We’re all familiar with the great wines being produced in Napa and Sonoma, but most people forget (or perhaps never knew) the birthplace of American wine making: the Hudson Valley. That’s right, the oldest cultivated vineyard in America lies right in Marlboro, NY, while the oldest winery is located just a short distance south in Washingtonville, NY.
Benmarl Winery, located atop a hill overlooking the Hudson River, is home to the oldest vineyard in America. Some of the grape vines that were planted by the original French Huguenots have gone wild and can be seen curling up the length of full grown trees in the surrounding forest. The current torch holders of this land, the Spaccarelli family, have made the decision to only produce NY grown wines and to grow grapes that are best suited for the region. Rather than trying to force a Merlot or Cab to make it through upstate NY weather, they have selected grapes such as Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir and Cab Franc.
The winemakers have a strong commitment to sustainability and employ some progressive techniques in both their farming and processing. A perfect example would be the Olde English Baby Doll sheep they brought in as natural lawn mowers and fertilizers. They also raise free-range chickens, Guinea fowl and bees in an effort to create a meadow where “good” bugs are encouraged to live and eat the “bad” bugs that would be harmful to the fruit.
The crush pad houses a modern mechanical crusher to release the juice from the skin binding, then to a traditional fermentation bath, then racked off its sediment and fermented in stainless steel tanks. Finally, the wine is ready to head off to the aging barrels in the cellar.
Benmarl has been able to produce a decent volume of wine (4,200-5,500 cases) with a small family run operation. Only two winemakers are responsible for the operation, so when it comes to manpower, again, they get creative. This year they did an e-blast to local customers to invite them to participate in the grape harvest. They were able to harvest 2 acres in 4 hours, which is a lot faster than the two winemakers could have done on their own. The reward, participants got to bring wine home from the source, as well as a unique experience.
Americas oldest vineyard may be adapting to modern winemaking with some help from machines and sanitary materials, but their methods of incorporating sheep, bees, and a helping hand from their community seems more like the natural process the original land settlers may have used. Being progressive through regression is a strong movement toward reducing our footprint, producing cleaner and healthier products and getting more in touch with our roots. The results sure do taste great!
The oldest winery in America lies just to the south, in Orange County, NY. Once again, early French Huguenot settlers established Brotherhood Winery. Grapes were planted in 1810, and by 1837 the first underground cellars were dug and the first wine vintage was fermented. These cellars are still in use today and remain the largest and oldest wine cellars in the United States.
In the 1930’s the winery changed hands for the second time to Louis Farrell, who took advantage of being the closest winery to NYC and began conducting tours of the cellars, hosting parties and events. Farrell was one of the instigators of the concept of wine tourism, which is a strong tradition carried by the Brotherhood today.
Brotherhood Winery has a packed schedule of grape stomping, Halloween parties, grape vine wreath parties and more. This has been a strong component to Brotherhood’s continued success: tours, events, a larger catalogue of house-made wines as well as the addition of imported wines from Chile, Argentina, Denmark, France, Italy and Spain.
Brotherhood and Benmarl are great examples of how rural businesses, farms and craftpersons must continuously evolve and refocus their efforts to survive in a modern environment. Both companies are progressive in their own ways, producing quality wines that the Hudson Valley can be proud of.