It’s a raw early April morning, and the sun is rising over the rolling hills at Milea Estate Vineyard in Staatsburg. Most farmers in the Hudson Valley are waiting until the last frost date has passed in May before they can get outside, but Bruce Tripp and Ed Evans have been working out in the cold since February, racing to get the vineyard’s grapes pruned before the vine’s buds start bursting next month. If they finish in time, their reward will then be to move on to “hilling down” the vines, reversing the work they did in the fall when they mounded the soil above the vine’s graft unions in order to protect them. If the soil isn’t then knocked back down before the growing season begins, the grafted vinifera vines, as opposed to the native rootstock, will start growing out roots of their own.
“And then,” said Tripp, “You’re going to have problems.” Phylloxera, specifically: The tiny, sap-sucking bugs would then feed on the new vinifera roots – the native roots are resistant to them – killing the vines. Complicating this is the fact that this year, there’s a lot more vines to prune and hill down. Last year, Milea owner Barry Milea bought the 45-year old Clinton Vineyards in Clinton Corners, so there’s now twenty acres of grapes to care for, almost double what Tripp and Evans were caring for last year.
Adding Clinton Vineyards to the portfolio means more than just a bigger workload. It’s part of an ambitious multi-pronged plan that the seven year-old Milea Estate is kicking off to change how wine is made here in the Hudson Valley, and to change how that wine is perceived around the world.
Some of that plan involves looking back to the past: Not just in the acquisition of the historic Sevyal Blanc fields at Clinton Vineyards, but in the founding of the Hudson Valley Heritage Wine Project. Spearheaded by J. Stephen Casscles, who’s currently finishing writing a second edition of his book Grapes of the Hudson Valley and Other Cool Climate Regions of the United States and Canada, the project will study, celebrate, grow – and then make wine from – heritage grapes that were first bred in the Hudson Valley in the 19th century but have fallen out of favor in recent decades.
The Heritage Wine Project is not meant to be a historical curiosity. Casscles believes that local, heritage grape breeds are more ecologically sustainable when grown here than many other grapes that don’t originate from the Hudson Valley: The heritage breeds require less chemical interventions, are resistant to fungal diseases, and are better suited to adapt to the changing climate of the years ahead.
The grapes of the past will help make the wines of the future. And at Milea, they believe that those wines of the future, both their own and the wines of other Hudson Valley winemakers, are going to be attracting a lot more attention and interest than the region has previously been known for.
“The whole plan here,” says Tripp, “is to elevate the production of wine to an international standard. These are not provincial wines. These are the real deal.”
The Luxury of Time
Russell Moss thinks that the reason that Hudson Valley wines often get overlooked isn’t the wine. Not only does he believe the wines made here – and not just by Milea – are world class, but that they have been for some time.
“But the marketing hasn’t really been behind it,” said Moss. Marketing and winemaking are two things that Moss has an extensive background in. Before signing on as Milea’s general manager last year, he was teaching viticulture at Cornell University. He holds two masters degrees – one in viticulture, one in enology – and has managed vineyards and made wine in four different countries. And he serves in an official capacity as wine consultant to the Kingdom of Bhutan.
So it carries some weight when Moss says, while serving as a consultant to Milea, that he felt that the vineyard had the potential to raise the region’s profile. “What I saw was Barry Milea’s drive and willingness to create the Hudson Valley’s first luxury wine company,” said Moss. “And he’s got the willpower to execute.” What Barry didn’t have was time, as he still lives and works in New York City and can’t be at the vineyard full time. Moss offered to leave teaching behind and be the full time steward that Barry currently can’t in order to realize his vision.
The whole plan here is to elevate the production of wine to an international standard. These are not provincial wines. These are the real deal.—Bruce Tripp, Co-owner/Winemaker
Moss defines a luxury wine company by two things: Quality and rarity. The rarity is exemplified by the Hudson Valley Heritage Wine Project, producing wines made from grapes that only Milea is growing (although the Project hopes to inspire others to eventually plant these previously forgotten, culturally important breeds as well). The finished wines will first be available through Milea’s wine clubs, and will probably be consumed before they ever get a chance to hit the greater public market. One of the Heritage wines that Milea has already put out, the 2020 “Jefferson,” is made with its namesake white grapes that were first bred in Newburgh in 1874 and is the first commercially produced wine featuring these grapes in the world. “These are high-end, high-attention-to-detail wines,” said Moss.
Quality, said Moss, also flows from that high-attention-to-detail, what he calls an “intentionality” that starts with farming practices and extends through to the experience that visitors to the vineyard have, and even to the packaging. To that end, Milea is in the process of making some serious upgrades. A new 10,000 square foot cellar will be built in the next year – the current cellar has already been upgraded twice in the vineyard’s short history – to go along with the new press and new bottling line that the vineyard just bought. Moss said that these additions make Milea the most technologically advanced winery in the Valley.
“We just put a new chiller in which I believe has really upped the game,” said Ed Evans. “There’s more control. Each tank has its own thermostat, you can really dial it in.” Tripp said that this increase in control will lead to a smoother product. “When you’re making aromatic white wines, it’s all about cold fermentation,” he said, such as Milea’s Traminette. “If you don’t have a good chiller, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Not all the upgrades are technological. The vineyard is also adding an event space, rooms to stay overnight in, and had just acquired their catering license, so that a CIA trained chef can add a culinary program involving wine pairings with food. This hospitality upgrade points to an experience at Milea that will aim for more of a west coast style experience, where the vibe is of utmost importance and the vineyard serves to promote not only wine, but the upscale lifestyle more frequently associated with Napa Valley instead of the Hudson Valley.
Everyone at Milea agrees that this shouldn’t be much of a stretch, as the Hudson Valley has one very important thing in common with the well established and well-regarded west coast wine cultures. Napa Valley’s success was borne out of the wealth and status of nearby Silicon Valley. The Willamette region in Oregon benefited from its close proximity to Portland, at a time in which both athletic shoe and computer companies were booming there. A world class wine region needs a world-class clientele nearby.
“The Finger Lakes make great wine,” said Tripp. “But if you’re in New York City and you want to go there, it’s five hours away.”
“You want farm-to-table?” asked Barry. “You can’t get any closer than this.”
Both Napa Valley and the Willamette region were once bulk wine producers, said Moss, until they started attracting attention and investment from booming urban centers nearby. Access to the capital and markets of the Bay area and Portland, respectively, transformed them into high-end, luxury wine destinations making select, high-value wines. The Hudson Valley’s wine scene has certainly benefited from its proximity to New York City, but the region hasn’t yet undergone the same large-scale transformations that happened decades ago in California and Oregon. It may be the oldest wine producing region in the country, but Moss says that in many ways it’s still a young market. “That’s why I got so excited about this,” he said. “It hasn’t reached its potential.”
Moss believes that the investment Milea is making to distinguish itself as the high-end luxury wine brand of New York will attract the attention and capital needed to transform the Hudson Valley’s wine region. Everyone at the vineyard is upfront about their goal to promote and elevate the whole region, not just Milea. “Barry and I think that a rising tide will lift all boats,” said Moss.
The Valley has already begun that upgrade with the forming a few years ago of the Hudson Valley Cabernet Franc Coalition. The grape was chosen by several local producers, including Milea, to be a priority in the years to come. Part of that is marketing, said Moss. Cab Franc is a high-value grape that attracts attention in a way that the bulk Rieslings made in other areas of the state do not.
The Hudson Valley’s wine scene has certainly benefited from its proximity to New York City, but the region hasn’t yet undergone the same large-scale transformations that happened decades ago in California and Oregon.—Russell Moss, General Manager
But all the marketing in the world means nothing if the wines aren’t high-quality. In that regard, the young Cab Franc coalition has already been a success. The grape was also chosen as a focal point because it’s ideally suited to grow in the Valley’s cold, fickle, maritime climate, which is similar in many ways to the Loire Valley, traditionally a stronghold for Cabernet Franc.
“Nobody can produce Cab Franc the way we can,” said Barry. “Because of our terroir. And what we’re producing now is light years away from what we were producing three years ago. When you taste our 2020, it’s going to blow your socks off.” Again, Barry emphasizes that the “we” in this case isn’t just Milea, it’s all the producers in the Cab Franc coalition. “I think that this cumulative work ethic between all the wineries is what’s motivating the quality of the wines at this point. We’re part of the movement.”
The high quality wines will help to attract, and impress, a clientele coming up from New York City who are looking for something other than a wine slushie when they visit a vineyard.
“The customer coming here is looking for wines that they’ve tasted in Europe,” said Tripp. “They’ve been to the Wachau Valley and they know what Grüner Veltliner tastes like. They know Blaufränkisch and even Traminette to an extent. They’ve been exposed to a lot of different things. Cab Franc is mainstream to them.”
The addition of Clinton Vineyards to the Milea portfolio will also allow Milea to offer an experience unlike any other in the state. “They were one of the pioneers of the whole Hudson Valley wine industry and that property is just a jewel,” said Barry. “So we’re going to renovate it, give it some tender loving care, and bring it back to what it was.”
“What it was” was a vineyard that’s been producing Méthode Champenoise wines for so long that they’re legally allowed to call them “champagne.” Milea will continue to put out Clinton’s sparkling wines under the Clinton label, but plans to relaunch the brand as a high-end Méthode Champenoise house in order to highlight the brand’s heritage and uniqueness. The vineyard is teaming up with Scott Dwyer, a leading sparkling wine consultant from Oregon, to make the next generation of Méthode Champenoise wines at Clinton, while also making a wine in the same method using Oregon grapes. Moss, an Oregonian himself, was viticulturist for Oregon’s iconic Domaine Serene and their Burgundy domaine, Chateau de la Cree. It was there that he first met and worked with Dwyer. Offering the Oregon and New York Méthode Champenoise wines side-by-side will give tasters a “Left Bank/Right Bank” experience, said Moss, and show off the vineyard’s potential.
In the late 19th century, New York was the center of the American champagne industry, largely thanks to Pleasant Valley Wine Company in the Finger Lakes and Brotherhood Winery here in the Hudson Valley. With the relaunch of Clinton Vineyards, Milea is hoping to restore the Empire State to its former sparkling glory.
“We’re certain that New York can make some of the finest Méthode Champenoise wines in the country, if not the world,” said Moss. “And we’re going to put them up against award winning Oregonian sparkling wine. Oregon is coming on as the quality leader in that space in the country. New York has traditionally been very weak in the market, so we’re coming on very strong and saying we make the best wine. Full stop. Come try our wine. This is the best.”
Skeptics will raise their eyebrows at a statement like that, but Barry Milea knows that his wines can back it up. He knows that the Hudson Valley has, traditionally, not had the best reputation when it comes to wine making regions. His great grandfather was farming in Newburgh in the 1920s. He knows the Valley’s history, what it’s been through, and its evolutions. And he knows that it’s all about to change.
“Come here and taste it and make your own opinion,” said Barry. “They’re doing great things in the Finger Lakes and wonderful things in Long Island, but we’re doing phenomenal things in the Hudson Valley.”
To learn more about the Hudson Heritage Project, visit the website.