In these days of marketing illusions, the Whitecliff Wines brand name could just as well have sprung from the fertile mind of a copywriter with a fondness for alliteration. But the vineyard is nestled among 70 picturesque acres of fertile land a few miles west of the Hudson River, with the distinct rocky outcropping of the Shawangunks an ever-present backdrop. In fact, it was the Shawangunk Ridge itself that first brought Whitecliff vinters Michael and Yancey Migliore together. But like a good wine, our story starts before that.
In 1975, Michael, a native of Fishkill, was renting and farming the same 20 acres in Gardiner where Whitecliff’s vineyard now sits, putting himself through a graduate program in organic chemistry at SUNY New Paltz by raising dairy cows and growing hay. When he got an engineering job with IBM a few years later, he purchased the property and began his experiments with grapevines. “It was basically ok, now I have 20 acres of land. I don’t want to mow it so what should I do?” says Michael. As an experiment, he planted some grapes.
Choosing to plant grapes was not exactly an arbitrary decision. Although he enjoyed his engineering job with Big Blue, he was eager to put his academic knowledge of organic chemistry to work. While not a prerequisite, it’s a helpful area of expertise for modern grape growers. And then there were his grandfathers.
A basement full of wine
As a boy he grew up in his German grandfather’s house, where the basement was always full of wine barrels. “As a kid he’d take me to the wineries in the Hammondsport area in the Finger Lakes region,” he says. His Italian grandfather also made wine. But it wasn’t until graduate school that his horizon broadened to include the full spectrum of flavors that wine encompasses. “I started drinking different kinds of wine, experimenting,” he recalls. His friends were interested in wine, too. “One of them worked in a winery in a tasting room and had a knowledge of wines that I had never tried before.” Michael also found a mentor in Peter Landau, the proprietor of Viscount Wines in Fishkill. “Peter was great about exposing me to good wines at a value price that were well made,” remembers Michael. “I’d ask Peter 'what’s good this year?’ and he’d point something out. He showed me the world of wines.”
In 1982, not long after planting those first vines, he met Yancey, a Manhattanite drawn to the natural beauty of the area who began climbing the Gunks when she came up to visit an old friend. She and Michael married the next year. “The first thing we did was build the house ourselves,” says Yancey, who had graduated from Barnard just a few years before and was entering into a different world. “So I was a contractor and laborer and learning to drive in the first year. Then we moved on to the farming part after that.”
Developing a palate beyond sweet & fizzy
Wine appreciation was another learning curve. “I can remember having wine in high school at 18, which was legal at that time in New York City,” she says. “I vividly remember it was Lancers Rosé and Mateus Rosé, which are both slightly fizzy, slightly sweet, one step away from Coca-Cola. In a way I think being able to remember starting there helps me to talk to people about wine.”
Throughout the eighties, as they juggled their separate careers and raising two sons, the Migliores gradually planted an experimental vineyard, totaling an acre and a half, with every third row a different variety. They planted everything from Chardonnay, Cabaret Franc, Merlot and Gewürztraminer to hybrid grape varieties in an effort to find the best vines to withstand the valley’s cold winters. There was also the wine production process to experiment with and perfect. “We were dealing with two questions,” says Michael. “Could we grow grapes? And did the grapes that we grew, did they make any kind of decent wine?”
By the late nineties the answers became clear. The vineyard was a viable operation and the wine quality was good. The Migliores approached a neighboring farm owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses to purchase an additional fifty acres. They christened their vineyard Whitecliff Winery and built a tasting room with a scenic view of the ridge. While they opened for business in 1999, twenty years after the first vines went in the ground, it was still years ahead of schedule. Michael had planned on running the winery in his retirement, which didn’t come until 2006. “The joke is instead of being retired, he was just tired,” laughs Yancey. “He was holding down two jobs at once.”
As with any agricultural endeavor, a vineyard is at the mercy of the weather. Michael compares the climate of the Hudson Valley to the French regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais in terms of the length of the growing season and the amount of rainfall. The European vines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc love warm, dry weather.
“If you don’t have a warm enough site, don’t bother investing the money — it’s ten thousand dollars an acre to put in an acre of grapes,” says Michael. “It’s just the way that this valley is shaped. Most of the time, it will be warmer than any place else,” says Michael. The same geographical formation that traps the warmth can also trap the cold. “When you get an arctic cold front that comes through, the valley fills up like a bathtub with cold air. Under those circumstances, it can be colder than any place else.”
While cold-hardy hybrid varieties have been developed able to withstand short growing seasons and harsh winters, winemakers are still experimenting to find which make the best wine and how to market them. Vintners often create blends, mixing the old and the new. One such blend is Whitecliff's popular Redtail wine, which combines Merlot and two hybrid grapes — Noiret and DeChaunac.
Based in Beacon, Kelly Kingman writes about food for national publications, covering topics ranging from New York's garlic festivals to student life at the Culinary Institute of America. Her website is HudsonGrown.com, a site celebrating the local food of the Hudson Valley.
Read about how wine making is both an art and a science here.
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