The Passing of a Winemaking Legend… and Mentor

    When your obituary appears in the New York Times, chances are you made some sort of impact during your lifetime.

     Mark Miller made a huge impact on winemaking in the Hudson River region of New  York. You can read about that in the Times’ obituary on Miller that appears below.

     He also made a big impact on me — in my decision to write about wine for a living, and in my understanding of the winemaking process as part science and part art.

     Miller, you see, was an artist by trade before becoming a winemaker. And when I visited his Benmarl estate in 1987, he showed me how a number of decisions made during fermentation, as well as other decisions made while a wine was aging, often trumped the bells and whistles of the latest high-tech winemaking equipment.

     “Anyone can make wine,” Miller told me. “It’s much like following a recipe. But if you want to craft a wine that people will remember, you need to be involved with it. You need to live with it. You need to look after it.”

     That day, I tasted Miller’s wines — all made from hybrid grapes I’d only read about — and took home an autographed copy of the book he’d written, “Wine – A Gentleman’s Game.”

     That book has been a prized possession ever since, and now that Miller has passed, I intend to dust it off and re-read it. I’m interested to learn whether the observations he made back in the mid-1980s about winemaking still hold true today, two decades of technological advancements later.

     I suspect they will, because the best wines always have been made using both scientific knowledge and an artist’s unique touch.

     Here are excerpts from the Times’ obituary…


     Mark Miller, a magazine illustrator-turned-vintner who realized his vision of carving a world-class winemaking region from the rocky soil of the Hudson River Valley, died on Sept. 9 at his home in Wilmington, N.C. He was 89.

     Mr. Miller’s son, Eric, confirmed the death.

     From 1957 till his retirement in 2003, the elder Mr. Miller owned Benmarl Vineyards in Marlboro, N.Y., about 70 miles north of New York City. He was widely regarded as the father of the winemaking renaissance in the Hudson Valley, which had been home to winemakers since the 1600s but had long since fallen into disrepute.

     Though Mr. Miller was not the first modern winemaker in the region, he was for decades the best known, becoming a highly visible public advocate for small artisanal wineries, known as farm wineries. Praised by critics, Benmarl wines were featured at prominent restaurants, including the Four Seasons and the Quilted Giraffe in New York.  Mr. Miller recounted his exploits in a memoir, “Wine – A Gentleman’s Game,” published by Harper & Row in 1984.

     When Mr. Miller began Benmarl, the only American wines taken remotely seriously were Californian. Though the Hudson Valley is the oldest winemaking region in the country – it was first planted by French Huguenots in the 17th century – by the 20th century, its few wines tended toward sweet, cloyingly fruity Champagnes and Ports. The region was too stony and its winters were too hard, Mr. Miller was repeatedly told, for it ever to yield great wine.

     Marshall Dawson Miller was born on Jan. 2, 1919, in Eldorado, Okla.; he took the name Mark in college. His mother’s family owned several large cotton farms, but he had little interest in the soil then.

     Mr. Miller studied art at the University of Oklahoma, later transferring to the Chouinard Art Institute in California. He was a costume designer in Hollywood before starting a career as an illustrator. His work appeared in Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.

     In California, Mr. Miller came under the sway of wine. After Army service in World War II, he began to practice his craft at home. By then, he was living with his wife and children in Hartsdale, N.Y. He surrounded the house with vines and made wine in the living room. (His son, Eric, now a prominent vintner in Pennsylvania, recalled stomping grapes in a huge stoneware crock.)

     On one occasion, a 5-gallon bottle that Mr. Miller had corked too tightly exploded while fermenting. The wine was red. The rug was white. Mr. Miller’s home-winemaking career was over. So he looked for a vineyard.

     The one he found, not quite 40 acres on the Hudson, had been planted in the 19th century. He named the place Benmarl, said to be coined from the Gaelic word ben, or mountain, plus marl for its mixed soil.

     For several years, Mr. Miller made wine as a hobby while working as an illustrator. By the early 1960s, the demand for magazine illustration had dried up in the United States, and he moved with his family to Europe.

     The Millers divided their time between England and the Burgundy region of France. There, Mr. Miller learned the art of winemaking. Returning to Benmarl, he replanted his fields, and in 1967 had his first harvest. His wines were first sold commercially in 1972, starting at around $3 a bottle. Mr. Miller illustrated the labels.

     By 1991, Benmarl Vineyards spanned about 70 acres and was producing about 10,000 cases a year. (The figure pales in comparison with the output of large concerns like the Robert Mondavi Winery, which produces about 320,000 cases annually.)

     Benmarl was known for its use of hybrid grapes – part French, part American. Purists harrumphed at hybrids, but Mr. Miller realized that they could withstand Northeast winters better than classic European varieties. He planted, among many others, Seyval Blanc, Vignoles and Verdelet for white wines; Chelois, Baco Noir and Foch for reds.

     In the early 1970s, Mr. Miller founded the Societe des Vignerons, which let investors buy the rights to two or more of his vines. Ownership was largely symbolic – one could not single out one’s vines and give them a proprietary pat – but it entitled each member to a case of wine a year.

     Eric Miller sold Benmarl Vineyards in 2006; it now operates as Slate Hill Winery at Benmarl Vineyards.

     Today, the Hudson Valley is home to more than 20 wineries. Their existence is due partly to Mr. Miller’s influence; his advocacy helped pass New York State’s farm winery bill, signed into law by Gov. Hugh L. Carey in 1976. Among other things, the bill lowered the annual fee for a small-winery license to $125 from $1,500.

     For his work, Mr. Miller was awarded New York State farm winery license No. 1.


Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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