Recently, a local winemaker was kind enough to send me a sample bottle of wine to taste, and it was terrific. According to the written blurb accompanying the wine, the wine was estate-bottled, made from grapes grown on the winery’s own vineyards, here in the Hudson River Region American Viticultural Area (AVA). I was excited to taste the wine, and was even more excited that the wine was superb in my glass and on my palate.
But something was wrong. Here was a wonderful and truly local wine made with care and passion, but the wine label did not read “Hudson River Region,” it read “New York State.” Usually, when a wine produced in the Hudson Valley carries the New York State appellation it means that, by law, at least 25% - and usually a lot more – of the grapes were grown elsewhere in New York State, possibly in the Finger Lakes or Long Island wine regions. But such was not the case with this wine.
In an e-mail, I asked the winemaker “If this is an ‘Estate’ wine, why is the appellation New York State, not the Hudson River Region AVA?” The answer surprised me. The winemaker assured me that the wine was estate-bottled – “grown here in our vineyard” - with no grapes brought in from other New York State regions, but “the Hudson Valley does not have the best of reputations, and when I enter any of my wines in contests, they seem to do better with a New York State rather than a Hudson Valley (label).”
In my e-mail response I then had to ask: “How will the AVA ever surmount its perceived reputation if the best estate-bottled wines made in the region don’t use the Hudson River Region AVA name on the label?” I never got a response to my question.
The “contests” that the winemaker referred to are, of course, wine competitions that can add to a wine’s reputation and the overall reputation of the winery with consumers. As someone who has judged several wine competitions, including the Hudson Valley Wine Competition three times, my experience has been exactly the opposite of the winemaker’s. I, and many of my fellow judges, have looked first and foremost for true Hudson Valley wines, wines that express a sense of place that can be ascribed to our local vineyards. While it’s always a wonderful experience to taste a fine wine, that experience is heightened when you know you are tasting a wine that is the product of local terroir – the environmental imperatives of soil type, sunshine, rain, wind, elevation – that conspire to create a unique wine.
People who are willing to pay serious money for wine do not do so based soely on the grape varietal, but the place in which that grape grows. We call some of the most exquisite sparkling wines on the planet Champagne because that’s where the vineyards are. We don’t call it “Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier with Bubbles.” Great white Burgundy is by law 100% Chardonnay, but we call it (for example), Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault, the villages that contain those Chardonnay vineyards. We don’t call esteemed estate-bottled red Bordeaux wines “a Cabernet/Merlot Blend,” we call them Château Mouton-Rothschild or Château Margaux. We name these terroir-driven Old World wines, and others such as Rioja or Chianti or Barolo, for the place that nurtures the vines, not the vines themselves.
Even in the New World, where we most often name our wines for varietals, “place” is still important. Would you pay as much money for a “Cabernet Sauvignon labeled “California” as you would for one labeled “Napa Valley,” or a Pinot Noir labeled “Oregon” instead of “Willamette Valley?” Closer to home, how about a “Finger Lakes” Riesling versus a “New York State” bottling, or a “Hudson River Region” Cabernet Franc (a grape that can perform beautifully here) versus a “New York State” version? A Hudson River Region Seyval Blanc (one of our leading hybrid grapes) versus a New York State Seyval Blanc?
I am the last person to tell our local wine producers how to sell their wines or conduct their businesses. I appreciate that wine is agriculture, and that Hudson Valley winemakers, like all farmers, have to work hard to make their lives economically sustainable. But as someone who believes that the community of winemakers in the Hudson Valley is capable of producing fine, even world class wines, I think it is important to promote the quality of the wine produced here, especially when those wines rise to that high level. Our best winemakers are now producing wines that can share the table with many of the world’s best bottles, and it’s important that everyone drinking that wine know – and remember – that the grapes are grown and the wine is produced in the Hudson River Region AVA. If wine drinkers become aware that these extraordinary wines exhibit a sense of local place they will take them seriously and seek them out. That can only be good for the reputation of the entire Hudson Valley wine industry.
Of course, some Hudson Valley wine producers choose to work with fruit sourced from other parts of New York State, or even other states such as California. Sometimes these producers don’t own any vineyard land or enough vineyard land to grow enough grapes to remain economically viable. Alternately, some producers may choose to produce wines from grapes that don’t do as well here in the Hudson Valley as they might do in Long Island (Merlot comes to mind). For these wines the “New York State” appellation makes sense. In addition, the wines may be quite good, and their production helps to nurture and expand the local wine industry. These wines, while they do not reflect the terroir of the Hudson Valley, still can be well-made and true to varietal type, and will certainly help to spread the word that good wine is being made here.
I guess I want to encourage those Hudson Valley wine producers that are making their wines from grapes grown in local vineyards to be proud of what they have accomplished, and not to worry about what I can only describe as ill-informed, inexperienced, or just plain ignorant judges of wine competitions who prefer the generic qualities of New York State wines to the complex profile of Hudson River Region wines. I know that last year, when I judged the Hudson Valley Wine Competition, I was happy to see far more labels sporting the Hudson River Region AVA than ever before. Did I fall in love with every wine just because it featured the local appellation on the label? Of course not. Some of the truly local wines were extraordinarily fine, some quite good, some needed work, but those type of results would be the same the world over, whether the wines being judged came from the Rhône Valley of France or the Douro Valley of Portugal, the Napa Valley of California, the Willamette Valley of Oregon, or the Hudson Valley of New York.