A wine matriarch maintains a legacy
PHOTOGRAPHED BY PETER BARRETT
The Hudson Valley is the country’s oldest winemaking region, going back to the Huguenot settlers who brought vine cuttings with them from France during the 17th and 18th century. It’s a long history, and few people have been as influential— especially to the current crop of vintners—as the late Ben Feder of Clinton Vineyards. When he died in 2009, the region lost a pioneer, but his wife, Phyllis, carries on tirelessly producing and promoting the couple’s unique portfolio of white and fruit wines.
When Ben Feder began, in 1977, there were about two dozen wineries in New York. Now there are nearly 375. The Feders were instrumental in building the Hudson Valley’s reputation as a worthy wine region, making wine from seyval blanc, a hybrid between European vinifera and American lambrusca grape varieties that easily tolerates our harsh winters. After studying winemaking at Bollinger, the storied house in Champagne, Ben began making sparkling wines as well, using the méthode champenoise where the wine is given a secondary fermentation in the bottle to add carbonation and complexity. Sitting at her kitchen table, Phyllis Feder remains charming and cheerful even as she recounts how hard it was to get over the loss of her husband. “We were soul mates, we were lovers, we were business partners, we were friends, and I miss him terribly.” They both grew up in the Bronx, and both worked in the design industry—Ben as a book designer, Phyllis at Milton Glaser’s legendary Push Pin Studios—yet they didn’t cross paths until later in life. The couple met in 1988, when a friend set them up on a blind date. She’s a strikingly tall woman; a photograph in the tasting room shows her and Ben flanking Julia Child, and Phyllis is every bit as tall as the towering culinary icon. “He seemed intimidated by my height,” she recounts of her first meeting with Ben, “…so saying goodbye I stood in the gutter while he stood on the sidewalk, and I gave him my card.” Shortly after, he invited her upstate for a visit. “The first time I came up here and saw Ben Feder get on his tractor, I thought that was the sexiest thing I had ever seen.”
When Ben proposed to her, Phyllis says she accepted on one condition: he needed to change the label. On a high shelf in the tasting room, chronological bottles from every vintage show the point where their partnership began; the olive drab labels suddenly become bright white. Similar evidence of her influence is visible everywhere.
The grounds surrounding the winery are immaculate, manicured and lovingly tended, with sculptures, lavish plantings and tidy stonework. “I had a certain vision of the exterior. I always like to look and see something beautiful,” she explains, turning her glance to a framed photo of Ben on a nearby table.
She was instrumental in making it possible for wine to be sold at farmers’ markets in New York State. She was also the first female president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, a group that advocates for the wine industry nationally and internationally and which helped create the Wine and Culinary Center, now an autonomous and prospering institution in Canandaigua. She still sits on the board and is an enthusiastic booster of the Hudson Valley and its wines. “We’re at the best place we’ve ever been. Now there’s so much good wine to promote.”
THE FRUIT OF HER LABORS
The Feders’ charming 1850s farmhouse sits just up the hill from the winery in the rural corner of Clinton Corners. Low-ceilinged but spacious and handsomely decorated with an eclectic mix of furnishings, it is hung throughout with the products of Ben Feder’s prolific output and diverse passions; aside from his paintings, three extraordinarily detailed wooden ship models sit on stands along a wall by the kitchen. Phyllis explains that when he was involved with real estate development on the West Coast, he had time in the mornings before his partners woke up, so he built the models: “He was not one for sitting still; he liked to get things done.”
The winery is housed in a barn originally built in 1790. The adjacent tasting room, with a basement beneath for bottlefermenting the sparkling wines, was built for the sole purpose of making wine. The Seyval Blanc is bright, acidic and low alcohol: perfect for quaffing on a hot day and well suited to accompanying lighter fare. Unoaked and lean, it’s a wine that should please fans of chenin blanc, pinot grigio or grüner veltliner. The toasty, yeasty flavors make the sparkling versions—Seyval Naturel and Jubilee— richer and more complex, with profiles that have fooled more than a few Champagne connoisseurs. The Jubilee is made without dosage, the addition of sugar to the bottle fermentation, and it’s creamy and subtle, with a long finish. Add a splash of their exceptional cassis, and you’ve got the best kir royale for hundreds (if not thousands) of miles. On the subject of all the other cassis now made in the region, Phyllis replies diplomatically: “If imitation is a form of flattery, then I’m flattered.”
Currants are not well known in this country, which is a pity. Their herbal and savory complexity makes the cassis taste like a complex digestif compared to the cordials made from other local fruit: blackberries and red and black raspberries. Phyllis’s touch is evident in the names, labels and marketing: Nuit, Desire and Embrace are sold together in three-packs playfully named “Ménage à Trois.” There are also two flavored sparklers: Peach Gala, a Bellini in a bottle, and Royale, Clinton’s variation on the kir royale using their black raspberry cordial (Nuit). Desire, the late-harvest seyval blanc, balances its sweetness with strong acidity, a characteristic it shares with all their dessert wines. This equilibrium avoids any of the cloying effects that can be a problem with the genre, and makes them ideal for sipping with a range of sweets and cheeses.
A TASTE FOR BUSINESS
Despite the dramatic progress the region has made, Phyllis says it’s still quite a challenge to sell New York wines, especially from hybrid grapes. “Ben used to talk about ‘vinifera racists.’ But the younger people are more open-minded, they don’t have the same preconceptions.” Another challenge is consumers’ bias against domestic wine. “We had a couple come in and taste the sparklers, and they loved them,” she remembers. “But when we suggested they buy a case for their party, they said, ‘Oh, no—we have to have French Champagne.’” Clinton uses the word “Champagne,” which is technically a regional designate, on their labels, legally, but it’s still controversial. The French government is constantly lobbying both government and public alike in this country to stop using their cherished appellation’s name in vain. Controversy notwithstanding, Phyllis has no plans to accede: “Our sales went up 20 percent right away” as soon as they added the word to the labels. They sell out their production of about 3,000 cases every year.
In 1992, Clinton Vineyards released the still seyval under the label Victory White to celebrate Bill Clinton’s election. They did so again in 1996, and the tasting room boasts a photo of Hillary Clinton (somewhat prematurely) holding a 2008 Victory bottle mockup before Obama bested her in the Democratic primaries. The 2009 vintage was labeled Tribute, to mark Ben Feder’s passing, and many of those bottles were given as gifts to guests at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. This year, Phyllis says, she plans on releasing a 2012 Victory white, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Ready For Hillary PAC in anticipation of her expected 2016 run. “I’m thrilled to support her, and to continue the connection between us.” In 1995, at a summit in Hyde Park, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin toasted each other with Clinton Vineyards Seyval Naturel.
She has no interest in growing or creating any new wines. “We do what we do because we know how to do it; I don’t want to complicate the equation.” Talking about the future, and with no family interested in making wine, Phyllis is frank. “I plan to stay healthy as long as I can and keep going.” (She still makes deliveries down to New York City and elsewhere and can usually be found in the tasting room when it’s open). Of her rolling hundred acres, only 14 are currently planted, so there’s plenty of room for expansion if the right person comes along with a desire to acquire the business. If that happens, she says, “They would do well to keep Greg [Esch, the vineyard manager]. And me, I suppose,” she adds, seemingly as an afterthought but with a wry half smile that shows her enduring commitment to the fruits of her life’s passionate and defining partnership. “I’m a woman of a certain age, and I feel like I’m living my life as legacy. And I rather like it.”
450 Schultzville Road, Clinton Corners