An Upstate Education at Millbrook Winery

Let me preface by suggesting that the term “upstate” means different things to different people. I went to college in Poughkeepsie and any time I tried to place the town “upstate,” anyone from Albany or Buffalo would promptly correct me with a “that’s not upstate.” On the other hand, there are just as many people who see Manhattan as the center of the world and consider anything above 91st street to be upstate. At this point is seems appropriate to disclose that I fall into the latter group.

Regardless of where you place it, the Hudson Valley is America’s oldest wine region. French Huguenots planted the first vines around the town of New Paltz in 1677. It took almost 200 years for the first commercial wineries to be established and the Valley’s modern history begins with one man: John Dyson.

Dyson was appointed New York State’s Commissioner of Agriculture in the 1970s. Unless your office is in Kabul, this type of government position doesn’t generally lead to millions. However, Dyson was put in charge of developing an advertising campaign for NY State and all he could come up with was this:

His success with this campaign, along with the royalties that followed from every “I heart fill-in-the-blank,” provided Mr. Dyson the opportunity to follow his true passion. In 1979 he purchased Millbrook Winery, widely considered the “flagship winery of the Hudson Valley.”

The rural beauty of Dyson’s winery blends seamlessly with the surrounding area. The winery and tasting room are set at the back of the property, forcing visitors to slowly meander down a dirt road that cuts a swath through the vineyards. Make a left at the Pinot Noir to find yourself among the Chardonnay, planted just outside the front door.

Millbrook Winery is very user friendly and seems to be set up as much for giving tours as for making wine. The tasting room is nestled in the gift shop where visitors can buy a variety of souvenirs, including wine flavored crackers, tee-shirts and cult California Pinot Noirs (Dyson also owns the highly decorated William Seylem winery in the Russian River Valley). Tours run continuously and begin as soon as enough people arrive, six in our case.

We started with a tasting of three whites and three reds. The first was a beautifully aromatic 2009 Tocai Friulano, a simple white grown mostly in Northern Italy’s Friuli region.  While the palate was very fruit forward with notes of green apple, pear and some tropical pineapple, the wine lacked acidity and had a bitter finish.

Next we tasted two Chardonnays from 2008. The nose of the first was dominated by cream and butter, although we were assured that only some of the blend had completed Malo-lactic fermentation. The palate displayed a round mouthfeel, revealing notes of baked apple and lemon zest. Someone in the group commented that they “didn’t usually like Chardonnay but this one was good.” At this point our guide began the obligatory bashing of the oak monsters coming out of California. “You like this wine because it is aged for a short period in neutral French oak. We don’t over-oak our Chardonnays. We make wines that are much more akin to white Burgundies than California Chardonnays.” While I don’t love overly oaked Cali Chards I do find it somewhat comical how fashionable it has become to bash their brains in.

The scene became particularly amusing when the next wine was poured. The “Proprietor’s Special Reserve” Chardonnay underwent 100% malo-lactic fermentation we were told. It was also aged in oak, 80% French and 20% American, some of which was new. Guess what it tasted like? The nose, mid-palate and finish were absolutely dominated by oak.

The Millbrook Tasting Bar

The first red was a true “Frankenwine” and our host instructed us, should we choose to bring a bottle home, not to drink it without food. The Hunt’s County Red was a non-vintage wine made up predominantly of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. There wass also a smattering of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, with the last of the bunch being grown in California.

Next we tried a Bordeaux Blend from 2007 that was the cream of the crop. A classic Right Bank clone, the red was made from 75% Cabernet Franc, 18% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark cherry and cassis fruit were complimented nicely by sweet oak spice. It displayed a ripe tannic structure that pointed to a future in the cellar, perhaps 3 to 5 years. The oak was well balanced on the finish, bringing subtle flavors of bittersweet chocolate.

We finished with a Merlot whose fruit had been sourced entirely from Long Island. It was slightly reduced and bitter on the finish. It certainly wasn’t going to reverse any of the damage done by Sideways.

After the tasting we were given a great tour of the winery. If you have never seen a winery in person this would be a great place to start. They have barrels with glass windows, cork bark and tartrate crystals to play with, cold stabilization tanks with ice crystals on the outside and many other hands on experiences to help contextualize things that most wine lovers only read about.

Although it was deemed too hot to walk the vineyards they let me roam unsupervised. I tasted a couple of tiny Chardonnay grapes that had just appeared. In early July they were too small and tart for anything but it was still fun to taste fruit off the vine. I was most struck by how dissimilar the older Chardonnay vines looked from those that had just been planted.

These Chardonnay vines were planted just six years ago.

The older a vine gets the more flavorful its produce becomes. However, while you get better grapes, you also get less of them. Producers must strike a delicate balance between old vines that will provide complexity and new vines that will provide enough fruit to keep the winery financially viable.

There Chardonnay vines were planted more than 3 decades ago and are much thicker.

I would highly recommend a trip to Millbrook for anyone interested in seeing the inner-workings of a winery. You can be there in less than two hours from Montclair and the local farm stands offer plenty of lunch options worthy of a daytrip.  Having spent four years in Poughkeepsie, I can also confidently call the Hudson Valley one of the most beautiful places in the world to observe the Fall in all its glory.

I brought a bottle of the Cabernet Franc home and I would be interested in trying some of their other offerings. Whether you love his wines or not, a trip to Dyson’s winery will almost certainly have you murmuring his world famous motto as you drive home.

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4 Comments »

  1. Bruce Kimball said

    I read your piece on Millbrook. It was certainly fair and, for the most part, accurate. Three items were, however, not correct. First, Dr. Konstantin Frank really deserves most of the credit for bringing Vitis Vinifera grapes to New York. Second, John Dyson does not own the rights to “I LOVE NY”. He was an
    official when it was created and, as such, the licensing rights belong to the state. He deserves the credit for the idea but did not benefit, financially, from it. Lastly, a minor point, John did not purchase the Millbrook Winery. He bought the Wing Farm, a dairy farm, and built the Millbrook Vineyard and Winery on the property. He most certainly deserves praise for producing what I believe are the best New York State wines.

    • amantivinoblog said

      Bruce,

      Thank you so much for your comments. You are absolutely right about Dr. Konstantin Frank. I did not mean to suggest that Dyson brought Vinifera to the United States or that he was the most important figure in American viticulture. Personally, I see the Finger Lakes and the Hudson Valley as distinct regions. I think there is room to praise both men, and while a mention of Frank certainly would have been appropriate in this post, I chose to narrow the focus to the Hudson Valley.

      As for your other corrections, they are much appreciated. The reference to Dyson benefiting financially from the I Love NY campaign was take from an exchange between a fellow guest and our tour guide. It was purely anecdotal and, as these things often are, incorrect.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to clarify these inaccuracies.

      Will Sugerman

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