, and the Valley region become more prominent in fruits and tree fruits. And while the Hudson River Valley was considered the birthplace of American viticulture - claiming the oldest winery, the oldest vineyard, the first distributing point, the greatest number of varieties, and the largest body of hybridists and viticulturists - by 1900, grape cultivation had dropped to 6,000 acres of vineyards.

As early as the mid-nineteenth century, American vines brought to France for experimentation had brought with them the curse - that native, North American grapevine root louse which came to be known as phylloxera. The louse infested vineyards throughout France, killing off some of its most prized vineyards. Decades of research got underway - both in breeding, grafting, and vineyard techniques.

Eventually, all of France's vineyards were replanted, with French vinifera grafted onto Eastern American rootstocks such as riparia, aestivalis and rotundifolia species, which were phylloxera-resistant. However, French scientists like Albert Seibel, worked diligently and cross-pollinated French and American grapes. This experimentation by French hybridists, intended to save their European vines, lead to new grape varieties that would ultimately usher in a new age for the Valley, and become the basis of many Hudson Valley vineyards, including Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Chelois, Chambourcin, and DeChaunac, to name just a few.

By the turn of the twentieth century local grape production had become so plentiful that even good packing, low prices and intensive distribution could hardly suffice to dispose of the crop. Unfermented grape juice, champagne and commercial sweet wines began to rise, creating additional markets. There were still a few vineyards operating in the Valley, but few specialized in wine. Along with Young's Farm and Meckes's Vineyards in Marlborough, the Bolognesi family had founded the Hudson Valley Wine Company in 1904, in Highland, Ulster County. For four centuries, the Bolognesi family had made wines in Italy, and now newly settled in the US, continued the family tradition, initially making altar wines for local monasteries and later, sparkling wines.

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farmerette in the vineyard at Yong's farmThe 1919 implementation of Prohibition was devastating to the alcohol-brewing and wine industry in the Hudson Valley. Many grape growers converted vineyards to other crops, wineries closed, and the grape juice factories absorbed a fairly large portion of stock that was formerly used for wine. Few wineries, such as Brotherhood and the Hudson Valley Wine Company, were able to survive by making and selling sacramental or altar wines, with such inspirational names as Loyola, Aquinas and St. Benedict.

In the ensuing decades after Prohibition, American wine still had the unfortunate reputation of being a "cheap drink," and it wasn't until World War II, when the association between wine and spirits was strengthened, that several large distillers branched out into the wine business. As with most other agriculturally-based enterprises, winemaking began to grow during the postwar years. As prosperous and well-traveled Americans began developing a taste for table wines, wine consumption was transported from the gutter into affluent and sophisticated homes.

It was at this point, in 1950, that Everett Summer Crosby began High Tor Vineyards, in Rockland County. Crosby wasn't a pioneer, nor was he a great winemaker, but he created a vineyard in the Hudson Valley that soon became the most famous winery on the East Coast. Crosby set out to prove that he could produce quality grapes and wines just 20 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. His products stood the test as he marketed as much of his Rockland White, Rockland Red and Rockland Rosé as he and his family could produce. Crosby's lasting legacy was that he was an inspiration to a new breed and generation of winemakers set on creating small, quality wines in the valley. Crosby was also mentor to many, including a young fledgling vintner named Mark Miller, who founded Benmarl Winery in 1957, on the site of the former vineyards of Andrew Caywood.

Building on what Crosby had created, Miller took Hudson Valley winemaking to a new level. He was widely regarded as the father of the winemaking renaissance in the Hudson Valley, prompting even the New York Times to acknowledge that he was the "highly visible public advocate for small artisanal wineries, known as farm wineries." Miller's first harvest was in 1967, and his first vintage was sold commercially in 1972. Benmarl wines were praised by critics and featured at prominent restaurants, including the Four Seasons in New York City. By 1991, Benmarl Winery's seventy acres of vines were producing 10,000 cases a year.

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Miller's reputation, and his advocacy, helped pass New York State's Farm Winery Bill, which was signed into law by Governor Hugh L. Carey on June 4, 1976. Among other things, the bill lowered the annual fee for a small-winery license from $1,250 to $125. For his work, Mr. Miller was awarded New York State Farm Winery License No. 1. The Farm Winery Bill created new opportunities for the Hudson Valley and promoted the rapid growth of its wine industry, with the likes of Chateau Georges, Gardner Vineyard and Farms, Brimstone Hill Vineyard, Adair Winery, and Baldwin Winery.

During this period, Brotherhood continued to make wines from labrusca variety grapes - Concord, Niagara, Dutchess, Ives and Catawba. However, in the 1980s, under the stewardship of Cesar Bezar, Brotherhood entered a new age of fine winemaking. While they have kept some of the old, popular wines available, today, under Bezar, the winery has made a new name for itself with fine sparkling wines and mature, elegant reds (Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir) and whites (Chardonnay and Riesling) in the classic European tradition.

One of the major investments in winemaking in the valley was Millbrook Vineyards, which was started by John Dyson, the former Commissioner of Agriculture who had formed the task force that drew up the Farm Winery Bill. Today, with John Graziano as winemaker, Millbrook is considered by many as the flagship winery in the Hudson River Region. They continue to receive rave reviews from the New York Times, Wine Spectator, and many other publications.

Since 2001, the Hudson Valley itself has gone through a tremendous renaissance, ushering in a new era of organic farms, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), artisanal cheese makers, organic millers, heirloom vegetables and fruits, small hand-crafted dairies, organic and grass-fed meats and even the northern hemisphere's largest above ground, salt water fish farm. And the wineries have kept pace, with the rise of small boutique wineries. This wave of small, artisanal producers have created a wide variety of styles that have greatly enhanced the Valley's reputation for fine wines.

Once a wine region crippled by difficult grape growing and Prohibition, the Valley is now rising anew. New winemaking techniques, equipment, grape varieties, and soil management techniques have all contributed to keeping the Hudson Valley near the forefront of the Eastern wine industry. More talent has been attracted to the Valley, and there is even a better understanding of the terroir of the region and how to produce wine grapes that will make outstanding wines.

As of this Quadricentennial year, there are more than 30 bonded wineries in the Hudson River Region - one of the most exciting viticultural places in the world today. Few places on earth offer the rich agriculture cornucopia that our Valley does, as well as the quality and diversity of produce, not to mention landscapes and vistas that are absolutely breathtaking.

No matter what you're looking for, the Hudson River Region is an embarrassment of riches, and a beautiful day's drive from one of the world's busiest cities.

From the Ice Age to a New Age

Part I of this article appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Hudson Valley Wine magazine.


Carlo De Vito is a 20-year executive of the book publishing industry, and has authored more than 15 books, including East Coast Wineries: The Complete guide From Maine to Virginia (Rutgers University Press). Carlo writes the influential wine blog, and co-owns with his wife, Dominique, the awardwinning Hudson-Chatham Winery in Ghent, NY. They have two children and two dogs.


Hudson Valley Wine magazine Summer 2014 issue

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