Cultivating Cabernet Franc in the Hudson Valley

bin of Cabernet Franc grapes with mountains in distance

“The 2020 is the best vintage of Cabernet Franc ever.”

It was a bold statement that may have caught event-goers by surprise, but winemaker Kristop Brown explained—it was not an exaggeration. The proof was in what Brown was about to pour the tasters gathered around Robibero Winery’s table at the Hudson Valley Cabernet Franc Coalition’s tasting event last May. Brown brought a sample of the still-in-process 2020 Cab Franc he had taken right out of the barrel that morning. Curious tasters, anxious to be the first to try new and upcoming releases of the region’s signature grape, wanted to learn more.

When it comes to vintages, Brown should know. He’s been a hands-on figure in the Hudson Valley’s viticultural scene for decades, and has managed Robibero Winery’s Cabernet Franc production through vintages, optimal or not, from grape to bottle since 2011.

A few months earlier, at a blind tasting of Hudson Valley-grown Cabernet Francs produced by the Coalition’s members, growers, winemakers and winery owners from across the region had come to the same conclusion—the 2020 vintage was one for the record books.

Even samples of unfinished wines thieved from their barrels so members could judge them “blind” showed early signs of the defining characteristics that have come to typify the Hudson Valley’s signature wine—aromatic fruit, balanced acids, smooth tannins, and gem-like hues.

At the late-May event, consumers and members of the trade in attendance sampled about a dozen of those banner Cabernet Franc wines from the 2020 vintage, and lapped them up.

The Year in Review

Against the odds, what started out as a potentially damaging growing season led to an extraordinary vintage for many of the region’s growers. Compared to previous years, when adverse weather conditions caused moderate, even severe, losses of tender vines at many vineyards around the Valley, heavy frost damage in late May didn’t pose much of a setback for growers in 2020. Despite Cabernet Franc’s vinifera heritage (it is the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), in the Hudson Valley the grapes generally muster enough backbone to withstand the region’s challenging microclimates and varied terroir. But coupled with a short growing season that inconsistently ripens the fruit and the unpredictable effects of climate events, it’s clear that Mother Nature plays an outsize role in each vintage’s haul.

Typically, the region’s cool, natural terroir can produce the high acid needed to make a wine that can withstand aging, but often there aren’t enough degree days to allow fussier grapes like Cabernet Franc to concentrate the sugars needed to balance out the acidity. In 2020, the late summer and fall conditions brought warm days and average moisture, which allowed the grapes to ripen at an even pace. Growers could let the grapes hang on the vines until early or mid October to soak in as much sun as possible. The wines made from those grapes are proving to be some of the finest the region has ever produced.

Critical Care

Eking out a decent harvest in any year doesn’t happen without some cajoling and kid-gloved treatment in the vineyard, though. “We employ ‘high-touch’ farming practices,” says Bruce Tripp, winemaker at Milea Estate Vineyards in Staatsburg. “We also get superior drainage from coarse glacial soils that helps keep the vigor in check, so we end up with fruit that has small berries and thick skins.” In 2020, this high skin-to-juice ratio created a super-concentrated wine packed with powerful aromatics and intense flavor. The wine was awarded a double-gold medal at the 2022 Hudson Valley Wine Competition and named Best Cabernet Franc in New York State by the Great American International Wine Competition.

Seems even wildlife can sense a good vintage. At Benmarl Winery in Marlboro, less than a ton of grapes made it to harvest in 2020, according to general manager Angelo Curci. Intense critter pressure (deer and insect damage) dramatically reduced the yield, leading winemaker Matthew Spaccarelli to employ creative – and necessary – methods to craft a solid wine.

“Over a 15-day fermentation, we punched the juice down twice a day to add air and help extract tannins from the skins,” says Spaccarelli. The wine was sturdy enough to handle softening in an oak puncheon for an extended period of time. Seventeen months later, those efforts yielded just 55 cases of Cabernet Franc wine—and a 90-point rating by Wine Enthusiast.

Nearby, at Quartz Rock Vineyard, co-owner and winemaker Dan Heavens was left with grapes from just one of the clonal varieties of Cabernet Franc they grow on their Nightingale Farm, after heavy critter pressure ravaged the rest. Despite the low yield of surviving grapes (clone 01), Heavens coaxed out the best of the clone’s characteristics, and fashioned a vibrant Cabernet Franc wine with a youthful expression of earth, pepper, and spice.

At Whitecliff’s Olana Vineyard in Hudson, the moderating currents of the Hudson River generally offers their Cabernet Franc vines some protection from dramatic temperature swings and helps thwart off frost. To maximize the intensity of the fruit that thrived on relatively young, well-tended vines until harvest time, winemakers Michael Migliore and Brad Martz treated the grapes to 24 hours of cold-soaking and left the whole berries to ferment rather than crushing them. Aging the wine for 14 months in gently used American and Hungarian oak barrels rounded out the flavors and softened the edges to produce a balanced lush wine. The final product captured a double-gold medal and was named Best in Show at the 2022 Hudson Valley Wine Competition.

With the uncertainty of climate change and its effects on heat, drought, and other factors in the vineyard, it will be hard to predict when there will be another vintage like 2020 for Cabernet Franc. The awards and accolades that these wines have racked up speak for themselves, but try them for yourself and let your palate be the judge.

Guide to Long Island Wine Country

vineyard landscape

If sampling wines from another New York region is on your bucket list this fall, pick up a copy of The Wines of Long Island and head to the East End. In the revised third edition of The Wines of Long Island, José Moreno-Lacalle takes readers on a journey around the Forks, meshing past and present history with back stories and anecdotes about each winery to make it the region’s most comprehensive guide to date. The book explores the exciting evolution of Long Island’s wine industry since its birth, and gives readers an insider’s perspective into who’s who in the current wine scene.

People and personalities remain the heart of the third edition, and its foreword, written by Louisa Thomas Hargrave eloquently sets the tone. There are plenty of maps and photos (most taken by the author, a serious amateur photographer) to provide visitors with a preview of each destination to help plan their trip. While the earlier edition of the book included profiles of the 24 wineries in existence at the time; Moreno-Lacalle’s volume, published in 2019*, includes the 62 wine producers and wineries that are currently spread out over three AVAs which now comprise the region—the Hamptons, the North Fork, and the Long Island AVA.

Moreno-Lacalle undertook the herculean task of updating 2000s second edition with permission by the original co-authors, Edward Beltrami and Philip Palmedo, who first released the book in 1987. With an avid interest in European wine culture, the forward-thinking authors documented the struggles and successes of Long Island’s early winemaking attempts, and profiled the trailblazers who were brave enough to plant the first vines. Those pioneers included Alex and Louisa Hargrave who broke ground with Long Island’s initial vineyard plantings in 1972; David and Steve Mudd, who planted more than half of the original vineyards on the East End; and the notable John Wickham, among other figures whose legacies are ingrained in Long Island’s decades-long wine-growing “experiment”.

book cover
The revised and updated edition of The Wines of Long Island.

For those who want a deeper dive, The Wines of Long Island digs into terroir, climate, and soil types, as well as wine styles and varietals. As in most other New World wine regions, initial plantings of European varietals were not successful on Long Island, but Moreno-Lacalle points out that through evolving vineyard practices and site selection, among other choices, Long Island winemakers have built their reputation on the 22 white and 16 red vinifera grapes that have successfully taken root in the region over the past four decades. Today, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer are the mainstays of a Long Island winery’s portfolio, despite the challenges the grapes often pose for growers.

With an eye on climate change and the future of sustainable wine growing, Moreno-Lacalle touches on the initiatives of Cornell’s VineBalance, the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers (LIWC), and some of the low-intervention practices currently being employed in the vineyards. For those interested in chronicling the vintages, the book also includes an impressive list of vintage notes dating back to 1988.

First-time book author Moreno-Lacalle is well-versed in wine and viticulture, and his fluid writing style augments the original authors’ conversational tone to make this volume an enjoyable read. Moreno-Lacalle, who holds a diploma in Wine & Spirits from the prestigious Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and has an M.A. in art history, began researching and writing about local wines on his blog, Wine, Seriously in 2010.

On a personal note, having grown up on Long Island when the wine industry was still in its infancy, the development of the region into a mature and sophisticated destination for quality wines has been an intrinsic fascination of mine. Since my early days zig-zagging across the East End, when mainly fields of potatoes and sod stretched far across the landscape, Long Island wine country has evolved to include more than 2,041 acres of vineyards pulling in 6,000+ tons of grapes each year. The growth is astounding.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Wines of Long Island to help navigate the region and choose which wineries to visit. Moreno-Lacalle’s 300-page guide is a must-have resource for anyone planning a course around this complex world-class wine destination if they wish to drink it all in.

The Wines of Long Island
ISBN: 978-1-7330295-0-6
Rivers Run By Press [2019]
Hardcover: $ 60.00 US
Order a copy here

* This review was originally written in 2020, then shelved due the uncertainty of winery openings during the pandemic. Since the book’s publication, Moreno-Lacalle has posted updates and addendums on his blog Wine, Seriously.

Header photo: Paumanok Vineyards, courtesy New York Wine & Grape Foundation

Wine and the White House – Lessons in Diplomacy

President Grant State dinner illustration

We could all use a glass of wine, or three, waiting for this year’s election, but have you ever considered what White House residents uncork once they’ve settled in? Turns out most Presidents have a penchant for fine wine.

Frederick J. Ryan Jr.’s Wine and the White House – A History is a lively, historical romp through the Presidential cellars and the traditions that have evolved to make wine an influential part of White House culture. Thomas Jefferson’s well-documented passion for French vintages may have set the stage—and the table—for a legacy of White House entertaining and multiple-course dinners, yet each President since Washington has recognized wine’s intrinsic value when it comes to diplomacy and creating an atmosphere that puts guests at ease. Presidents from Adams to FDR, Kennedy to Clinton, and even those who have abstained, have raised a glass (or in the case of Benjamin Harrison’s inauguration dinner, thirteen) to dignitaries, royals, and celebrity guests filled with wines to suit their tastes as well as the political needs of the occasion.

cover of Wine and the White House book

Ryan, an aficionado of both wine and White House history, gives readers insight into the personal relationship each President has had with wine through letters and notes punctuated with historic images and rare ephemera. Rich with photographs of State Dinners, receptions, holiday celebrations, and intimate gatherings, the book provides an unprecedented look at historic hospitality and the accompanying pomp and circumstance. Ryan shares candid moments in a section of the book devoted to Presidential toasts honoring distinguished guests, including President Nixon’s toast to Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1972, and President Clinton’s toast on the eve of the Millennium (which included three toasts, including one to Hillary).

President Gerald Ford holding a glass to toast Queen Elizabeth II
President Gerald Ford shares a toast with Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate the 1776 American Bicentennial.

Selecting wines for White House functions was never an easy task. In Wine and the White House Ryan provides an insider’s perspective on the complicated process of selecting, acquiring, storing, and serving wine in the White House. A first-hand account of the intricacies comes in the form of an essay by Daniel Shanks, who served as the first White House Food and Beverage Usher since 1995, as well as musings and reflections by First Ladies, service staff, and social secretaries who were often tasked with aspects of the decision making.

invitation from President Truman for dinner with Churchill, with handwritten notes
Handwritten notes on the menu (note the Scotch martini) for a dinner honoring former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during Harry S. Truman’s presidency.

Wines from Europe’s top regions—French Burgundy and Bordeaux, German Riesling, Italian Soave, Spanish Madeira, and fine Portos—were favored during early administrations, as were wines from Virginia, selected to showcase American viniculture and regional dishes. Many Presidents have included wines from their home state (or that of their guests) in the rotation, hence the Virginian wines and bottles from Michigan, Texas, and even Arizona (a tribute to retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor). California wines, mainly Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Blanc de Blancs, and those from New York’s Gold Seal, Taylor, and Great Western wineries were popular choices during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and remained on White House menus for decades.

dinner at teh WHite House with LB Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson with guests at a State Dinner honoring the Emperor of Ethiopia in 1967.

When the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting catapulted the reputation of California wines around the globe, the White House took note, and California wines soon topped the list—as they still do. Noted oenophile and California native Ronald Reagan chose the finest Napa Valley vintages during his presidency, never serving wines from the same vineyard more than three times. His favorite bottles were flown in for Embassy events he hosted abroad.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush, Sr. initiated “American Wine Week” at the White House which eventually led to the “America only” wine policy in place today. But, as Ryan points out, the policy has proven to be challenging, especially when the White House is entertaining leaders from other major wine-producing countries. The Reagan administration came up with a diplomatic solution to address this dilemma when hosting the French Prime Minister by selecting a wine that represented the best of both countries. For this occasion, a bottle of Opus One, a partnership of France’s renowned Baron de Rothschild and Napa visionary Robert Mondavi, was uncorked, and a potential faux pas was averted. The seemingly simple solution of selecting a wine that connects the U.S. with the visitor’s country is still put into practice today, most recently by Melania Trump when hosting the current French President and his wife.

Over the decades, vintages from most all wine-producing states in the U.S. have made their way to the table, including those from Oregon, Washington, and New York’s Finger Lakes and Long Island regions. Notably, Long Island’s Wolffer 2012 Estate Noblesse Oblige Sparkling Rosé was served by President Obama at a dinner honoring the Prime Minister of Singapore.

In Wine and the White House history buffs will feast their eyes on the rare historic ephemera and vintage photographs. Menu cards, bills of sale, vintage bottles, labels, and handwritten notes from White House wine specialists (and even some Presidents) are woven throughout the pages. Lush new photography chronicles the White House collection of glassware, decanters, and service pieces, among them, the massive 700-piece set ordered by President Pierce after a visit to New York’s Crystal Palace Exhibition; and special stems designed to reflect the architecture of the Federal Building produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

closeup of Libbey wine Glass from the 1939 World's Fair
The Libbey Glass Company fashioned a set of “Embassy” glassware to reflect the Federal Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Wine enthusiasts will appreciate reviews of grape varietals and reflections from renowned winemakers around the world whose iconic wines have long graced White House tables. For those looking for an at-a-glance list of wines served during each Administration, there is a complete chronology of every bottle poured at a White House event since World War II.

Wine and the White HouseA History provides a staffer’s view inside the walls of the White House. Not just about wine, history, or White House residents, Wine and the White House serves up a lesson in good taste and delicate diplomacy. While no President can put a value on hospitality, when it comes to defining good statesmanship and breaking down social barriers, Ryan skillfully demonstrates that a glass of fine wine is worth every sip.


About the author: Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., is publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. He served in a senior staff position in the Ronald Reagan White House and as Reagan’s post presidential chief of staff. Ryan currently serves as chair of the Board of Directors of the White House Historical Association, of the Board of Trustees of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, and of the Wine Committee of the Metropolitan Club of Washington, D.C.

Wine and the White House – A History
Frederick J. Ryan, Jr.
The White House Historical Association
Hardcover: $ 55.00 US
Pre-order a copy here

Header: Butlers refill wine glasses at a dinner hosted by President Ulysses S. Grant, circa 1871.

Know Before You Go: What to Expect When You Visit a Tasting Room Now

For the first time, things are looking up since the COVID-19 crisis put New York State on “pause”. Now that virtually all regions have met the criteria allowing limited capacity re-openings, the local wine and craft beverage industry is once again bubbling with optimism. Plans to welcome visitors—even from six feet away—are in place.

From the onset, wine and craft beverage operations throughout the State were deemed “essential businesses,” meaning that people could still purchase alcohol. Consumer support for local businesses was overwhelming. For many stuck at home, curbside pickup, virtual tastings, online offers and attractive delivery options filled the void of a tasting room visit. In the wine industry alone, direct-to-consumer shipping offset nearly 70% of the revenue lost in the tasting room, and e-commerce sales surged an incredible 291%, according to WineAmerica’s winery survey during the March pandemic peak.

But in the Hudson Valley, where tourism is the lifeblood of the craft beverage and hospitality industries, the “NY Forward” plan for recovery couldn’t get here soon enough.The State’s multi-phased re-opening plan puts wine and craft beverage businesses in the same category as restaurants, which means outdoor spaces are allowed to open in Phase 2. In Phase 3, indoor tasting rooms get the green light. Just because businesses are allowed to open, however, doesn’t mean that they are required to. Business owners decide when, and how, they will let customers back in their tasting rooms.

In the Hudson Valley, where tourism is the lifeblood of the craft beverage and hospitality industries, the “NY Forward” plan for recovery couldn’t get here soon enough.

During the wait, many businesses have been keeping customers engaged in other ways. At Awestruck, cider makers in Delaware County, staff has been posting weekly live videos on social media to tell fans about their new cider flavors. “We pride ourselves on letting the liquid speak for itself, so we’ve tried to be as descriptive as possible,” says market manager Jessica Hubbard.

And, like the team at Awestruck, many business owners have been planning a safe re-opening strategy for months. Fortunately, Cornell University’s Craft Beverage Institute and a team of Cooperative Extension agents are providing clear, safe guidance.

Cornell developed a set of “best practice” protocols for tasting rooms in the State, incorporating recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), federal, state, and county governments, the State Liquor Authority, and organizations like the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. With groundwork laid out by the California Wine Industry, Cornell’s comprehensive guidelines are focused on ways to keep local craft beverage tasting rooms, indoors or out, open for the long term.

For business owners, taking common sense precautions means putting measures in place that not only protect their staff, but that will also allow visitors to have an enjoyable time. “We will be reducing our seating inside the taproom once we are able to re-open,” says Hubbard, “but we’ve added an abundance of outdoor seating so we can ensure our customers’ safety, as well as that of our amazing team.”

For consumers, the new practices may take a little getting used to. Visiting might entail making reservations in advance, entering and exiting through a different door, and following directional and traffic flow signs. Tastings might be timed. And certainly, limiting group sizes, social distancing, and wearing a face covering will become the status quo.

“It’s going to be challenging for wineries to train their staff on safety protocols and insure that visitors are practicing social distancing while at their establishment, says Jude DeFalco, Operations Manager of the Shawangunk Wine Trail, “but our wineries are excited to be re-opening and welcoming back their visitors.”

What is clear is that there won’t be any bands, private events, or group tours for a while yet. Until there is adequate testing, contact tracing, or a COVID-19 vaccine, visitors may be asked to confirm that they understand and will cooperate with the new practices, or may even be asked to sign a waiver. All this change may require thinking differently and planning ahead, but businesses are working hard to put these practices into play as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible.

All this change may require thinking differently and planning ahead, but businesses are working hard to put these practices into play as seamlessly and unobtrusively as possible.

For those hesitant about visiting just yet, the New York State Liquor Authority is allowing the current practice of selling wine, spirits, beer and mixed drinks for takeout and delivery to continue for now, so supporting local producers is still possible. To find their latest offers, visit our Curbside Pickup & Delivery Guide.

For those eager to get back to enjoying a flight with friends in a tasting room, or walking through a vineyard with a glass in hand, keep in mind that State and local restrictions will continue to loosen as the Covid-19 crisis lessens. By following the protocols now, Phase 4 (the last step in the re-opening plan) may not be that far off.

“We will see things really pick up as we enter Phases 3 and 4,” adds DeFalco, “people are anxious to get out and see their friends.”

Businesses are just as eager to get back to some semblance of normal. “We are very excited to re-open,” exclaims Hubbard, “and so appreciative of our community’s support. We look forward to welcoming everyone back to our taproom soon!”

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Hudson Valley Wine Magazine.