Driving on a winding country road outside Millbrook, N.Y., passing dairy farms and horse pastures, copses and small ponds, it’s easy to imagine how this region inspired the pastoral paintings of the Hudson River school of the mid–19th century. Just an hour and a half north of New York City, the Hudson River Valley holds some of the nation’s most beautiful countryside; and now a food-and-wine culture worthy of the setting is emerging.
The majestic Hudson flows beneath high cliffs, alluring in every season. Small towns create an idyllic scene: traditional main streets, charming antiques shops and galleries showing the work of local artists. Imposing mansions line the river, built by America’s wealthiest families during the 19th century—the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts. Even those without an interest in history—or the lifestyles of the rich and famous—can take pleasure in a drive through the rolling hills, enjoying views of the Taconic and Catskill mountains.
Local farms are feeding a rapidly growing gourmet culture. The valley used to be a prime source of fruit, meat and dairy for New York City, but the globalization of groceries ended that. Now, though, farmers in the region are turning to organic and high-end products, including fantastic cheeses, apples, mushrooms and meat that they sell each week at the city’s green markets. Most of the nation’s foie gras comes from the valley, and Coach Farm, the well-known producer of goat cheese, is located in Pine Plains, not far from several wineries.
The new focus on quality ingredients has lured numerous graduates from one of the local colleges—the Culinary Institute of America—to settle down in the area. “The faculty stresses preserving local foods and culture,” says Raul Salinas, a graduate of the CIA. As part of their course work, Salinas and his classmates often visited local cheesemakers, venison farms and other suppliers and then used the ingredients in the CIA kitchens. Salinas also worked at Millbrook Vineyards, only 15 miles from the campus.
Chef Jeff Kroner plates fusion dishes at the Award of Excellence-winning Terrapin.
Though Hudson Valley winemaking dates to the 17th century, quality wine is a relatively new development. As recently as 1980, there were fewer than 10 producers; today, there are more than 30 wineries growing a mix of hybrid and vinifera grapes. A few standouts are making fine wines from vinifera, proving that the area, though still in its infancy as a winegrowing region, shouldn’t be ignored. For now, the scenery and the food remain the core reasons people come, and the wineries are a bonus. But stay tuned—as you travel through the valley, you could be visiting America’s next great wine region.
The Hudson River stretches more than 150 miles, from Troy, N.Y., to the New York Harbor. Most of the wineries in the Hudson River Region AVA are in the middle part of the river valley, concentrated in Dutchess, Ulster and Orange counties. That’s a large territory. There are even three winery trails: Shawangunk, Dutchess and Hudson-Berkshire.
A good strategy is to find accommodations in Dutchess County, on the river’s eastern bank, where the top wineries are. Less developed than the other counties, Dutchess is still a place of wide-open spaces. The area surrounding Millbrook, in particular, is picturesque, with beautiful horse pastures and rolling hills. The town of Rhinebeck, just to the north, is home to several good restaurants. Historic hotels offer plenty of lodging choices.
Beekman Arms has been operating as an inn for more than 250 years.
In the northern part of Dutchess, you’ll find wineries, apple farms, pumpkin patches and antiques stores. Farther south are the storied mansions and the CIA, where guests can take a seminar or try one of the student-staffed restaurants. Across the river, the wineries and restaurants of Ulster and Orange counties make for a perfect day trip.
The wineries deliver a wide range of styles and quality. Hudson Valley wines are still searching for an identity, as winemakers grapple with several challenges. Of New York’s three major wine regions, the weather here is the most difficult for grapes. Winters are freezing, with three months of nighttime temperatures averaging less than 20° F. Summers are sunny but humid, raising the specter of mold.
Millbrook Vineyards & Winery owner John Dyson has tried 30 different varieties in his fields. but now only grows four. Millbrook winemaker John Graziano remembers giving up on Merlot after years of struggling with frosts and bud damage. He dug the vines out a decade ago and now buys Merlot grapes from Long Island.
He’s not alone. Many of the wineries purchase fruit from Long Island and the Finger Lakes. Other wineries have stuck firmly with hardier hybrids, which better handle the cold. That would make it easy to dismiss the area’s potential if it weren’t for Millbrook, whose Proprietor’s Special Reserve line is made entirely with fruit from the Hudson River Region, proving that the area can produce fine vinifera wines. Millbrook’s Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc have been good to very good, and its Pinot Noir shows potential.
Millbrook Winery is known for their Proprietor's Reserve bottlings.
When Dyson worked as state agriculture commissioner to pass the Farm Winery Act of 1976, he had no idea it would have a direct impact on his own life. But when he later owned a small farm, he sought advice on what to do with it. “I was being nagged by Konstantin Frank to try vinifera,” says Dyson. “So I planted 1 acre in 1979, made the first vintage in 1983 in my garage and said, ‘This is not terrible,’ and I decided to find someone who knew how to make wine.”
That somebody was Graziano, who had studied plant pathology and entomology at Cornell University. They built a winery in an old dairy barn up the hill from Dyson’s house and expanded the vineyards. Millbrook now has 30 acres of vines. To combat the frost, they mound dirt around the base of the vines and don’t prune until spring, which delays new bud growth. They also use the Goblet trellis system, which Dyson patented, to spread out the vine canes. This allows air to circulate better, which keeps the fruit dry.
Being a winery in a lesser-known region requires an extra degree of marketing. Millbrook produces custom labels for anyone who asks and sells to local restaurants and retailers at a good wholesale price. The winery also sells wines from famed California Pinot Noir producer Williams Selyem, which Dyson bought in 1998, and Dyson’s Tuscan property, Villa Pillo.
Cesar Baeza (left) and Herman Donoso of the historic Brotherhood Winery.
Most of the other Hudson wineries depend on tourism for sales. Brotherhood Winery, on the western side of the river, plays up its history. Founded in 1839, it’s America’s oldest continuously operating winery, though for much of its recent past, it has functioned more as a museum. Past owners actually paved over the vineyards to build a visitors’ parking lot. When Cesar Baeza, a Chilean winemaker who had worked for Heublein and Pepsi, bought the winery in 1987, he began shifting its focus back to wine, planting new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards for sparkling wines. Tourism, including museum events and parties, continues to pay the bills as does revenue from Vinum Cafe, a gourmet restaurant with an outdoor patio on the property.
The Scenic Hudson foundation is purchasing development rights to farmland, and Baeza has been a proponent of incentives for converting farmland to vineyards. As in many wine regions, land development is closely tied to the future of the valley. The region’s identity—its scenery, food and wine—greatly depends on its open spaces, as any drive along the area’s winding roads makes clear.