Whitecliff Vineyard

hands holding vines

The Thriving Vines of
WHITECLIFF VINEYARD

BY VICTORIA SPENCER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHIL MANSFIELD

{xtypo_dropcap}B{/xtypo_dropcap}efore there were rows upon rows of apples dotting the Hudson Valley, there were grapes. In the 19th century the Hudson Valley was a major grape-growing area. The grapes grown back then were native vines like Concord and Niagara. Many were shipped down the Hudson to New York City to be sold as table grapes, and some were made into sweet, grapy wines. At its height in 1890, 13,000 acres were cultivated for grape production. Then, Prohibition, starting in 1919, together with the advent of refrigeration that allowed cheaper California grapes to be shipped to New York City, effectively ended the valley’s grape hegemony.

Sixty years later, in 1979, Michael Migliore began experimenting with growing grapes on the 20 acres of land he’d been farming, and haying, in Gardiner, against the dramatic backdrop of the Shawangunk Ridge. With this simple gesture, he was joining the very beginnings of a resurgence of grape growing and winemaking in the Hudson Valley. This time around, grape growers were using European vinifera grapes rather than the traditional native varieties. For Migliore, the choice to grow grapes of the European variety, rather than to go the indigenous route, was as much informed by the prevailing trend of the day, as it was a tribute to his own European ancestry. “I got in very slowly,” Migliore says. He began to experiment on just one acre of land, planting three rows of each variety of well-known vinifera grapes like chardonnay, merlot and gewürztraminer as well as hybrids such as seyval blanc.

For 10 years, Migliore and his wife, Yancey Stanforth-Migliore, watched how their experiment progressed to ascertain what varieties would work best on their land. Their conclusion, “the land is like that of Burgundy and Beaujolais,” says Migliore, speaking of the climate; gamay noir did well, so did chardonnay and cabernet franc, along with some of the hybrids. Merlot did not fare so well. Today much of the original planting is still evident on the drive into Whitecliff Vineyard, where vines are now planted on 26 acres of land. There are currently 22 different grape varieties growing at Whitecliff, and Migliore works closely with Cornell Cooperative Extension testing new grape varieties to raise the standard of wine grapes growing in the Hudson Valley. He’s also president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association, a collective of grape growers and winemakers working to improve the quantity and quality of grape growing and winemaking in the area’s unique macroclimate.

GAMAY CHANGER

Though it was a white wine that won Whitecliff the award and the attention last year, both reds and whites from the winery are gar – nering a certain acclaim.

Migliore says Whitecliff pioneered the gamay noir grape in New York State. Gamay is the grape of the Beaujolais region; Migliore describes it as “a cousin of pinot noir.”And their efforts are giving them an advantage, their gamay noir, made in the style of cru beaujolais wines, is now on the wine list at preeminent New York City restaurant Gramercy Tavern. A leading city wine store, Astor Wines, carries two of their reds, traminette and cabernet franc, and another top city wine store, Garnet, is stocking both reds and whites from Whitecliff. Attention from New York City is especially notable because city dwellers were among those most set in their perceptions of Hudson Valley wines as sweet kosher-type wines (think Manischewitz), nothing they as sophisticated urban foodies would ever deign to drink. Stanforth-Migliore remarks, “There were years of excitement about eating local before it transferred to wine.”

Closer to home, Whitecliff Vineyard wines are sold in many mid- Hudson wine stores and at a broad range of area restaurants including the CIA and Peter Kelly’s Xaviars at Piermont, and X20 Xaviars in Yonkers. Having their wines available at local restaurants is an ideal avenue of discovery for Whitecliff Vineyard. Another is being part of the 11-winery strong Shawangunk Wine Trail and running a tasting room, thus introducing people to their wines and often creating a devoted cadre of wine drinkers. Education is an important aspect of their business.

“People are overwhelmed with how much there is to know about wine,” Stanforth-Migliore explains, adding, “In the tasting room, our approach is to balance the idea of strict rules in wine with the importance of personal taste. We tell people ‘the best wine is the wine you like.’”The Whitecliff staff encourage people to try a range of their wines, currently seven whites and eight reds. They explain the science behind tasting wine, swirling the glass to release the aromas of the wine, in a friendly, understandable manner.They are also, in the European tradition, creating wines that work with food. Every year they organize a series of food and wine events highlighting their wines with certain (local) foods, including one featuring a selection of local grass-fed beef from neighboring farms in Gardiner paired with their red wines.

Continuing their steady evolution, the Migliores are planning a new building to house their farm equipment, a project they’ve delayed for at least five years, laughs Stanforth-Migliore. Their very compact winemaking facility is in the same building as their office and tasting room and is also their storage area. “It’s like making wine in a closet,” Migliore remarks. Yet it’s in these crowded quarters that he made his award-winning 2009 Riesling. Not content to bask in the glory of his achievement, Migliore made some changes to his riesling in 2010 and is very excited about his wines going forward. Wearing his vineyard manager’s hat, he says, “The 2010 harvest was the best in the 30 years I’ve been growing.” Then, donning his winemaker’s hat, he adds, “I want to make as much wine as I can using those grapes.”

With great effort and investment, the Migliores built their vineyards and winery with sweat equity. From planting the original vines to constructing the tasting room, they have done much of the work with their own hands while continuing to hold jobs outside of the winery until a few years ago. Stanforth-Migliore’s background is in nonprofit fund-raising and grant writing, and she now manages Whitecliff ’s tasting room and handles sales. Migliore is an organic chemist by training, has a master’s degree from SUNY New Paltz and worked at IBM in semiconductor process engineering; he brings a decidedly analytic and scientific mindset to his winemaking. He began making wine in 1982 and Whitecliff started to produce wine commercially, though on a very small scale, in 1998.

Migliore estimates he splits his time pretty much evenly between managing the vineyard and winemaking. Looking across the pond to Europe, not California, for inspiration, he describes his approach to winemaking as “noninterventionist, I try to grow the best possible grapes and make the best possible wines.” His gradual, careful approach is paying off. Last year Whitecliff Winery’s 2009 Riesling was awarded a Double Gold medal and named Best White Wine in Show at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Stanforth-Migliore says they don’t enter many competitions so they were amazed and proud that their riesling won against wines from 27 countries and 28 other states. Hudson Valley wine enthusiasts herald this as proof that area wines have come of age and are ready for world attention.

WHITECLIFF VINEYARD
331 McKinstry Road, Gardiner
845-255-4613 whitecliffwine.com


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