By Michael Durante Jr.
The turn onto Schultzville road evokesa remarkable feeling that becomes pleasantly familiar the longer you live in the Hudson Valley: a flock of sheep, freshly painted houses, orderly fenced fields… these are the landscapes that set good stories. Upon reaching the driveway gates at Clinton Vineyards, you are greeted by history. Barns built before your great-great-grandparents were born house a craft about as old as human civilization itself.
Clinton Vineyards was established as a farm winery in 1976 by Ben Feder, when there were only a dozen other winer- ies in New York. Today there are closer to 400 wineries in the state. Much of that growth can be attributed to the New York State Farm Winery Act of 1976. Prior to the Act, New York wineries were forced to sell through distributors. The law enabled wineries with small production totals—under 150,000 gallons annually—to sell directly to consumers. These “farm wineries” were also bound by law to use grapes and other fruit grown in New York, so an entire industry grew up together. (Source: http://www.newyorkwines.org/PDFs/NASSWinery- SurveyPub2008.pdf.) Collaboration between winemakers, fruit growers, regional tourism and other industry associations built the New York wine culture we enjoy today. No small role, however, was played by the wine pioneers, like Ben Feder, who led the industry toward success.
A champagne by any other name…
The wine industry, like any food production, depends on consumers with discerning tongues. Phyllis Feder, the owner and operator of Clinton Vineyards, encourages people to go to the source if you want to find out about good wine. “If you think you have to travel 3,000 miles for good scenery, wine and food, it’s in your backyard,” she insists. Clinton Vineyards is one of those American wine producers that continues to label its sparkling wine as champagne—because, well, it is. As Phyllis will gladly explain to visitors, Clinton Vineyards follows the méthode champenoise, the traditional French way to produce their estate bottled champagnes: Jubilee, Naturel, and Peach Gala.
Producing champagne is a labor-intensive process, often embracing a period of four years or more—from harvest to release of the product. The end product is champagne just as fine as those made in France—and Clinton Vineyards has the awards to prove it.
Phyllis Feder is happy to boast about her vineyard’s fine wines, champagnes and dessert wines. She knows all too well how much work goes into them. Her husband Ben had been making wine at Clinton Vineyards for over a decade when they married in the late ’80s. The winery has gained prominence for producing a varied portfolio, garnering awards from critics and a loyal following from consumers.
Ben Feder was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Association (per www. hudsonvalleywinecountry.org) for his role as “producer” in grape growing and wine making in the Hudson Valley. Ben passed away in 2009 and Phyllis has maintained his legacy, looking forward to the company’s fortieth-anniversary celebrations this year.
Phyllis herself has played a role in the New York wine industry’s recent success. She was
awarded the New York Wine & Grape (per www.newyorkwines.org) Foundation’s 2015 “Unity Award” for her long service as president of the Dutchess Wine Trail and as chair of the board of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.
Wine producers often work collaboratively to develop new grape varieties, sharing good viticulture practices, fine-tuning their wines, and building a shared regional identity for wine production. Consumers often identify good wine by grape variety and region as much as by the vineyard. The Hudson Valley has benefitted from the establishment of several wine trails, from the marketing opportunities created by the Taste NY program, and even from the proliferation of farm-to-table restaurants in the region. Promotional opportunities and overall support for wineries are available through the New York Wine & Grape Foundation (www.newyorkwines.org). All of these practices support the Hudson Valley, the oldest winemaking region in the United States, and the roots for excellent wine production.
Would smell as sweet
One might assume that the wine and beer industries follow similar consumer trends, yet wine producers do not seem to be benefitting from the same “local, craft” craze that has so changed the New York brewing industry. It is common nowadays for bars and restaurants to serve locally produced beers; some even specialize in it. Menus are usually sure to mention the birthplace of their craft beers, the alcohol content, often even including the IBUs (international bitterness units) or the types of hops used in brewing. Beer consumers seem content paying close to double what they did only ten years ago in pursuit of the better brews. So why are locally produced wines relatively unloved?
Winemaking and brewing are both complicated processes. Yet people seem to be intimidated by wines, and Phyllis often hears visitors say at her tasting room that they are not experts in wine. To that Phyllis says, “We’re all experts…because we know what we like.”
Appreciating our roots
Phyllis Feder is eternally proud of her late husband. Ben is the reason why Clinton Vineyards still grows Seyval grapes for their estate bottled wines: table wines, champagne, and late-harvest dessert wine. After all, it was Ben hopping on his tractor that made the cosmopolitan Phyllis fall in love with him. Phyllis knows to harvest as soon as the birds—and every other creature that flies, wiggles and jumps—start taking a serious liking to the fruit. “It’s as if they send out a newsletter,” she says with a laugh. Last year, Clinton Vineyards picked over 29 tons of grapes from their 14 acres of vines.
Ben is ever present here at Clinton Vineyards, from his paintings and sculptures to the chandeliers he hung in the production room, and Ben and Phyllis worked together to name their wines. A trio of dessert wines—Romance, Embrace and Desire—are jokingly nicknamed the menage a trois, and wines like Tribute and Victory White are released to celebrate cultural moments that the couple felt were important.
In this, its fortieth year, Clinton Vineyards is celebrating its roots. Their roots literally came from the Finger Lakes, where Ben bought his first grape vines. But by roots, they mean their personal history as a couple. Both Ben and Phyllis grew up in the Bronx and spent their adult lives in Manhattan. They also shared a love for dogs. With that in mind, Phyllis plans to “start the season off with a bark” on May 7th. That day wine tasters are invited to bring friendly dogs to the vineyard, where there will be special canine treats. This fundraiser will benefit the Dutchess County SPCA, who are coproducers of the event.
Other events throughout the season will highlight the love of New York–centric foods from farmers and deli purveyors, a celebration of sweets, and a Rainbow Room–themed party, after the legendarily swanky New York restaurant where Ben worked in the kitchen. Phyllis is also keeping a keen eye on the Democratic presidential primary season. If Hillary Clinton becomes the nominee, this spring she will introduce a new version of Victory White— which the Feders also released to celebrate Bill Clinton’s wins in 1992 and 1996.
Have a taste
Clinton Vineyards remains open to visitors throughout the spring, summer and fall. Every weekend, Friday through Sun- day, from late April until December, visitors are welcome to taste wines and local food, purchase bottles from their retail store and stroll the property. Their tasting room is a museum of the vineyard and the Feders themselves. Its hunter green and wood-paneled walls display photos, awards, paintings, antique furniture and even a letter from the Queen of England! You can sit on a cozy couch or stand at the room-length bar packed full with champagne. Sit or stand, you will feel totally at home with a glass of Clinton Vineyards Seyval Blanc or the Hudson Valley’s only farm-to-table Kir Royale.
Outside the tasting room are acres of our region’s finest terrain, a fine place for a family picnic or to spend some time walking. It may be hard to believe while enjoying a visit to Clinton Vineyards, but a wine-tasting trip is the best way to start putting Hudson Valley wine on the map.
For more information about Clinton Vineyards and their events, visit their website at www.clintonvineyards.com.