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Rediscovering the Face of Hudson Valley Wine

Vintage Hudson Valley wine labels

To the great majority of wine drinkers, the label is the key to the wine they are planning to purchase. A glance at the label on a bottle will reveal a great deal about viticultural origins, style, and most importantly, the sort of taste to expect. Not only does it play an integral part in creating an identity for the wine and the winery, but it is a reflection of the tradition and culture of the wine-producing region. Nowhere is this more true than in our own Hudson Valley, which holds claim to both the oldest continuously-operated winery, and the oldest commercial vineyards.

Pure Grape Wines

Wine labels, in their present form as paper labels, became commonplace by the middle of the nineteenth century, just as the commercial wine industry was beginning to surface in the Hudson Valley. Both the bottle and the cork were already fairly well-established in Europe by the time John Jaques, a European emigre, began farming in 1816, in Washingtonville, Orange County. His successful plantings of native Isabella and Catawba vines enabled him to produce his first vintage as early as 1839, under the name of Blooming Grove Wines. Jaques, and later his sons, (as Jaques Brothers Winery) understood the importance of advertising and promotion, especially in distinguishing their product from other  poor imitations. Emphasis was on “purity” and the phrase “Pure Grape Wines” and “Pure Wines from the Grape” was featured both in their circulars and on their labels.

photo of vintage bottle of 1893 Jacques' Old Port, from Brotherhood Wine CompanyJacque Sr. and sons were also among the first to add descriptive terms to their labels: Fine Old Claret, Pure White Isabella, Sweet Catawba, and allusions to European wines – such as the French phrase Qualité Supérieur – were used to set their wines apart from other brands. In all cases, the Jaques label meant a pure and reliable wine, one that was advertised as “true to name and prime in quality.”

Wine culture during this era was still in its infancy in the U.S., and was limited to knowledge of foreign wines, mostly imported from France and Germany. Early criticism branded American wines as “inferior,” and “scarcely fit to drink,” and so early Americans leaned towards wines with European names, which offered some degree of familiarity. As the Hudson Valley wine industry began to grow in the mid-nineteenth century, one could see new labels with “foreign” designations beginning to appear on domestic wine: Moselle Wine (a dry white wine similar to those produced along the Mosel river in Germany); Hoch or Hock Wine (from the British term for German Rhine wines known as hockamore); and Claret (generically describing a dry, dark red wine, from the French clairet, describing the color of a Bordeaux). Such “European-style” vintages appealed to those who would not accept native wine although Jaques brands of “Native Hoch” or “Fine Old Claret” would generally be composed of Delaware, Isabella, Catawba or even Concord.

American perception at that time was that wine was considered more appropriate for sacramental or communion use, and especially of value as a medicinal tonic. This latter view was supported by Richard T. Underhill, a former physician who abandoned his medical practice in New York City to grow grapes and make wine in the Hudson Valley.

Dr. Underhill inherited his father’s estate in 1829, and after much experimentation, succeeded in growing native grapes. Dr. Underhill was one of the first, if not the first in the Hudson Valley to advocate the “Grape Cure,” and shortly after his first vintage in 1859, prominent physicians already spoke of Underhill’s wine as a reliable tonic: “Very good for the feeble, the delicate, the aged and dyspeptic.” Underhill advertised his wares in the leading medical journals of the day, and promoted his wines as “Dr. Underhill’s Original Croton Point Wines—Pure American wines—Juice of the grape, neither drugged, liquored nor watered.” Underhill’s extensive acreage in Croton Point, Westchester County, consisted primarily of Isabella and Catawba, and his brands, with simple labels such as Dry Union Port, Pure Isabella and Pure Catawba, were sold at his own “Pure Wine and Grape Depot” in New York City.

When Thurber & Co. purchased Underhill’s entire wine cellar, after his death in 1871, they capitalized on the good doctor’s reputation. His thirteenyear- old stock was promoted as being “old and mellow,” and with the original labeling intact was prized for its “purity, flavor and age.” Thurber & Co. proudly declared that these wines were now “the best on the market and could be absolutely depended upon for sacramental and medicinal purposes where purity was necessary.”

America’s Oldest Winery

By the last decades of the nineteenth century there was a remarkable increase in the production of American wine – a reported 40 million gallons by 1880. With this new surge came the need to develop more attractive and descriptive labels to identify various wines and diverse styles, as mass merchandising of wine became more widespread. As competition between the east and west coasts increased, the labels quickly became a vital part of the marketing process.

The Hudson Valley’s biggest wine producer at this time was Jesse M. Emerson, who with his two sons, had purchased the entire Jaques estate. The Emersons also incorporated their acquisition of the well-known wines of the utopian community, Brotherhood of New Life, in Brockton (originally founded in 1861 in Amenia, Dutchess County). Concentrating their facilities at the Jaques Brothers’ Washingtonville facility, they organized under the name of “Brotherhood Wine Company.”

photo of 8 vintage Hudson Valley wine labels from the 19th and early 20th century

Emerson capitalized on the well-established reputations of both wineries and proclaimed Brotherhood as America’s oldest winery, with labels proudly boasting “Established in 1839.” Existing stock was renamed and labeled to reflect their origins – Old Brocton Port; Jacques’ Old Port; Jaques’ Old Madeira, etc. – initially emphasizing the heritage and brand name, rather than the varietal. But Emerson quickly offered a diverse selection of everything from Old Dry Golden Delaware to Sweet Catawba and Dry Iona. Foreign wine imports had dropped nearly fifty percent by these last decades of the nineteenth century, and Brotherhood capitalized on the generic European names which had now spread throughout the country, with labels offering Pure Table Claret, Sunnyside Claret, Sparkling Burgundy and Sauterne (without the plural “s” as in the French Sauternes). The latter were popular with many fine New York City hotels and restaurants, who gladly accepted these native wines with foreign-sounding names and customized labels.

With the emergence of foreign Expositions and World Fairs, and the resulting international recognition, further comparisons with European vintages, and even their labels, were unavoidable, and the French château style image became a popular motif. Brotherhood wines began featuring an image of the John Jaques Building, site of their 1823 winery and cellars.

The native American grapes had come a long way since Jaques’ and Underhill’s early plantings and it was their popularity that contributed to the success of these late-nineteenth century Hudson Valley wines. American appetite for domestic wine was beginning to increase, and while Isabella was on its way out as a useful grape, blends of Delaware, Dutchess and Iona, and especially Catawba, were still very popular. These varietals provided many opportunities to produce unique white and sparkling wines – the higher acids and low sugars of the native grapes contributed much to the success of sparkling wine from the Hudson Valley and New York State. Bearing names like Extra Dry, New York State Champagne, Vin Crest Brut, and Sparkling Burgundy (the labels at times noting “the traditional French process of methode champenoise,” or fermentation in the bottle), the Hudson Valley wineries were able to carry on their tradition of fine winemaking into its second century.

A New Century

Federal laws at this time were concerned mostly with revenue and taxation, while State legislation individually addressed the branding and labeling of bottles, casks, kegs and boxes. Most New York laws focused on imposing regulations and taxes on the consumption of alcohol. In fact, there were no regulations prohibiting wineries from selling distilled liquor, and unencumbered with present-day legalities they were free to bottle and distribute distilled spirits.

Such unregulated distribution was bound to have long-term effects on the wineries, and the Temperance movement gained ground in their struggle against the abuse of hard liquor. In January 1920, Prohibition went into effect and literally overnight the manufacture, sale and transportation of all alcoholic beverages within the U.S. became illegal. Communion wine, now officially designated as “Altar” or “Sacramental” wines, were allowed, enabling some wineries to barely survive as they concentrated solely on selling and distributing these altar wines. They were usually labeled with religious themes such as Angelica, Aquinas, Loyola, and at times, varietal descriptions such as Catawba Dry Altar Wine.

photo of 6 vintage Hudson Valley wine labels from the mid 20th century

Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, but the damage had been great – there were only fifty surviving wineries in New York State, which was now number two in grape and wine production, behind a rapidly-growing California wine industry. In the Hudson Valley, Brotherhood was still in operation, as was the Hudson Valley Wine Company, founded by Alessandro Bolognesi in Ulster County, which had been producing wine since 1907. The winery remained in family hands after the elder Bolognesi’s death, and continued in operation during Prohibition, officially licensed to make Sacramental wine. The Bolognesis made table and sparkling wines from their own vineyards, with labels offering Rhine Wine, Sauterne, Haut Sauterne, Burgundy, Chablis and Apértif Wine. Despite the brand names, native grapes were used but rarely mentioned on the labels: Catawba, Delaware, Concord and Bacchus, with Iona the chief grape used in their sparkling “champagnes.”

The Bolognesi labels also prominently displayed the Hudson Valley name, along with a “château” image of their winery and cellars, and featuring an Italian campanile (bell tower), built in 1929 in honor of the elder Bolognesi.

The War Years

Wineries were subject to new Federal regulations in the early days after Repeal, and labels had to incorporate both alcohol content and designations such as “light red,” “dry white,” etc. With little or no emphasis in classifying regional origins, Federal laws allowed the continuation of the generic European classifications to describe American wines, and names like Sauterne, Haut Sauterne, Chablis, Tokay, Claret and Burgundy were still standard on New York wine labels.

Usage of these terms declined somewhat after the outbreak of the Second World War, as French and European wine imports were abruptly cut off with the fall of France in 1940. Out of necessity, American winemakers and merchants soon began offering domestic wines with domestic-sounding names. Regional terms, like “Hudson Valley,” “New York State,” and “New York State Wines,” began appearing more regularly on Hudson Valley wine labels, especially with the widespread distribution of California wines during the war.

The end of the war in 1945 brought more changes to the wine industry, and greater exposure of wine to the American public, as tastes changed and consumers began straying away from native grapes. Wine was still not quite as popular as it is today, and was very rarely served with food – except in Italian homes or those of well-traveled individuals. The acceptance and successful cultivation of the European grape varieties in California were paralleled on the east coast by French- American hybrids which were just being introduced. These hybrids, the creations of mostly French breeders and hybridizers, leaned more heavily on the European vinifera grape and taste, which was becoming more popular. The use of these hybrids ushered in a new age of wine and winemaking in the Hudson Valley, which was reflected in their wine labels as well.

Hybrids and the Hudson Valley

Everett Crosby, a writer living in New York City, was one of the first to take advantage of these hybrids, with an initial planting of 3,500 vines, including Aurore, Seyval Blanc, and Baco Noir. Situated in Rockland County, Everett was bonded in the summer of 1952 as High Tor Vineyards and offered limited quantities of what he designated simply as Rockland White and Rockland Red. To design his label, Crosby approached his neighbor, famed artist Henry Barnum Poor, who illustrated the slopes of historic High Tor point, and Everett’s pre–Revolutionary War stone farmhouse. Variations of this label, with Poors’ noticeable signature, was used for several decades.

Mark Miller also embraced these new hybrid varietals when he founded Benmarl Winery. Purchasing, in 1956, the old Caywood property overlooking the Hudson River in Marlboro, Miller selected primarily French hybrid varieties: Baco Noir, Maréchal Foch, Léon Millot, Seyval Blanc and Aurore, but also planted such European varieties as Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Miller initially labeled his bottles as Mark Miller Private Reserve of Home- Made Wines and Liquors, but in 1973 his first official vintage appeared, with labels boasting Hudson River Region Table Wine. Miller’s experience in the Burgundy region of France inspired him to establish the Société des Vignerons, which rapidly attracted members who supported the vineyard and who purchased a fair share of Miller’s wine. These produced many variations of Cuvée du Vigneron, with Miller’s own signature, or designations of Hudson River Region Red or White Table Wine.

photo of 6 vintage Hudson Valley wine labels from the 1950s to the 1980s

As a commercial artist, Miller often designed the labels himself, from the simple drawing of grape stomping for his Estate Bottled Seyval Blanc or Baco Noir Light Dinner Wine, to his collection of wine-making themed prints, among them “Wine Presses,” “Angel of Benmarl,” “Topping-Up,” and “Tying Vines Along The Hudson.”

Arnold Kneitel also proudly capitalized on the Hudson name, when, in 1944, he established the first winery in the Hudson Valley after Prohibition. Located in Marlboro, Kneitel’s Marlboro Imperial Winery produced sparkling and kosher wines from native American grapes, and was a supplier of New York City’s banquet halls. Kneitel also featured hybrids such as Aurore, Seyval Blanc and Baco Noir. The winery was renamed Great River Winery after its sale in 1976, and their Great River White – A French Hybrid White Wine, featured a label with Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper’s popular 1879 etching of grape harvesting at the Marlboro-on-the-Hudson location.

New Laws, New Labels

A new era was ushered into New York and Hudson Valley viticultural history in 1976, when Governor Carey signed the famed Farm Winery Bill into law, reducing drastically the fees for winery operation. Many new farm wineries and vineyards surfaced in the region within a few years. These new winemakers were confronted with marketing problems as they generally they had little time or money to spare for advertising or promotions. Labels were the best way to promote their wine, and help distinguish their individuality. Barely a decade after the Farm Act, there were twenty-one wineries in the Hudson Valley, fourteen of which were licensed as farm wineries. Of these, many are still in operation today: Cascade Mountain Winery (1977); Clinton Vineyards (1977); Brimstone Hill (1979); Millbrook Vineyards and Winery (1981); El Paso Winery (1981); Baldwin Vineyards (1982); Adair Vineyards (1985), to name a few. By 1978, Federal regulations were issued allowing for the establishment of defined wine appellations, or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), to distinguish wine grape-growing regions in the U.S. The Hudson River Region was the eighth such region to be adopted and beginning July 1982, Hudson Valley wineries could officially designate their wine as being from the Hudson Valley AVA, provided at least seventy-five percent of the grapes were grown in the region.

Millbrook Vineyards, founded by John S. Dyson, the former New York State Commissioner of Commerce and Agriculture, was the first vineyard in the Hudson Valley devoted exclusively to the production of vinifera grapes. His first vintage, in 1985, was an Estate Bottled Claret, composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, which proudly displayed the Hudson River Region appellation. This label featured a tract of the Millbrook vineyards with the large 1940s–era Dutch barn which was converted into the winery. A version of the label is still in use today.

Into the New Millennium

Two decades would ultimately pass before the regulations governing labeling were further modified. In 2003, the Homeland Security Act ruled that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Bureau (TTB), would be responsible for ensuring that alcohol beverages are “produced, labeled, advertised and marketed in accordance with Federal law.” According to Section 205(e), labels must now include: Brand name of product, Class or type of product, Alcohol content (percent alcohol by volume), name and address of bottler (or packer and importer), and net contents.

With such regulations deemed necessary to “protect the public,” and with a growing number of wineries in the Hudson Valley and New York State, a new art form was bound to emerge. Wineries and vineyards compete with each other to produce labels that are unique, colorful and descriptive to attract potential consumers who are faced with greater choices than ever before. Bottles now often include shoulder labels, decorated corks and foil capsules to add to the attractiveness of the package. Descriptive back labels are also standard, so as not to crowd the front label with government-mandated details, such as the “Health Warning Statement” and “Declaration of Sulfites,” etc. Current labels also focus on tradition and value – they emphasize how wine is, and always has been, an integral, historical part of life in the Hudson Valley.

With an ever-increasing variety of classic, hybrid, vinifera and fruit wines, and imaginative and provocative labels to match, this is truly a time when Hudson Valley wineries are putting their best face forward.

Special thanks to:

Annette & Cesar Baeza, Colleen Hughes of Brotherhood Winery; Emily Amodeo and Joanne Pagnotta of the Marlboro Free Library; Dorothy Gruner; Matthew Spaccarelli and Ted Baker of Benmarl Winery; Stacy Hudson and Scott Koster of Millbrook Winery and Vineyards.

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