Phyllis Feder of Clinton Vineyards
SEYVAL BLANC ISN'T EXACTLY A household name, even among wine lovers. A French-hybrid grape (that happens to grow especially well in the Hudson Valley) captured the heart of Ben Feder, an artist, chef, businessman-turned-winemaker, who devoted his entire vineyard in Clinton Corners to Seyval Blanc. You might say the next thing that captured Feder's heart was Phyllis, his wife, who joined him in his vineyard venture in 1988. The two made a formidable team, transforming their 100-acre vineyard estate in the Hudson Valley in the tradition of a small French estate, producing the most romantic of wines (including one named Romance), championing a Hudson Valley Wine Country brand and winning converts to Seyval Blanc. Since Ben's death in 2009, Phyllis has taken the helm of the winery; production continues in the careful hands of their long-time winemaker, Chris Stuart. This summer, at the Hudson Valley Wine & Spirit Competition, Clinton Vineyard's method champenoise sparkling wine, Jubilee, took the honor as "Best Wine of the Hudson Valley."
Phyllis Feder: The vineyard was planted in 1974; Ben released his first wine in '78—that was the '77 harvest. He won all the medals up and down the East Coast. It was a triumph for him [even though] it was just 300 cases.
The concept that Ben had (he was a Francophile) was to emulate in some way the tradition of the small estate vineyards in France, where they specialize in a single grape. Seyval is a French-American hybrid and a good grape for the Hudson Valley. The concept is, I think, intelligent; it's based on what can grow well here. Ben went to France and learned about méthode champenoise; he came back and then did a beautiful méthode champenoise. And he was making a little bit of Riesling.
When Ben and I got together we expanded a bit into more of the méthode champenoise product and included dessert wine.
We have our Seyval Naturelle—that was the first [champagne]. Then we have Peach Gala. (That was a marvelous discovery. We had been to somebody's house where they were pouring a French pink champagne—I think it was called Peche. We said this is pleasant but you know, it's weak. So we thought, let's see what we can do.)
We have another one called Royale—it's Seyval Naturalle with a little bit of Nuit, our wild black raspberry wine. It's a blush—a gorgeous color. And one is Jubilee—it is really for people who say they like dry. The fellow in France from whom Ben learned about méthode champenoise said to him, "You know, Americans say they like dry but they don't really mean it." However, this is dry and a lot of people truly love it. It's very special.
So, we were making table wine—Seyval Blanc—we were making four méthode champenoise and one late-harvest Seyval we called Romance. And that was it—everything from Seyval.
Enter Norman Greig, who had all those raspberries. He had tested an automatic harvester for the raspberries and before they knew it they had a thousand extra pounds of raspberries. Norman came here and asked if Ben would consider buying his raspberries and making a raspberry wine. And Ben said, "No no, I don't do that. We specialize—we just grow our grapes to make our wine." Finally Norman prevailed. The wine was so lovely I named it Embrace, and everybody really enjoyed it, so the thought was we'll buy another thousand pounds. Norman said, "Fine, but you have to pick them yourself"—he didn't buy the harvester.
Then Ben sought other growers and found a couple of ladies on the other side of the river who said, "Oh, yeah, we grow beautiful raspberries, but you should see our blackberries." So he said, "Okay, send me a thousand pounds of blackberries." And then he created Desire. So we had Romance, Embrace and Desire. We added on from that.
The whole vineyard is a little bit under 14 acres—800 vines strong. The other day the fellow who is working with me in the vineyard now, he said that the lines of vines measured a little over 5 miles. Isn't that curious? Maybe we could make a competition—How many miles of vines do you have?
Last year the growing season was phenomenal—the vines did very well, and this year the vineyard is looking spectacular. I'm very worried though—we need more help in terms of just, you know, workers—people who do agriculture, who go from job to job wherever they can find work. It's a tough world, being a farmer. I'm already starting to get a little anxious about the harvest in terms of just getting the right crew together.
In the past, we used to have all these famous fellow travelers who'd come to pick our grapes. They would come and pick 12 grapes before lunch, have lunch, go back and pick another 22 grapes before it was time for cocktails. It was a big party—we ran the biggest parties in Dutchess County. At a certain point I said we really have to hire people, so that's what we did. It would be so marvelous to have some sort of cooperative where you had a big crew and they can go from one field to the other.
While they concentrated on developing the quality of the Seyval production ("Please don't call it Chardonnay"), they nevertheless remained open to other possibilities. When New York State removed the ban on growing black currants, they jumped at the opportunity to develop a black currant wine—cassis—a very limited-production product that has arguably drawn the most attention.
PF: The cassis was quite a remarkable thing. The black currant plant produced an airborne rust that destroyed pine trees—it was actually outlawed. Cornell developed a strain of black currants that were disease free, and their desire was to convince farmers they should grow it. So they brought Ben some black currants and asked him to create something. He did—and it was absolutely fabulous.
We had a blind tasting here—we had some wines from top producers in Canada, Belgium and France—and we won, hands down. The amount that he produced then was something like 60 cases; when we saw how well received it was, we went forward.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I'm very flattered—I have my own personal thoughts about how well [other wineries] are making cassis but I don't go there. Everybody's palate is different. I can say that, you know, we're the only vineyard in the United States to get a gold medal for cassis in international competition. (When we said we were going to enter the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, a friend said, "Are you guys crazy?" I was standing on a corner with Ben in 1995 in San Miguel Allende and there was an article about our cassis and a photograph in Business Week—it was a wonderful thing to have for Valentine's Day.)
High on Feder's list of priorities has always been the promotion and branding of the Hudson Valley, something she's pursued through the development of Hudson Valley Wine Country, the Duthess Wine Trail, the Hudson Valley Wine and Culinary Project and as board chair of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. Small, artisanal wine producers in the Valley don't have it easy. The biggest challenge remains getting restaurants and markets and consumers to buy.
PF: From early on, I was very interested in the potential of the Hudson Valley—an extraordinarily rich place with many possibilities, not all realized—and some that were realized were not necessarily known outside of the Valley. A long time ago—very long before The Valley Table—I wrote a piece (for I forget which publication)—I said if you think you have to travel 3,000 miles for beautiful scenery, wonderful food, good wine, think again—it's right here in your backyard. These days I feel even more so about that because, on the wine level, things have evolved a lot since 1993. And the world has come to understand a lot more about what we have here.
Personally, I think the broader stroke is to bring people here because then they have the experience of seeing all of this magnificence, of being on your turf. That's why farmers' markets are so exciting. The GreenMarket in New York City—what a gift that is. That is where you could really meet the producers and have a chat.
So, I see our job as getting people here, having them see what we have to offer. People come down this road on a bus—you know, on a farm-fresh tour—and they see cows and sheep and goats and an occasional chicken running across the road and they think my goodness this is an hour and a half from Manhattan. It's a whole awakening. It's something that I care deeply about. That's what got me involved in the Wine and Grape Foundation.
It was eye-opening for me to be involved and to see the evolution—you know, now we're nearing 400 wineries [in New York State]; I think in 1976 there were fewer than 30. And I'm happy to say that representation from the Hudson Valley continues.
You can have a lot of money and things still won't go forward. You need leadership, enthusiasm and the ability to bring people into the fold and generate excitement. Without that there's nothing.
In my conversations with a lot of people in the business here—I used to say, "Folks, the Finger Lakes and Long Island are very proactive. They're out there promoting. The Hudson Valley is going to get lost unless it really gets more cooperative, making things happen" And now there's the beverage trail up in the Berkshires—so to that extent there is more dimension. The [Dutchess Wine Trail and the Shawangunk Wine Trail] have two very separate kinds of focus.
The idea of "regional branding" was a child of the Wine and Grape Foundation. For all intents and purposes, it was their largesse that enabled Hudson Valley Wine Country to work on having a presence at various trade shows and wine events, to develop a website, rack cards—that kind of promotional stuff. Now there is no specific money earmarked for regional branding. However, we certainly can utilize the wine trail allocations. The Millbrook people and I are very happy to say 'Let's create more of a presence for the region'—hopefully the people of the Shawangunk Wine Trail will agree.
I just wish now that the economy, both on an individual level and on state and federal level, were such that you know, projects like supporting agriculture and bringing people up [could be supported]. As you know, my ideas about the Hudson Valley Wine and Culinary Center—we're no longer calling it a "center," we're calling it a "project"—are that I see it as a way of bringing together all the different activities that are going to support the world of agriculture and wine. You can have a lot of money and things still won't go forward. In order to create that structure you need leadership, enthusiasm and the ability to bring people into the fold and generate excitement. Without that there's nothing.
A tried-and-true democrat, Feder is not shy about stating her beliefs or her involvement in politics. Having a guy named Clinton elected to the presidency was a marketer's dream. In those days, it seemed like the Clinton Vineyards brand was everywhere. And then came the wedding. . .
PF: In '92, the Democratic convention came to New York City, and Bill Clinton was the obvious nominee. So our wines were everywhere. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, so was Ben, so of course we were very excited about Clinton. At the inauguration, we had champagne in Washington. It was personally rewarding, you know, the whole idea that we were going to have a man in office after all those years feeling disenfranchised. We felt so connected. In terms of the wine, it certainly did bring awareness. It brought people here.
We had some interesting negative feedback when there were those "problems" that the president had—there were times when people would make remarks about Bill Clinton—one half of a couple would say, "I love this wine," then the wife would come along and say, "I will not have anything in my house with that name on it." We would have to make remarks like, "This is not political—this is wine."
A funny dog story: We had a woman in the tasting room who had assembled a rather large order. She went to the desk and noticed the dog—our wonderful black lab—had a rubber toy bust of Bush [in his mouth]. He had been biting it and at this point he was sitting there chewing on George Bush's neck. The lady said to Ben, "What is your dog doing? That's the President of the United States." And Ben said, "Yes, I know." She said, "That's disgraceful." Ben made some comment along the lines of "But not as disgraceful as what's happening to our country," and she said, "Well, I don't know that I appreciate your sentiment." And Ben said, "That's fine if you feel that way." She said, "I don't know how I feel about buying this wine," and he said, "It was so nice of you to come—enjoy your travels around the area." Period. Clearly, there are times when you have to hold your tongue and hope for the best.
The 14-acre vineyard stretches across rolling hills. Scattered throughout the property are sculptures and works of art, gardens and a pond. Each sign was hand painted by Ben, a typographer and artist.
PF: I joined the partnership in 1988. Ben was part of a select group of World War II vets that went to Paris under the G.I. Bill. He was so in love with Paris. I knew we were absolutely right for one another on many occasions, but he took me to Paris once and as we were walking through the Right Bank over to my family's apartment on the Left Bank, he looked up at the sky and he just said, "Oh, what a perfect Tiepolo blue." And I thought, this is a guy who knows what Tiepolo blue is and knows that I know it.
Ben was a book designer; I was involved in the graphic design world at Push Pin Studio—Milton Glaser and those boys. Ben and I collaborated basically on how the packaging should look. We really were a team. I mean we worked well together. It's a challenge when you're married, living together, working together—the whole dynamic becomes very sort of complicated, in some good ways and some challenging ways.
We were together at events, talking about new things we're going to be doing and then we started having more groups coming here [because of], I think, the proliferation of wine clubs and that kind of thing where people started to say, let's go and explore. I was more involved in putting things together, handling those groups.
We did a few events here at our place on a couple occasions for NOFA. Whenever there was a local community thing, we were happy to offer our place. We feel part of this community, the town, and you want to support whatever you can.
Still, there was life before Clinton Vineyards. There was always music, and art, and travel.
PF: Music has always been a big part of my life. I was very lucky to have grown up in a family where music was important. Before there was Channel 13, we listened to the Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. I used to play but nothing great. I played the cello before I could read music. (My father-in-law, who I never knew, was a cellist with the Philharmonic. I just finished having his cello restored and donated for deserving students.)
And I was a singer. I sang sort of old standards. I had a very huge range that was not unlike Barbra Streisand's. I sang with a jazz combo when I was in college and I loved that whole world of swing. But you know, I didn't have the confidence to be myself nor would I have gotten the support of my family if they thought I was a performer. But I just adored singing.
I like to be able to look in almost any direction and see something beautiful. It's just so reassuring.
When I was in college, the Budapest String Quartet came, and at the end of the performance—I was part of the welcoming committee—I was standing next to one of the players and he looked at me and in a heavily accented Russian voice he said, "I guess there's no scotch here," and I said, "Yes, there is," and I went up to my room and brought him a drink. That man and I became very close, and when I graduated he kept saying I must come to New York, I must come to New York, blah blah blah. That was Alexander Schneider. We became close friends, and his brother and all the people—they were all part of my world.
Yet, it would be incorrect to say that Feder has lived a charmed life—if a life can be characterized in a word, call hers romantic. She is surrounded by reminders of her greatest loves—her husband, art and music—and they form a circle around her.
PF: I need to live a very long time before I'm deserving of a legacy. Ben was lucky—he led a very long and productive and interesting life. I should be so lucky. I don't know what [my legacy] would be other than that I want very much to do high quality wine and I want this place to reflect the aesthetic that Ben and I shared. When I first came here, it was exciting putting it together. When Ben and I were in France I saw all these wonderful courtyards and such, I said 'Oh, we've got to have that.' I want to look back and feel proud for what we've done. People come here after they've been to other places and they pick up on the vibe, on the sense of intimacy and the care that we've put into it and they go away feeling good. It's such an affirmation. One of the things that I love, whether it's in my house or out here, I like to be able to look in almost any direction and see something beautiful. It's just so reassuring, so nice the way you can see the changing shadows and colors. It means a lot.
There are times when I think, my God, what am I doing? I think back in history to women who were in similar situations in other places—like in France, where they had to pick up where their husbands had left off, whether they went to the war and didn't come back, or just died. So I just think, hey, there are ladies out there who did this, so get on with it.
I met Ben on a blind date at Aurora, Joe Baum's restaurant in New York. I miss Joe. I don't think anybody knew how to entertain people better than Joe Baum. He was quite remarkable. He was a client—that's how I met him.
Isn't it curious about life—that Joe Baum would be a client of ours, that then I would meet, fall in love and marry Ben. And Ben, with his background in music and my love and friends in music who then became Ben's friends, and all the people who came with that. There's really something quite cosmic about it. Magical.