Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery in Gardiner celebrates 20th anniversary

Yancey Stanforth-Migliore and Michael Migliore of Whitecliff Vineyard. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

It’s been 20 years since Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore launched Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery in Gardiner. But it was 20 years before that Michael, shortly after beginning a career with IBM as a semiconductor engineer, first began experimenting with planting grapes on the land. “The winery was originally meant to be a retirement business for Michael,” says Yancey, “but the joke is always that the one thing he’s failed miserably at is retirement! That has not happened.”

It’s still not likely to happen any time soon, with the expansion of the business onto a second site, six acres of farmland in Hudson with prime grape-growing conditions and fertile soil on sloping hillsides leading down to the Hudson River.

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The vineyard in Gardiner is planted on former dairy farmland. Michael purchased the initial 18 acres in the 1970s while pursuing a master’s degree in organic chemistry at SUNY New Paltz. Inspired by a Bronx upbringing that included four European grandparents, two of whom made wine in the basement, he began planting “a row of this, a row of that, to see what would work,” Yancey explains. 

Michael also had great-uncles with a farm upstate, where he spent summers, so he knew he wanted to do some kind of farm-based business. He considered dairy farming and cheese-making, but after planting vines he began focusing on that.

The early years were experimental, learning through trial and error. Some grapes grew well on the land but didn’t make good wine. Other grapes made great wine but didn’t produce a quality yield in the Hudson Valley climate.

Yancey entered the story in the early 1980s. Raised in Manhattan, she met Michael — a fellow rock-climber — through a mutual friend in Gardiner. She joined in the grape-planting soon after she met the man who would become her husband in 1983. He proposed to her on a climb.

 Yancey’s 20-plus years in nonprofit fundraising and an eight-year stint as director of development for Scenic Hudson turned out to be very useful in the marketing aspects of the winery business, and over the years she has developed a passion for wine and for educating visitors in the site’s tasting room, helping people discover the wines they really like. Tristan Migliore, the couple’s son, works with them in the business full-time.

As Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery grew over the years, the acreage planted increased to 26 acres on a parcel of 70 acres, making them a considerable producer in the region, according to Yancey, with only Brotherhood Winery and Millbrook Vineyards & Winery larger. The land that was completely undeveloped before the first vines went in now grows more than 20 varieties of grapes used to create more than 30 different wines.

Working with the cool climate

The family-run winery has been the recipient of numerous awards over the years. Recent recognition includes a 2018 Double Gold Medal from the San Francisco International Wine Competition (SFIWC) for their 2016 Cabernet Franc and a 2018 Double Gold at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition for their Gamay Noir. A Double Gold Medal is earned when every one of the more than 50 professional  judges of a competition  judge the wine at the gold level.

Whitecliff’s most significant achievement so far was winning best of show for white wines at the annual San Francisco competition in 2010, when their 2009 Riesling beat out 1300 other white wines entered by winemakers from 27 countries and 28 states. To put the honor in perspective, Best of Show is awarded when the judges re-taste all of the white wines that earned a Double Gold against each other and unanimously choose one as the best overall. “In the context of our goal to make wines that are respected and have the Hudson Valley region taken more seriously,” Yancey says, “we were pretty happy with that award.” 

Another satisfying accomplishment happened in 2015 when Michael Migliore was given the Grower of the Year award by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation Never before had a Hudson Valley winemaker won the award. “For 30 years it’s always been given to a grower in the Finger Lakes or the North Fork of Long Island,” Yancey says. “So that was a significant recognition for us and of the Hudson Valley as a grape-growing region.”

People’s attitudes toward Hudson Valley regional wines have come a long way in the last 20 years, “but there’s still a portion of the population — including restaurant owners — who steer away from Hudson Valley wine as something less serious,” says Yancey. “They need to let that go and open their mind to the quality that’s being done here.”

Skepticism about New York wines in general, and those from the Hudson Valley in particular, is especially pronounced when it comes to red wines, according to Yancey. “That’s the reason I especially enjoy that we’ve earned some serious medals for our reds. You can point to our Bordeaux blend, Sky Island. In the previous two years running it won gold medals at the San Francisco competition, so then you can say to people, This is a really good example of a New York red. It is not mouth-filling like a big Zinfandel from California, but it is delicate, complex, full of flavor and complements a meal beautifully.”

Wines shouldn’t be all about one style. You have to approach a cool-climate wine with a different set of expectations, she says. She thinks New York growers have more in common with those in northern Europe than with Napa Valley producers . “The red wines from the Hudson Valley taste different from those in California because grapes grown in a cooler climate ripen to a lower sugar level, which translates to lower alcohol and lighter body.”

Touting the Cabernet Franc

While growers in the Finger Lakes specialize in Riesling grapes and the North Fork of Long Island on Merlot, the Cabernet Franc is fast becoming the signature grape locally, primarily thanks to a group of growers who have organized as the Hudson Valley Cabernet Franc Coalition. “Anyone who is growing seriously in the valley has some Cab Franc planted,” says Yancey. “It is a very natural grape to grow here, well adapted to the cold, damp climate. And if anyone wants to know what to reach for on a shelf, in terms of New York reds, the Cab Franc is always going to be reliable.”

Although the Cabernet Franc grape is lesser known than the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter was actually first produced as a cross of the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. “It has the flavor profile of a Cabernet Sauvignon without being as heavy,” she argues. “It is naturally lighter-bodied, which makes for a very convenient wine for food pairing. The big mouth-filling qualities of a Cabernet Sauvignon, with its high tannins, really cry out for a steak but will overpower other foods — whereas Cab Franc can do a steak, but it’s great with eggplant parmigiana, for example, or pastas.”

Whitecliff also focuses on its Gamay Noir as “another really good example of what New York can do beautifully in reds.”

Whitecliff going forward

The tasting room at Whitecliff is a good place to discover what Hudson Valley wines have to offer. Many people come in with preconceptions about particular wines that will change when they explore and expand their wine knowledge, Yancey says. “I love to help people figure out what they like; that’s part of the fun for us. Because at the end of the day, the best wine is the one you like best.” 

Hours change seasonally — check the website for details — and no reservations are required except for groups of six or more. Deck seating is accessible in warm weather to enjoy a view of the Gunks along with the wine, light snacks and artisanal cheeses. The tasting room is wheelchair accessible. Picnics on the grounds are allowed as long as visitors clean up after themselves and don’t bring in outside alcohol. 

Locals may be interested to know about the new book club started in September. It’s on the third Thursday of each month from 4 to 5:30 p.m. except January. “It’s kind of like a happy hour,” says tasting- room employee Nancy, who started the club. “We drink wine and talk about a book and people can buy a bottle to take home for dinner.”

The wine club at Whitecliff has more than 600 members. Buying at the half-case level — six bottles at a time, twice a year in February and August — garners a ten percent discount and perks in the form of free tastings (including reserve wines that aren’t typically a part of wine tastings) and special events that have included blend-your-own sessions, wine-and-chocolate pairings and a vegan food-wine pairing event co-sponsored with the Catskill Animal Sanctuary. Members who purchase a full case (twelve bottles) twice a year get a 20 percent discount and more perks.

The new satellite location for Whitecliff Vineyards on Cherry Ridge Farm in Hudson came about when Michael Migliore, as president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association, was consulted by the family which owns the land. Was there a grower who’d be interested in planting vines there? Michael did, in fact, know of someone: himself. 

“He knew from all his years of experience that this is truly one of the very best sites for grape-growing in the Hudson Valley, because of the slope and the proximity to the Hudson,” Yancey explains. “Bodies of water act as a heat sink, and it will never get as cold there as it does in Gardiner. And slope really matters. Cold air sinks to the low spots and the warm air rises up. So even a little bit of slope can make several degrees of difference between the temperature on that slope and out on a big, flat field. The site also happens to have magnificent soils. It’s a great, classic farming site.” 

Whitecliff may soon open a tasting room there as well. “It’ll be an interesting new step figuring out how to do something remote from the home base,” she adds.

Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery is located at 331 McKinstry Road in Gardiner. For information, call 255-4613 or visit https://www.whitecliffwine.com/.

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