I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my
senses put in order.
John Burroughs (1837 - 1921)
John Burroughs, one of America’s first great natural
historians, was an avid grape grower in the Hudson Valley. In his later years
he was known as the Vine Dresser of Esopus. Burroughs grew all manner of
grapes, but especially native rapes and other hybrids developed by regional
According to Wikipedia, "John Burroughs (April 3, 1837 – March 29, 1921) was an
American naturalist and essayist important in the evolution of the U.S.
conservation movement. According to biographers at the American Memory project
at the Library of Congress, John Burroughs was the most important practitioner
after Henry David Thoreau of that especially American literary genre, the
nature essay. By the turn of the 20th century he had become a virtual cultural
institution in his own right: the Grand Old Man of Nature at a time when the
American romance with the idea of nature, and the American conservation
movement, had come fully into their own. His extraordinary popularity and
popular visibility were sustained by a prolific stream of essay collections,
beginning with Wake-Robin in 1871. In the words of his biographer Edward
Renehan, Burroughs' special identity was less that of a scientific naturalist
than that of "a literary naturalist with a duty to record his own unique
perceptions of the natural world." The result was a body of work whose
perfect resonance with the tone of its cultural moment perhaps explains both
its enormous popularity at that time, and its relative obscurity since."
The Hudson Valley saw many great grape growers before the
turn of the 20th century. Underhill and Caywood were but a few.
These men were heroes to Steve Casscles of Athens, New York.
The Casscles family dates back generations in the Hudson Valley. Casscles worked in the brick making factories, like those of Robert Underhill, as well as grew and shipped fruit down river to new York City.
The Underhill wine caves at Croton Point.
Steve Casscles was born in Middle Hope, New York. And to see
him during the day, donned in his armor of button down shirt, tie, and khakis,
amid stacks of papers, in law offices in the capitol building in Albany, one
would never know his true calling. With his bushy gray-white beard and his
horn-rimmed glasses, and his guffawing laugh, Steve is as affable and chatty as
his is studious and accomplished. He can alternately be very serious and
forthright, or comical and laughing, using his hands to talk, and tilting his
head back in great balls of laughter. And he is as much a historian, especially
knowledgeable about the Empire state’s history, as he is an expert
horticulturalist whose specialty is heirloom grapes, and other heirloom fruits.
He graduated Marlboro Central High School, attended the
State University of New York, Albany, and got his law degree from Northeastern
University School of Law. Ever the individualist, as a young man, rather than visit Europe, he traveled India and Nepal. He has been counsel to various New York state
senators for more than 20 years, including senators William J. Larkin Jr. and Jeffrey
D. Klein, the current Deputy Majority Leader.
His specialty is insurance and healthcare practices.
Covering this subject, Steve has for most of career worked with doctors,
hospitals, and state agencies to address the problems facing these groups,
while also confronting issues of state and federal monies as well. At the same
time he was also instrumental in writing numerous laws, including those
requiring children to wear helmets while skate boarding, to reduce serious head
He also has a background in real estate law, land use & zoning,
and contracts, and has worked with many zoning boards and planning committees
up and down the Hudson Valley, helping to resolve issues and donating time to
participate in municipal boards of varying kinds. He is an accomplished
professional who is recognized in the corridors of power, and the courts of the
Of course, scratch a little deeper, and Steve’s real passion
starts to show through. During his career, Steve has participated in and
written many laws involving agriculture and winemaking in the state of New
York, and the Hudson Valley as well.
In 2002 he worked with Greg Quinn, of the Hudson Valley, to
overturn a 100-year ban on the growing of black currants. Quinn was the
passionate driver in this quest. Black currants had been run out of the state
by the logging industry at the turn of the previous century when it was
discovered they served as intermediate hosts of blister rust, a disease
destructive to white pine, a staple of the logging industry. Over the years
research proved that certain conditions had to exist for this to be true, and
new, disease resistant berries were introduced many years later.
Quinn worked with Steve McKay of Cornell Extension and
Casscles to overturn the ban.
“He said, ‘'We've got to do something,’” recalled Casscles, who
was then counsel to State Senator William J. Larkin Jr., who introduced the
bill that overturned the ban in 2002. “He came up here, and he would talk to
anybody who would listen,” continued Steve.
Since then, currants have become a big crop in the Hudson
Valley, and Hudson Valley artisanal cassis has since become one of the
signature wines of the region, numbering well above 20,000 bottles a year at
prices fetching as high as $40 for a 375ml bottle, also known as a “split” in
the wine industry since it is half the usual amount found in a standard 750ml
In 2005 he co-authored, along with State Senator William J.
Larkin, Jr., the report A Proposal For Renewed Growth of the Hudson Valley’s
Grape And Wine Industry
, which suggested remedies and proposals to improve
the wine industry in the Hudson Valley. There were many measures in the report
that were eventually adopted which have helped turn around the Hudson Valley
He authored several papers on increasing wine tourism, and
helped to shape the language of the laws, again introduced by Larkin, which
allowed for Beverage and Cuisine trails around the state, and improving farm
winery laws, allowing those businesses to operate with more flexibility and
encouraging satellite operations so those businesses could expand.
With all these accomplishments and duties compiled, Steve
could easily rested on these very substantial laurels. But Steve is a man of
industry. All you have to do is see him walking, whether in the marbled halls
of the capitol building or across the furrows of a farm, Steve’s arms swing up
and down, as his legs pump methodically as he strides confidently forward. You
think to yourself, this is the way you imagined Teddy Roosevelt walking.
All one needs to do is to go to Steve’s house to get a sense
of the real man. He is a man obsessed. He lives, with his wife Lilly Casscles,
an accomplished psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from
Oklahoma State University, and their children, sons Ben and Noah, and their
Their picturesque Victorian house, sits atop a small hill,
whose drive way juts up off the main road before them like a steep ramp
directly to the second floor, which sometimes seems more appropriate for four
wheeling than a mini-van. The house and backyard are filled with cats and dogs,
chickens and rabbits. He and family are campers, and he and his sons like to
Surrounding the house are vineyards in every direction. If
there is enough room for a plant, some kind of vine is growing there. He is mad
about grape growing. He insists he only learned how to make wine so he could do
something with each year’s crop. He grows all kinds of grapes.
And of course, the grapes Steve grows tell you even more
about him. Steve grows hybrids of all kinds, from Baco Noir to Marchael Foch to
Chambourcin. There is no Chardonnay growing, no Merlot nor Pinot Noir. But
growing there are all manner of experimental grapes, heirloom rapes, and other
long discarded by commercial growers. He marches up and down his rows,
addressing first this one and then that one. In any row he might have as many
as three to four experimental grapes growing at any one time.
Steve is a grape historian, who for three or four years has
been working on an intense project, cataloging all the grapes of the state of
New York and the Hudson Valley, and writing down the histories and tendencies
of each grape, along with the biographies of the hybridizers of the Hudson
Valley and of the greater region.
Steve’s affection for grape growing and winemaking began at Benmarl
Winery in Marlboro, New York. There he worked for Mark Miller, who was the man
who was instrumental in getting the Farm Winery Act put into law, and who was
rewarded with license No. 1. Steve also worked alongside Eric Miller, the
founder (with his wife Lee) of Pennsylvania’s largest and most successful
winery, Chaddsford Winery.
While at Benmarl, he became an avid fan of Baco Noir,
Benmarl’s most successful and popular wine. Baco Noir is a French-American
hybrid grape, (pronounced BA-koh NWAHR), produced from a cross of Vitis
vinifera var. Folle Blanche, a French wine grape, and an unknown variety of
Vitis riparia indigenous to North America.
Baco Noir grows well in the Hudson Valley. It is winter
hardy, relatively disease resistant, and is not attractive to Japanese beetles
(which makes it alternately attractive to farmers). The grape produces a medium
body, deeply tinted, slightly acidic red wine which is fruit forward and often
carries aromas of black fruits and caramel. Ageing potential is from 5 to 15
years in good vintages. If done with the same style, it makes a wonderful
Burgundian or Rhone-ish styled wine. Among wine experts, hybrids are somewhat
frowned upon – lesser vassels to the “Noble Grapes” such as Chardonnay and
Cabernet Sauvignon. But that is Steve in a nutshell. His is an individual. And
he is a true believer. He has the convictions of John Brown, and the sense of
humor of Ernie Kovacs.
In 2006, Steve joined forces with the Hudson-Chatham Winery,
and launched a series of wines. Instead of making more and more wine he could
not possibly drink, Casscles sold the fruit to the winery, and then started
making the wines at the winery. His Baco Noir Reserve, the best two of three
barrels, is the winery’s signature wine, which has garnered numerous awards, and
rave reviews from columnists, wine writers, and bloggers. Since then, he has
also made Baco Noir Old Vines, from 60-year old vines from another farm, which
has found its way into restaurants from Saratoga to New York City.
In any harvest season, Steve can been seen picking grapes,
as well as leading the pressing of the grapes. In his signature white rubber
boots (the same ones they use on shrimp boats) Steve authoritatively strides
across the crush pad, directing traffic and tasting the grapes. His sons Ben
and Noah work side-by-side with their father. Both have done so all their
lives, sometimes begrudgingly, but each already incredibly savvy winemakers
while still only in their teens. Steve’s winemaking is different than more
clinically trained winemakers. He is more a brilliant self-taught cook rather
than being comfortable while seated at a lab bench. Steve tastes the grapes as
he goes through the harvest and as they go through the crush pad. He crushes
large batches of the grapes in his hands to get a feel for the fruit, and to
smell the juices of the grapes, and taste their sugars. It is not unusual to
see him roll up his shirt sleeves all the way, and to dig to the bottom of a
fermenter with his hands to get a feel for that particular batch’s grapes. Only
then does he decide which blend of yeasts he will use to make the wine.
Steve is not a technical winemaker. There is a great story
about Steve. Hudson-Chatham had hired a larger winery to crush one large haul
of grapes. Steve was dispatched to oversee the process. When he got there,
there on a large table were all the readings – Ph, sugar levels, etc. Steve
asked to see the fruit. When asked why, all the readings were in front of him.
Steve insisted he see the fruit. A small stand-off occurred. Vexed, the
winemaker brought Steve to the fermenter. Steve then, rolled up his sleeves,
and began tasting the batch and feeling the grapes. The other winery workers
were astounded. Only then did the wine get made.
In his second year with the winery, Steve reintroduced a now
little grown grape, Chelois, to instant rave reviews. Chelois, like Baco Noir,
is a French-American hybrid grape. The wine eventually worked its way on the
Culinary Institute of America’s wine list, and an on air tasting by celebrated
wine author Steve Kolpan on WAMC, the region’s dominant public radio station.
The wine was compared to top growth Pinot Noirs from Burgundy. His wines have
been reviewed with great results in Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the New
York Times, Sommelier Journal, and numerous others. He’s won dozens and dozens
of medals from wine competitions. The wines he makes are served in numerous
shops and restaurants from Saratoga to New York City.
His newest endeavors included a small but growing nursery
business, where he grows many grapes, bringing back many more varieties long
since out of use. He is passionate about the many grapes first introduced here
in the Hudson Valley, as well as grapes introduced by other hybridizers
throughout New York state. He has a long relationship with the Cornell
University Experimental Station at Geneva. Winegrowers and Cornell professors have
visited his vineyards to examine the plants and rediscover these grapes.
Steve has developed several new grapes as well. He will
introduce these new grapes in the coming seasons. He makes wine with his small
plantings. He wants to perfect making the wine before he releases them. Using
cuttings, he also propagated more vines. So successful did he become that he is
now growing a full block at the winery’s vineyards, which he hopes to introduce
as a single varietal soon.
His next bottling was an heirloom project, a series of
wines, in small batches, from 25-50 cases, of wines made from grapes more or
less no longer in use by the wine industry. These include Dutchess, Iona,
Isabella, and others, as well as a series of
odd, unnamed grapes from various growers over
the last 40 years, including those of Philip Wagner. These are all heirloom
grapes, hybridized by experts around the country over the last 100-plus years.
The idea is to try new flavors and ideas, but also to remember the wines and
the people who came before us. Casscles’ push is as much about new tastes and
textures as it is about history and memory. Steve is the state’s greatest
living authority on grapes and grape growing.
Another of this indefatiguable man’s projects is a nursery
business. Casscles knows what he has is valuable, and other people want it. To
that end, he has started a nursery to propagate the plants in his vineyard and
is selling them to other wineries. His nursery business, according to him, is
more successful and remunerative as his winemaking. And of course, it has the
benefit of turning out more hybrid and heirloom apostles.
But more than anything Steve is happiest when he is home,
walking among the rows of his vineyard, seeing the progress of each plant and
noting the strengths and weaknesses of each vine. Some are blocks of single
vines (Baco Noir, Chelois), while some are single vines that exist nowhere
else. He works with them, makes notes, and continues his work on his master
treatise…and thinks about which grape he will champion next.
The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is 'look under foot.' You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think.
When I think of Steve walking his vineyards, the place where is very much his happiest, I think of him, and I think of John Burroughs, two men inextricably linked to their surroundings, their vineyards and their land, and the Hudson Valley.
p.s. Full disclosure, I work with Steve at Hudson-Chatham, but I believe he is ultimately and highly worthy of such praise independently of our mutual involvement for what he has accomplished in his career