The Story of Benmarl Vineyards

January 30, 2010

This continues our series highlighting activities for residents of New York’s rich and fascinating Hudson Valley, along with a measure of its history.

The Hudson River from Benmarl Vineyards

In the last 30 years we have become a country of wine consumers and are drinking increasing amounts of wine grown in our own native soils. This acceptance of our own wines has come about through the efforts of a few American winelovers who were determined to demonstrate that fine winemaking, both as an art and as a business was well within the capability of our nation’s climate, soils, and talents. Many stories can be told of the difficulties and rewards experienced by these dedicated people.

One such story concerns the Miller family, which began appropriately on a vineyard in the Hudson River valley, perhaps the oldest wine district in the United States. Wine has been made from the grapes of this region since the 17th century when the French Huguenots grew vines and made wine in nearby New Paltz.

Among the young farmers attracted to this burgeoning industry in the early 1800’s Andrew Jackson Caywood bought and planted a handsome piece of land high above the river in a Hudson region grape-growing community dating from 1772. When it incorporated as the Village of Marlborough in 1788, a cluster of grapes carved in its seal commemorated its major crop. Mr. Caywood became an outstanding viticulturist and leading authority in the development of new grape varieties.

When the Miller family, led by well-known artist-illustrator Mark Miller, bought the Caywood property in 1957 and re-named it Benmarl (meaning slate hill), it had outlived all its early contemporaries to become America’s oldest professional vineyard. The Millers rebuilt its steep terraces, replanting them with excellent European wine grapes, hybrid and vinifera, carrying on Caywood’s private experimentation at a time when New York’s wine industry was at a low ebb and long before New York State officially began experimental wine study.

To help them support their work, in the early 1970’s the Millers created the Societe des Vignerons, inviting friends interested in perpetuating the Valley’s viticultural traditions to become “vicarious vignerons” by taking on the annual support of two or more of Benmarl’s experimental grapevines and receiving in return their produce in the form of wine.

The Societe caught the imagination of serious wine lovers, and its work in the vineyard inspired many regional farmers to plant better wine vines. In just a few years the Societe saw its crusade to bring about a renaissance of our country’s first vineyard region evolve into a veritable fountain of astonishingly fine wine enhanced by a regional character which sets it apart from any others in the world. Benmarl’s Societe grew from a few friends to many hundreds all over the United States.

Benmarl’s wines were well received. In fact, there was perhaps no other American vineyard, during those early years, which received more attention from those who write about, think about, and enjoy good wine than this tiny vineyard in the Hudson Valley. Benmarl wines were featured at prominent New York restaurants, including Windows on the World, the Four Seasons and the Quilted Giraffe.

TIME Magazine, in a full-color feature, described Benmarl and its Eastern farm winery counterparts as “a new breed of winemakers, whose wines of fine quality and elegance are shaking California’s throne.” New York Times wine columnist Frank Prial became interested in Benmarl and its Societe when it sought his help in publicizing the need for legislative reform to encourage farm wineries in New York, and he described its wines as “remarkable examples of what dedication can produce.” Author and wine authority Alexis Lichine wrote in his Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits that “Benmarl promises to be among the finest vineyards in the nation”.

New York Governor Hugh Carey (a member of Benmarl’s Societe) signed the Farm Winery Act in 1976, permitting New York’s grape farmers to produce and sell wines directly to the public. As Mark Miller’s reward for helping to put the New York fine wine industry on the map, Benmarl was awarded NY State Farm Winery license #1. Benmarl was the inspiration, and Mark Miller the acknowledged parent, of the farm winery industry with its new wineries in New York State and throughout America.

Benmarl was gratified to have one of its wines voted the “Best US Red Wine” by the judges at the prestigious 2000 Atlanta Wine Summit International Competition.

The Miller family sold Benmarl to another wineloving family, the Spaccarellis, in 2006. They are replanting the old vineyards to make them more productive, renovating and restoring the old winery buildings, expanding the line of Benmarl’s fine wines, and winning more gold medals. You might wish to spend an afternoon at their Marlboro winery, now called Benmarl Winery at Slate Hill, 5 miles north of Newburgh in southern Ulster County, to taste for yourself what are certainly among the finest wines that New York offers. You won’t be disappointed with either the wines or the views over the river from “America’s Oldest Vineyard”. For directions, see their website, www.benmarl.com.  Photos by Arlene Gould.

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