Wednesday, September 04, 2013

THE VISIONARY: Michael Migliore of Whitecliff Vineyard (NY)

This month and next month, to coincide with the Fall In Love With Hudson Valley Wine 2013 campaign, I will be publishing one profile or feature per week featuring someone or something, from the Hudson Valley. These are people and places that have made a unique contribution to the  wine region.

Michael Migliore always had a fascination with wine. Both his German and Italian grandfathers made wine at home. It was on their dinner table every night. In 1975, Michael bought a small amount of land in the Hudson Valley. He graduated in 1978 from a SUNY, New Paltz, graduate program, where he studied organic chemistry. In that same year, he took a job at IBM where he was trained as a semiconductor engineer. However, the call of the farm was strong, and began planting vines in 1979.
Michael has lived on the property that is Whitecliff Vineyards since 1975, when he was studying for a master’s degree in organic chemistry at SUNY, New Paltz. In 1978 he started work at IBM as a chemical engineer in semiconductor manufacturing, and soon after began experimenting with grape growing as a natural expression of his background and his skills in chemistry. Wine had figured prominently in his upbringing: his German and Italian grandfathers both made wine at home, and it was part of every family dinner.
Yancey Stanforth-Migliore, his wife, joined in the planting soon after they met—through rock climbing on the Shawangunk Ridge—and married in the early 80’s. While she doesn’t bring technical skills to the business like Michael, she has developed the ability to teach about wine that contributes to Whitecliff’s Tasting Room. The extensive knowledge of winemaking and viticulture Yancey has built up over the years is leavened by her vivid memories of learning to love wine through the kind of spritzy, sweet rosés that are popular with so many Americans.

Establishing the vineyard has been an ongoing process since 1979. It involved years of trial and error to determine which varieties would produce good yields and quality wine, while withstanding the cold winters. The rigorous approach of science and engineering, along with a generous helping of pigheaded determination, provided the knowledge and the strong base necessary to create a successful vineyard and winery.
“I wanted to do some farming, and this area was historically a grape-growing region supplying New York City,” Michael has explained. “You don't have to be a physical organic chemist to be a winemaker, but it certainly helps.” In the first few years, their production was around 500 cases a year.
Whitecliff currently has one of the largest vineyards in the Hudson Valley, with over 20 varieties of grapes planted for their continuing effort to refine their growing and winemaking. Today Michael works closely with Cornell Cooperative Extension testing new grape varieties, and pushing the envelope on the quality of grape growing in the region. In that capacity he also serves as president of the Hudson Valley Wine and Grape Association.
"I did it slowly over time because it's labor and capital intensive," said Migliore.

With 4,000 cases of wine production for the 2010 vintage, their goal of bringing Whitecliff to a total of 5 or 6,000 cases was as close as ever. Now they are one of the leading wineries in the Hudson Valley.

For many years Michael has been a formidable and productive member of the Hudson Valley. Part proselytizer, part shepherd, he has called, gathered, and led a flock of winemakers as the head of the Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Foundation. He worked with Cornell Extension to organize the Hudson Valley grape school for many years, in an effort to create a solid base of growers, and to help possible vineyard and winery owners to understand the risks and work inherent in making quality wine in the Hudson Valley. Classes on grape selection, trellis selection, growing techniques, spraying, pest management, and many other topics have always been first and foremost on the schedule. Teams of Cornell Extension professors have come to the Hudson Valley to download their knowledge. 

Michael would spend hours with prospective wine enthusiasts, patiently answering questions, offering insights, and alternately bragging about the possibilities. His bright smile on his tan face, and his wry sense of humor could be encouraging and comforting. But a stern look could also come across, he eyebrows furrowing, and his gaze intense, as he would get very serious about vine growing, its dangers and pitfalls, and the problems with making wine in the valley. There were more than a few couples whose rose colored dreams of winery ownership were dashed on the river stones that crop up so well on many a Hudson Valley farm after talking with Michael.

Michael is an interesting figure. Well built, and still very taught, with his big grin and tanned face, he looks comfortable and confident as he discusses chemistry with Cornell’s enologists, dress slacks and a pressed shirt draped casually over his athletic form, his hair coiffed. You can imagine him in a lab or IBM’s office park. But at the winery you are just as likely to see him, in summer, in a sweaty t-shirt, jeans, and a cowboy hat, driving a tractor or a forklift. That’s Michael. He’s professional, but he’s hard driven.

Yancey is no wilting flower. If Michael is the force behind the wines, Yancey is the force behind the winery. She is a doer. Things happen, events get planned and executed, sales get booked, because Yancey is on the case. She is affable but tough. She laughs easily, but can also give you a look that might stop you in your tracks. People like Yancey. She is approachable and formidable. While Michael was out front of the valley, if you went to the tasting room at Whitecliff, the face you saw was Yancey’s. They are an impressive team.

In front of a grape school crowd, Michael wanted to encourage people, but he wanted to be honest with them, too. He only wanted people who were going to be serious. Michael preached quality fruit. Quality wine. He recruited people who were interested in vinifera and quality. He recruited people who would make wine the valley could be proud of. He wanted winemakers who would share ideas and techniques, and help each other raise the level of their game. 

Michael is a man of vision. He has one for his winery, and another for the valley. And he has made an important contribution. While he was not one of the founders of the new wave of winery owners that came after the Farm Winery Act, he was a major force in helping to grow the region, and creating a buzz about a region that had seen frustrating fits and starts of growth. The valley’s failure to coalesce in the 1980s and 1990s was especially un-nerving while both the Finger Lakes and the North Fork flourished. But Michael’s vision of the valley has persisted, and now it is reality. From a sleepy backwater of the east coast wine world, the Hudson Valley has emerged as a region with brilliant wines, rave reviews, and tremendous promise.

“Ten years from now, I think the valley will be known for quality wines of uniform style and consistency. And I think the valley will be a major wine and food destination, like Napa Valley or the Willamette valley in Oregon,” said Michael in an interview. “There will be one Hudson Valley not several trails. I think there are a lot of similarities with the Hudson Valley and the Hunter Valley outside Sydney, Australia. The Hunter Valley is a fertile growing region just outside a major city. Our Valleys have a lot in common.”

“I think we are a great producing area. I think we have to stay on tract and message and get the best fruit producers to start growing more wine grape varieties. There are some gorgeous sites. If we can get some of those folks growing wine grapes you’ll see even better quality wines across the board. In the valley, you can grow vinifera and you can get a really good price. It’s viable business. Right now the best fruit growers have the right sites; good land, the knowledge, the equipment, and the workforce. They have it all. And when they start growing vinifera, then you will see even better wines in the valley.”

"We make first and foremost the things we like ourselves," Yancey Stanforth-Migliore told the Wall Street Journal.

Michael told the famous wine writing couple, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher,  that their vision was, "To produce high-quality, food-friendly wines, generally not cocktail wines, which tend to be higher alcohol and more fruit-forward. Ours have more acid structure, generally in the 12%-alcohol range, more of a European model."
"I will regularly tell people that if you like it here, you're going to really enjoy a glass of it at home with a meal," added Yancey. Gaither and Brecher’s review was a rave.

Gaither and Brecher wrote that both the reds and whites “they had a restraint to them, a vision in which everything—including the winemaker—took a back seat to the fruit itself. And the fruit was delightfully pure and real. There was nothing showy about the wines. They just tasted good, offering a kind of relaxed gracefulness and easy balance that would make them good on the dinner table.” The reporters took home a bottle of the Pinot Noir and the Cabernet Franc.

“Wines often taste better at the winery for many reasons, including the scenery, but these were even more impressive with food,” the Wall Street duo wrote, after pairing the wines with roasted pork chops later at home. “Each was varietal in its own way—the Pinot was hauntingly earthy, the Cab Franc was sharper, more focused—but the vision of both as food wines was true.”

Asst. Winemaker Brad Martz

They are not the only fans. Kevin Zraly, of Windows on the World fame, and Steven Kolpan, one of the authors of Exploring Wine, are also big fans.

While their legion of fans was growing, something else wasn’t…the size of their winery. While the number of cases they were making and selling were growing, the size of the facilities was not. Something had to be done.


As the winery neared its tenth year of operation, they built a new, state of the art winery, complete with geothermal heating, offices, and enough space to do custom crushing.

"Three years ago we were a 3000 case winery, now we are a 5500 case winery and growing. Not only do we do our own, this enables us to do custom crush and make wine for other facilities," Michael told Debbie Gioquindo, the Hudson Valley Wine Goddess.

“Geo-Thermal in layman terms - 8 feet below the surface is a constant 55 degrees. Long tubes are put 8 feet underground that go out into the field horizontally and back into the winery in a loop,” wrote Debbie. “ Glycol is pumped through the pipes to maintain a 50 degree temperature. Upon return the glycol is and put through the heat exchanger to heat or cool the water that is then pumped through the winery floor. This regulates the temperature in the winery. This was their first harvest in the new winery.” 

"It was so nice to have the space and the room,” said Michael. “and to be able to increase capacity. We had tons of room to process grapes more than we had before. It was so nice to be able to process inside when weather was bad."

Since that quote, the winery has already run out of room, and Michael is planning the next expansion. They are among the hottest and fastest growing quality wineries in the region.

Michael and Yancey can now celebrate their success, but that's not them. Their drive continues. Michael’s focus, and their tenacity together, have created a quality jauggernaught with their wines. And the valley, with Michael’s persistent vision, salesmanship, and stern voice, has finally coalesced into the quality wine producing region he had been speaking of for years. The visionary has begun to see the promised land. It's valley is green, and it's filled with rolling vineyards.