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Navigating the Vines of Hudson Valley Wines

click to enlarge ROY GUMPEL

"We’re on about the same latitude as Florence, Italy,” says John Bruno, co-owner of Oak Summit Vineyards in Millbrook.

A sip of Chianti, Tuscany’s signature wine, is perhaps the closest you can get to experiencing the birthplace of the Renaissance without actually being there. The initial aromas recall the sweetness of Sangiovese grapes at the peak of ripeness, the acidic and tannic mid mouth feel almost demands pairing with rich, red sauces, and the full, nutty finish warms like the Tuscan sun.

We may not have Dante, Petrarch, or Michelangelo, but in the vineyard, the Hudson Valley and Tuscany are kindred souls. Sharing a similar climate as Florence, Bruno argues that the Hudson Valley is one of New York’s best grape-growing regions. It is the “happy medium,” he says, between the cold temperatures of the Finger Lakes and Long Island’s sandy soil.

Beyond the soil, Hudson Valley wines, too, embody the traditions of a rich history, one that dates back to 1677, making it the country’s oldest wine-producing region. The complexities of a dynamic, diverse culture are evident in the range of styles and flavors produced within miles of each other. The expansive lands accented by mountains and rivers serve a purpose beyond acting as picturesque backdrops to a weekend visit, but also as resources for local, sustainable agriculture. You need not hop a plane to experience wines on par with the classic European greats. The sprawling presence of Hudson Valley wines is at your fingertips.

Experiencing Hudson Valley Wines

Your reach need only extend as far as a local store or restaurant. Whether it is a last-minute stop on your drive home from work at In Good Taste in New Paltz or a week’s cap-off at the Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, complementing your favorite meal with wine made in the Hudson Valley is always an option. To further satiate that locavore craving, visit one of the Hudson Valley’s many weekly farmers’ markets that feature local wines as well as produce, breads, meats, and, with some luck on a hot summer day, ice cream. (See our guide to Farmers’ Markets.)

If you are looking for a more immersive Hudson Valley wine experience, go straight to the source. Staying true to the region’s Eat Local movement, wineries open their doors, and in some cases their vineyard gates, to show you exactly where their wines come from and how they are produced. Wine tastings and tours have become a favorite “staycation” activity for those who want to make the most of a couple of days off without having to deal with exorbitant travel costs. Its convenient location to New York City, New Jersey, and Westchester makes the Hudson Valley a destination for people looking to explore the terrain that lies just outside their reach. Stephen Osbourn of Stoutridge Vineyards notes that Hudson Valley wineries attract a “sophisticated customer,” people who are “knowledgeable but open to ideas and comfortable with wine,” which, he argues, is less common in “more industrialized wine states.”

While the wine industry has become commercialized in many regions, Osbourn praises the Hudson Valley for its biodiversity. “Here we have a variety of grapes that are historical,” he explains. “In Napa Valley, you can’t have wine that was there 60 years ago because they grow commercial grapes.” It is possible to drink a glass of wine made from the same grape varieties planted centuries ago in the Hudson Valley because of its focus on small-scale production. In many cases, wine is made by the same people who own the wineries, like Jonathan and Michele Hull of Applewood Winery in Warwick, and in some cases, they even lead the tastes and tours, like John and Nancy Bruno of Oak Summit. At Pazdar Winery, only David Pazdar himself knows the secrets to his wines’ exotic recipes. Though they take different shapes, Hudson Valley wineries offer the kinds of personal stamps that are impossible in a commercial market.

In addition to biodiversity, Osbourn employs natural and sustainable practices that include gravity winemaking—a technique consisting of a vertical winery that allows wine to flow from tank to tank without a pump—a natural underground wine cooler, and solar power. Osbourn says that his all-natural wines draws customers of the eat local mindset who are more aware that “farms are producing flavors that can’t exist in the store.”

Using locally sourced ingredients is a common trend among Hudson Valley wineries. “Everything that we produce is from grapes and fruits that are grown in New York,” says Hull. In fact, many winemakers use grapes grown on their own properties and picked by their own hands (a notable exception being a new trend in hybrid wines available only by distribution, such as Cereghino Smith in Rosendale, who source grapes from New York and California to make what they call “bicoastal blends”). Oak Summit’s Bruno prunes 30 percent of his crops to grow the best, most intensely concentrated grapes possible for his renowned pinot noir. “We would rather make less wine, but make it better, than make a lot of mediocre stuff,” he says.

Tastings and tours allow for an insider’s look on the mechanics of local vineyards and wineries, but there is more to wine than science. Seasonal festivals and events hosted by the wineries get closer to the true bacchanalian spirit. This July, Applewood will host Bounty of the Hudson, a wine and food festival that honors the region’s appetite for diverse local products. Hull describes the event, which will host over 20 different wineries and food producers from the Hudson Valley, as representative of “basically everything that’s made locally in our community.”

Events hosted by the wineries do not always have such weighty cultural and economic implications, though. Enter Benmarl Winery’s annual Harvest Grape Stomping Festival: Masses of purple-stained ankles act as the exclamatory conclusion to a seemingly endless immersive experience of Hudson Valley wineries.

“You Don’t Have to Fit the Mold”
The launch of the Hudson Valley Food and Beverage Alliance in February, an initiative that Senator Schumer hopes will “thrust the Hudson Valley to the forefront of the food and beverage industry,” and his April visit to Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville to discuss marketing strategies geared toward international tourists signify a recent push to make the Hudson Valley a world class wine destination. Many wineries and vineyards have plans for expansion to accommodate the growing wine industry in the area including Whitecliff’s recent addition of a geothermal winery building, Warwick’s push to produce 10 times their current distillery capacity, and Applewood’s soon-to-be-released new line of hard ciders.

While increased production in the Hudson Valley wine industry warrants much excitement, might it also pose a threat to the small-batch, handcrafted, noncommercial methods that make this region’s wineries distinctive?
A strong dedication to preserving the diversity that makes producing wine in this region so rewarding seems to indicate not. Even after expansion, wineries in the Hudson Valley will still be considered small-scale by industry standards. “My wine production equals what a large California winery spills on the floor,” says Michael Migliore of Whitecliff Vineyards in Gardiner. Jeremy Kidde of Warwick Winery and Distillery explains that the goal of their expansion is not primarily to produce more, but to allow for more variety by introducing oak-aged whiskey and apple jack to their product line.

“I wouldn’t trade it for any other place,” says Osbourn, whose winemaking experience extends from the Finger Lakes to California with many stops in between. The Hudson Valley “allows wineries to be different. You don’t have to fit the mold.”

Pazdar Winery is home to experimental and exotic wines that include the first chocolate wine ever made, “Eden’s Pleasure,” and a line of hot pepper wines including “Hot Sin,” the first wine to win at the world’s largest spicy food competition, the Scovies. Clearly, Pazdar employs a melting pot ethos to winemaking and appreciates this capacity of Hudson Valley wineries. “There are a lot of very different winemakers in the Valley with different philosophies and styles,” he says.

From using homegrown grapes, to experimenting with ciders and spirits, to employing eco-friendly, all-natural strategies, Hudson Valley wineries not only take great care in the winemaking process, but also push boundaries, have fun, and, perhaps most importantly, support one another and the local economy while doing so. “People come for the wineries then go to the restaurants, local bed and breakfasts, and gas stations,” explains Randy Maduras of the Shawangunk Wine Trail. “It’s all-encompassing.”

In an attempt to nurture the winemaking industry in the Hudson Valley, Michael and Yancey Migliore are helping local farms, like Dressel Farms in New Paltz and Kiernan Farm in Gardiner, put in vineyards. They teach farmers about grape varieties that work well in this region, such as the Seyval Blanc vine from which their best-selling Awosting White is made, and about trellising and planting density.

Whether sharing expertise or simply a bottle, winemaking is a labor of selfless love in the Hudson Valley. “We’re interested in seeing the whole region do more and do it better,” Migliore says. “And we’re absolutely seeing that happen.”

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