Valley Vineyards Come Of Age
As the economy struggles and wacky weather compromises this year’s harvest, Valley vintners are doing surprisingly well thanks to a little local love and another killer vintage
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The King of Valley Vines
Not only is the Hudson Valley home to America’s oldest winery (Brotherhood) and vineyard (Benmarl), it is the happy home of the country’s most senior wine-maker, Ben Feder of Clinton Vineyards. It was Feder who pioneered the use of Seyval Blanc in the region, a grape that now largely defines Hudson Valley white wine.
The World War II veteran and successful Manhattan graphic designer bought the rolling Dutchess County property that is now home to Clinton Vineyards in 1969. “I started by having cattle here,” Feder recalls bemusedly. “Everyone who came here started with big Black Angus. It was very interesting.” Indeed. The “boy from the Bronx” found himself the proud owner of a rundown 100-acre dairy farm and a wily, wandering herd of cattle with a taste for fermented apples. As complaints about his bloated, trespassing bovines poured in from the neighbors, Feder focused his agricultural ambitions on wine-making. “As an artist he envisioned a vineyard,” says Phyllis Feder, Ben’s wife of 20 years. “It was far more exciting, the challenge of making wine. The aesthetic of a vineyard was captivating to him.”
So, in 1975 Feder set about planting his vineyard. After some experimenting and consultation with friends like famed Finger Lakes vintner Herman Wiemer, he decided Clinton Vineyards would operate like a French winery, specializing in only one wine, and that would be the French hybrid Seyval Blanc. “French grapes were picked because they were the only grapes that had any chance of getting through the season here,” Feder explains of his choice, referring to Seyval’s ability to thrive in the harsher New York climate. “I did the very best I could, knowing that Seyval was a weak grape in some ways, that it needed a lot of work. But I went about my business in a very judgmental way, in a very serious way, and as a result things moved along.”
In 1978 Feder entered his new wine in several competitions, never anticipating the results. In addition to a number of awards, Feder won the favor of Frank Prial, the famous New York Times wine columnist. “There was a little blurb at the end of an article: ‘In Dutchess County there’s a small winery called Clinton Vineyards, which makes the best white wine in the United States.’ People were all lined up in the driveway that Saturday,” Feder recalls. Having only made about 350 cases, there wasn’t enough wine to meet the initial demand, but it certainly gave Clinton a running start.
Over the years, Feder has added several sparkling wines (made in the traditional méthode champenoise) and fruit dessert wines (including an award-winning Cassis) to Clinton’s repertoire. This past June, to honor his more than 30 years in the business, the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association awarded Feder the Hudson Valley Veritas Award for lifetime achievement and visionary leadership in Hudson Valley winemaking. Of the honor, Feder — for all intents and purposes a self-taught vintner — just smiles, a charming indicator of his intuitive genius and humility. “Wine-making is natural. It’s a matter of knowing when to stop the fermentation, when to start the fermentation, to have a good taste in your mouth. That’s it. All this other stuff, the hi-fi, high-tech scientific stuff, is baloney. It’s either good wine or bad wine, there’s no in-between. And you know, good wine can be made from not-so-good grapes, and good grapes, and not-so-bad grapes, it’s hard to say.” Spoken like a true man of the vines — in vino veritas.
Next: A foot-stompin’ good time