Some of the oldest vineyards in America can be found in New York’s Hudson Valley. It is believed that the French Huguenots were responsible for planting the first grapevines in the Ulster County town of New Paltz in 1677, significantly before county lines and barriers in that part of the state had even been established.
The Huguenots discovered that the unique combination of climate, soil, and days of sunshine in the area made for conditions that were ideal for a number of varieties of grapes. The first vines were planted along the hillsides of the Hudson Highlands, and the tradition of growing wine grapes there has endured to the present day.
The Hudson Valley’s wine industry has survived every adversity, from wars and revolutions to unfavorable weather patterns to Prohibition. The commitment of the growers in this area and the necessity of testing a number of different varieties to keep up with the idiosyncrasies of the local climate have created a region that is today one of the most diverse and innovative areas for winemaking anywhere in the United States, rivaling even Napa in terms of selection and quality.
The Hudson River itself lends much to the cultivation of wine grapes. Its sheer size keeps the climate temperate, and its broad expanse pulls in southern, and often much warmer, maritime breezes. The sloping hills in the valley also provide for an extra dimension of irrigation. These conditions create an environment that has allowed some vineyards to flourish for centuries.
A Cottage Industry Emerges
For over 100 years, most of the wines produced in the Hudson Valley were made strictly for the consumption of the families that produced them. Then, in 1827, Robert Underhill—one of the founders of the Croton Point community—planted a number of vines he had brought to the States from Europe. The sole intent was to create a cottage industry that would sell wine for profit.
That first attempt ultimately failed, but Underhill was very determined. Over the course of the next two decades, he engaged in a number of crossbreeding projects mingling the genetics of both European and native vines. The idea paid off, and he was able to produce numerous crops of flavorful grapes that were both authentic in their quality but also hardy enough to withstand the local climate.
Following Underhill’s lead, William Cornell established another vineyard in Ulster County in 1845, and his activities soon garnered the attention of Andrew Caywood (his brother-in-law). Caywood settled in the town of Marlborough and was responsible for cultivating a successful generation of hybrids. One of the products of that endeavor is the Dutchess grape, which is still being cultivated in the Hudson Valley to this day. In fact, many of the original vines still produce top-quality grapes year after year.
From Cottage Industry to Commercial Enterprise
Jacques Brothers was the Hudson Valley’s first commercial winery, established in 1837 with the purpose of producing sacramental wines. The company was rebranded in 1885 as Brotherhood and continues to this day in Washingtonville as the oldest continuously operated winery in the United States.
Croton Point would become the next home for a commercial winery in the Hudson Valley in 1850. The founding company also produced sacramental wines and marketed wine-based products as medical tonics. Their “medical” elixir business saw reasonable levels of success in New York City for some time. The winery is no more, but the caves where the wines were once stored are still there, and are part of Westchester County Park.
In 1860, another Brotherhood winery was established in the rural town of Amenia, but the enterprise was short-lived. The winery operated between 1860 and 1867, after which time the business vacated the land and the area altogether.
In 1904, the Hudson Valley Wine Company opened in the town of Highland—a border town to New Paltz. Established by Alfonso Bolognese, this was yet another enterprise set up to make sacramental wines that were then sold to the numerous surrounding monasteries. The company eventually changed its name to Regent Champagne Cellars, but between the struggles of Prohibition and the Great Depression, the setbacks hit their interests hard and the company (along with its growing operation) are now defunct.
Regent wasn’t the only winery to succumb to financial struggles. High Tor Vineyards, founded by Everett Crosby, struggled for years to maintain both its profits and its reputation as one of the most prominent wineries in the eastern United States, but local taxation and a volatile private sector economy forced him out of business completely by the early 1950s.
A Critical Milestone
By 1970, the wine industry in New York State had managed to get the attention of then-governor Hugh Carey, who appointed John Dyson (owner of Dutchess County’s Millbrook Vineyards) as the state commissioner of agriculture. Being a wine enthusiast himself, Dyson developed the Farm Winery bill, which was passed in 1976. The bill dropped the annual fee for wine growing from $1000 to just $125, making it much easier for startup winemakers to establish and more quickly grow their operations.
Today, New York’s Hudson River Region is home to over 20 operating and flourishing local wineries.