President’s Day reminds us of our nation’s founding fathers and the early pioneers whose contributions were vital in shaping the country. As the birthplace of American viticulture, the Hudson Valley also has its share of prominent pioneers. Who were these men? They were (and are) creative forward-thinkers whose hard work and dedication to their craft helped shape the future of the Hudson Valley’s wine industry.
While there are many who made long-lasting contributions to the art of viticulture in the region, here are a few noteworthy “founding fathers” whose legacy has helped forge a path for today’s grape growers and winemakers.
John Jaques Sr. (1790-1876)
A former cobbler, Jaques (pronounced “Jakes”) was one of the first in the Hudson Valley to establish a commercial vineyard and winery. His use of native grapes, emphasis on pure and unadulterated wine, and commitment to his customers established a standard that defined winery and vineyard practices in New York for centuries to come.
John Jaques, a cobbler by trade, established himself in Washingtonville, Orange County, in the early 1800s, and first experimented with native American labrusca grapes, hoping to cash in on the grape market in New York City. When the price of grapes dropped, he refused to compromise his sales, and turned instead towards wine, establishing Blooming Grove Winery and releasing his first commercial vintage in 1839.
With the success of this release, word of the quality and purity of Jacques’s wine spread beyond the Hudson Valley. This was an age when wine was used primarily for sacramental or medicinal purposes, with little state or federal regulations, and it was often adulterated or doctored with drugs and other foreign elements. Jaques, however, believed in the superiority of pure wines direct from the grape.
After building the winery’s now historic underground cellars, Jaques retired, leaving the business to his sons, who expanded the operation by planting new grape varieties, increasing freight shipping and delivery, and releasing various styles of aged and new wines, ports, and sherries, all of which were praised for their purity and medicinal qualities.
Ill health forced the last surviving son to sell the family winery in 1886, but the reputation for Jaques’ “pure and reliable wine” set a precedent and standard for New York wine production that would continue to be a benchmark for its new owners, surviving the turmoil of the 20th century to become Brotherhood, America’s Oldest Winery.
Dr. Richard T. Underhill (1802-1871)
A former New York City doctor, Underhill cultivated grapes at his Croton Point vineyard, cross-breeding native and European vines to produce a superior, unadulterated wine. Today, he’s best remembered for developing new grape varieties, and for promoting the American grape and wine industry during an era when America was a whiskey-drinking nation.
Richard T. Underhill abandoned his medical practice in New York City to devote time to viticulture on land that his father Robert Underhill had purchased in 1804 on Croton Point, in Westchester County. In an attempt to develop a purely American wine, the doctor first planted European grape vines in 1827, but these vines failed, so over the next two decades, along with his nephew Stephen W. Underhill, he crossbred native vines with European vines he felt were hardy enough to survive in the New York climate.
Dr. Underhill first began producing altar wines, and his experiments led to a “perfectly natural” wine which he commercially released in 1859. He advertised the wine as a natural wine—the pure juice of the grape. Underhill was the first to advocate the “Grape Cure,” and within a short period of time, prominent physicians applauded his wine as a reliable medicinal tonic, “neither drugged, liquored nor watered.” In an era of whiskey dominance and cheap adulterated wines, the reputation of Dr. Underhill’s “Original Croton Point Wines—Pure American wines” spread quickly and won many awards.
After his death in 1871, Underhill’s 75-acre vineyard began to fall into decline, as his family abandoned grape growing and winemaking, preferring instead to concentrate on the local brick-making industry. The remaining wines in Underhill’s vaults were purchased by Thurber & Co., of New York , and were quickly sold out. Many of Underhill’s hybrid breeds were eventually passed over in favor of newer hybrids, but his message would live on: the Hudson Valley was not only suitable for successfully growing a wide range of grape varieties, but was capable of producing pure and natural wines.
William Kniffin (1819-1876)
In the mid-19th century, Kniffin, an Ulster County stone mason, developed various pruning and training methods that are still used today by grape growers in the Hudson Valley and eastern parts of the United States.
In 1845, William Kniffin of Clintondale, Ulster County, planted a few acres of grapes to occupy his time during the off seasons when his masonry work slowed down. Completely by chance, a large limb broke from an apple tree in his vineyard and fell on one of his grape vines, tearing off most of the canes and reducing the vine to a single trunk. With its drooping, horizontal canes, the vine was thought to be ruined, but it turned out to bear the best fruit in the vineyard that year. From this concept, Kniffin developed the four-cane umbrella system of training which now bears his name, the Kniffin Umbrella.
Kniffin continued on to develop other vine training methods, including the Two-Arm Kniffin and the Y-Trunk Kniffin, and was highly regarded as a local authority on grape culture. At the time of his untimely death in 1876 at age 59, the merits of his pruning and training techniques had spread so rapidly, that by the end of the 19th century the Kniffin methods had become the standard procedures for vineyard management throughout the eastern United States.
Everett Sumner Crosby (1911-1994)
Crosby’s small, family-run winery, High Tor, was the first commercial winery in the Hudson Valley to produce its wine entirely from French-American hybrids.
Everett S. Crosby, a former radio and TV script writer was transplanted to the Hudson Valley in 1947, after several years in Manhattan where he experimented with growing grapes on his terrace. In 1950, he purchased the historic 78-acre High Tor site in Rockland County, just 20 miles north of New York City, to fulfill his life-long dream—to produce quality grapes and wines.
After much consultation, Crosby decided on French-American hybrid grapes, which were then new to American viticulture. Crosby was convinced they would be able to withstand the rigors of the New York climate and the stony soils of High Tor, yet still produce a wine that was French in quality.
Crosby handpicked the varieties to plant in his vineyard, deciding on such vines as Baco 23-24, Seyve-Villard 5-276, Seibel 7053, and Seibel 498. Decades later these grapes could be found growing throughout the Hudson Valley, but with more recognizable names—Baco Noir, Seyval-Blanc, Chancellor, and Rayon D’Or.
By 1953 the first harvest was in and the following year High Tor’s inaugural release, a hybrid white wine called Rockland White, was on the market. The wine received rave reviews from New York food and wine critics rocketing him to national and international fame. For the next two decades, Crosby marketed and sold all the Rockland White, Rockland Red, and Rockland Rosé his small winery was able to produce, while fighting unsuccessfully to modify New York’s antiquated wine laws.
Crosby sold the winery and vineyard in 1971, afterwards writing a history of the bureaucratic red tape he experienced while running a small commercial winery in New York State. His groundbreaking work impressed and encouraged others to follow in his footsteps, changing the way the world looked at Hudson Valley and New York wines.
Mark Miller (1919-2008)
Miller, a magazine illustrator turned highly-regarded winemaker, established Benmarl Vineyards in Marlboro with French-American hybrids and European viniferas. Miller is often regarded as the father of the winemaking renaissance in the Hudson Valley, as his efforts to revise New York wine laws in favor of small artisanal wineries resulted in the landmark Farm Winery Act of 1976.
In 1956, Mark Miller, a prominent commercial artist, purchased the old Caywood property overlooking the Hudson River, in Marlboro, New York, and continued in the footsteps of its first owner, Andrew Jackson Caywood, a noted viticulturist of the 19th century. Miller renamed the vineyard Benmarl, a Gaelic term for “hill of slate”, which aptly described the vineyard’s terroir.
A novice to both viticulture and viniculture, Miller learned the art of winemaking in the Burgundy region of France, where he relocated with his family to pursue his illustration career. Returning to Benmarl in the late 1960s, he replanted his vineyards with French-American hybrid varieties, notably Baco Noir, Seyval Blanc and Aurora, and European varieties including Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. By 1967 he had his first harvest and in 1972 began selling his world-class wines commercially to great acclaim, even creating the illustrations for the labels himself.
With single-minded determination, Miller created the Sociéte des Vignerons to help support his efforts and experiments in the vineyard and winery. Friends and local farmers were invited to join by sponsoring his experimental grapevines, each receiving a case or two of wine in return.
In an attempt to revive the Valley’s viticultural heritage, Miller simultaneously pursued and lobbied for state legislation which would support small farm viticulture in New York, seemingly still in a state of disrepair since the end of Prohibition.
It took more than fifteen years of perseverance, but in 1976, New York State’s landmark Farm Winery Act was finally signed into law by Gov. Hugh Carey. (Miller is sixth from left in the photo above.) By creating a new category of winery— the small artisanal winery (producing under 50,000 gallons a year)—the law not only set a low annual fee for a small-winery license, but allowed producers to sell directly to the public all week long (including Sunday) and encouraged the use of New York-grown grapes. In recognition of his efforts and commitment to championing the Hudson Valley as a premium wine grape region, Miller was awarded New York State farm winery license No. 1.
Within just a few years, there were over two dozen new wineries in the Hudson Valley—a new breed of winemakers growing hybrid and vinifera grapes, making excellent wines, and re-establishing New York as a new center for quality American wines. Miller retired in 2003, officially leaving the winery in the hands of his son Eric Miller, a noted winemaker in his own right.
John S. Dyson
As a New York State Commissioner of Agriculture, then Commerce, Dyson formed the Task Force that was instrumental in helping to pass the landmark 1976 Farm Winery bill. Realizing the need for sustaining and developing agricultural lands in the State, Dyson went on to establish Millbrook Vineyard and Winery, renowned for being the first vineyard in the Hudson Valley planted exclusively with vinifera grapes.
John Dyson served as Commissioner of Agriculture in the early 1970s after earning a degree in agricultural economics at Cornell University. In his role on the Task Force, he came across the bill drafted by Mark Miller to enable farmers to make and sell wine for a small licensing fee. Dyson took an active role in its legislation, and in June 1976 Governor Hugh Carey signed the Farm Winery Law into effect, forever changing the face of the New York wine scene by encouraging the growth of small wineries.
A passionate wine enthusiast, Dyson began experimenting with grape growing by planting an acre of vinifera grapes on his family farm in Millbrook. In 1979, he purchased a 130-acre former dairy farm, and began the first of many viticultural experiments using different vinifera grape varietals, rootstocks, and trellising techniques. Just a few years later, in 1981, Dyson opened Millbrook Vineyards & Winery along with his brother-in-law David Bova. Millbrook released its first commercial wine in 1985, Hudson River Region Claret, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.
Today there are over 35 acres of vineyards at Millbrook devoted to classic European varieties—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Tocai Friulano. Millbrook continues its use of experimental and innovative viticultural practices and classic European winemaking techniques to produce high-quality wines that receive worldwide acclaim.
As the first successful vineyard in the Hudson River Region dedicated exclusively to the production of vinifera grapes, Dyson has proven, and continues to show, that the climate, soil, and hillsides of the Hudson Valley are well-suited for making premium European-style wines.
Author’s Note: If this list seems incomplete, don’t worry, Parts 2 and 3 are coming!
Images: Flint Mine Press archives