Free. We journey south, purging our palates of Stoutridge with water, on route to Benmarl Winery. A sign guides us past suburbia and onto a gravel road. Knotted, older vines twist along a slope to the left. Unassuming barn buildings emerge and we park the car just below them. In the courtyard, a white tour van worries us of the possible wine-trail trash inside. But the worn wood, flower beds, the faded door handle all reassures that this is more about wine than image.
Luck. The walking veil with mini plastic penises and her bridesmaids are already stumbling out of the cellar. We slide past their chatter to stand at the tasting table. No one. Just the smell of burnt cheese whiz. Not an ideal wine pairing. Our man pokes his head out of the kitchen, apologizes incoherently and disappears again. We glance at used wine lists.
Benmarl gleams its glory from having “America’s oldest continuously producing vineyard” with 18th century grapes, Farm Winery License #1 and its “slate hill” name derived from Gaelic. We certainly stood in what was once a diner and everywhere was unfinished flooring and wood work. Our guide, still chewing, retired but amiable finally came up and began our tasting.
2008 Dry Riesling: Once my nose cut through our friend’s cheese aura, vanilla notes from oak and butter jumped out of the glass. On a riesling? Seriously? Nearly all New York, German and Austrian riesling, I thought, rarely saw secondary fermentations especially not in new oak barrels. Yet there it was. A medium weight riesling, still holding its golden apple and pear notes yet cushioned in pillows of American oak and popcorn’s diacetyl. Not bad actually. Perplexed, we moved on.
2008 Traminette: flowers and ginger danced quietly, echoing the hybrid grape’s gewurztraminer origins. A crisp attack of acidity and green citrus followed on the palate. No oak just stainless steel and a trust that cool climate’s grapes deserved their acidity. These vines are still young.
2008 Estate Baco Noir: Finally a legitimately local wine, born and raised to bottle on site from 50 year old vines. Baco noir began as a crossing a century ago by Francois Baco working in Belus, France. He created a red more resilient to rot, mildew, phyloxera, and cold from an unknown American and the grape hiding behind Cognac and Armagnac fame: folle blanche. Benmarl keeps it honest here. Black cherry, boysenberry, herbs and light oak spices are quickened by moderate acidity and a drawn out finish. Great wine but not at thirty dollars.
2008 Cabernet Franc: Yay! wait…it is re-fermenting in the bottle. Not today.
2008 Merlot: Oaked. Plum. Dull. Long Island grapes.
DeChaunac: Decent and red and twelve bucks.
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon: An import from Californian vines. It is well produced but underwhelming and, sadly, a sign of things to come throughout the Hudson.
Sangria: Our guide admits they dump a bucket called “Sangria” into their left over red.
Benmarl’s wines show some experimentation under their new owner, Victor Spaccarelli. They are well made and interesting when local. Yet like the tasting room (a diner addition still under renovation), the fizzy cab franc and sangria, Benmarl lacks focus.
We wandered around the cellar basement, which retained the dust, barrels and bottles of Benmarl’s original ownership. The remnant pride in its Baco noir echoed throughout the collection. Mark Miller obviously cared about his Baco and Spaccarelli has carried that mantel well enough since 2006.
Once outside, we saw how perfect this slate hill was for wine. High over the Hudson, the slope had great exposure to the morning sun: perfect for ripening grapes in cool climates. But like the fifty year old Baco noir, the 60s Corvette in the courtyard and all the rennovations, Benmarl was going through a midlife crisis. I still have hopes for how it will look tomorrow.