We Are Upstate NY With Winemaker Travis Van Caster at City Winery Hudson Valley
Winemakers are no strangers to adaptability. A seemingly innate ability to evolve, innovate, adjust and alchemize in accordance with what nature provides, allows them to create endless variations of libations to enjoy. For upstate winemaker Travis Van Caster, these traits are as prevalent as his passion for making superior wines.
The Hudson Valley has long been home to wineries and winemakers, despite being a challenging region in which to grow grapes. In fact, grape growing is only a fraction of what draws vintners from around the world here; the Valley has earned its reputation as a destination for world-class food, stunning natural splendor, a rich history in the arts and a culture that appreciates and steadfastly works to keep each of those facets thriving.
This combination is part of what led winemaker Van Caster, a Pine Bush resident and West Coast native, to the region. Well, that and a job offer he couldn’t refuse: Making wine for City Winery — one of the country’s most enterprising brands in wine, food, and entertainment — as part of the opening team for their location in the heart of quaint Montgomery. “At the time, I was doing large-scale winemaking in California, but wanted to get back to small, hands-on winemaking,” Van Caster explains. “I found City Winery and it sounded like the perfect opportunity.”
City Winery is known for bringing award-winning wines to urban centers. But when they opened their Hudson Valley location in 2020, the name almost felt ironic because the rustic-industrial building is set on 23 sprawling acres alongside the tree-lined banks of the Wallkill River. With venues in New York City, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, this may be the only City Winery where you can see a blue heron swoop past a small waterfall while sipping your pinot from a stone patio.
City Winery owner Michael Dorf took over the building, a former textile mill, in 2018, but with it being a 130-year-old factory, transforming the space into a fully functioning winery, restaurant and performance venue required a fair deal of renovations, which took place over two years.
Today, the building maintains its original brick-and-beam aesthetic throughout its taproom, restaurant, event spaces and downstairs Boiler Bar — which in itself is a treat for history buffs. The former boiler room still features massive wall-sized machinery and art made from tools and found objects left behind over the years. “We wanted to preserve as much of the original building as possible from a design standpoint,” he says. “In about 1890 they installed a boiler and our designer removed the front of it to keep as a mural. All of the decors were thoughtful from the standpoints of preserving history and being sustainable.”
In the upstairs Falls Room, which can fit up to 500 seated guests and is usually used for performances or private events, you’ll see the top portions of massive wine vats rising through the floor of the neighboring Gallery space. They stem from the lower-level production area where wines are aged, bottled, labeled and stored or shipped.
“Most of the City Winery locations are pretty compact; here, we have the ability to make enough wine to satisfy our guests, but also guests at other locations,” he says. “This is our biggest production facility — we actually supply most of the Northeast locations. At the same time, the Hudson Valley is a culinary and wine destination, which allows us to be very focused on food and wine, yet equally able to bring in world-class music and events thanks to our proximity to the city.”
After transforming the mill, City Winery was ready to open and Van Caster was excited to start, with an expected grand opening of spring 2020; the momentum was put on pause as the pandemic swept through.
“I flew out to New York from California to accept the job offer in February; weeks later everything shut down,” he says. “So, I stayed in California until June 2020, when we were able to finally have our grand opening.” He organized social distancing in the restaurant, named the Barrel Room Restaurant & Wine Bar and jumped right into setting up Wine and Dine events along with their executive chef, which safely and successfully brought people to the venue.
“It was a big challenge at first, flying across the country to a new state where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t really have a way to meet new people because of the pandemic,” he says. “But I immediately felt at home here. I wanted to live in a wine region where I could work with amazing grapes from diverse regions, with the goal of building out a team and making the best wine possible. City Winery and the Hudson Valley checked all of the boxes for me.”
By now, Van Caster has been a winemaker for almost two decades; his first harvest was in 2007. He was living in Oregon and going to school for computer programming when he found a harvest job on Craigslist at a local winery. He took a chance and found his calling. “From there, my heart was full-on with wine,” he says.
He went on to study at Cornell in New York to receive a degree in enology and viticulture, then continued his studies while living in France’s Chablis region for some time, before heading back to California. In this global experience, he learned techniques from some of the world’s most favored wine regions, guiding his work today at City Winery.
“We make our own wines and most of our fruit comes from the West Coast, but also Washington, the Finger Lakes, and occasionally the Hudson Valley,” he explains. “We take an approach of minimalist handling; I think making wine is a lot like preparing food — the best ingredients with simple preparation equals great results. Wine can naturally showcase an interesting terroir.”
Of the currently 27 wines available by the bottle, 16 are available on tap in their tasting room. “On-tap wine is a big draw here. We clean our tap lines regularly to keep everything fresh, and it’s sustainable because every glass poured means less waste, reducing our carbon footprint,” he says. Sustainable practices are a common thread throughout the winery. For instance, Van Caster explains that in the textile mill’s former dyehouse, now used for storage, you’ll find grape-sorting machinery that helps separate stems from grapes; the stems go to a local farm for cattle feed. And in the red wine barrel room, barrels are made from 100-year-old French oak sourced from forests that have been responsibly managed for more than 1,000 years.
“Our red wines are usually stored nine to 24 months in the French oak barrels,” he explains. Depending on the time of year, they might have 100 full barrels, or 300. “Reds are the most fun to make; they’re very hands-on, and getting your hands dirty is half the fun. Although I like to make chardonnay, a technique I learned in Chablis.”
As opposed to barrels, chardonnay and Roussanne are stored in tall vats that are essentially concrete eggs. “Concrete adds minerality to the wine, but the shape is just as important,” he says. “When making chard and Roussanne, we typically do a batonnage method, which means stirring the wine with a stick to ensure the lees, which is dead yeast, don’t settle at the bottom. Stirring it back into the wine gives the wine a more creamy mouthfeel. But the egg shape draws it back up and stirs itself.”
The Roussanne ($36) is a heavy white grape that is aged nine months with stirring every week to build a rich texture. Van Caster says it has viscosity, an oily mouthfeel, which makes it pair well with scallops, lobster and buttery dishes. This attention to detail, flavor, aroma, and finish is something he’s passionate about. He swoons while describing the sparkling 2021 Pet Nat Riesling ($28), a limited release. “Every bottle is filled by hand, capped by hand, touched by hand about five to six times,” he says. “It has a pleasant finish of Meyer lemon. But as the aroma changes, you’ll detect grass, then caramel, green tea and granny smith apple. It’s very crisp.”
The most popular sellers in the tasting room are Sauvignon Blanc — “It’s crisp, refreshing; something you can easily drink whether hanging out or after mowing the lawn.”, a dry rose that they can barely keep in stock and Reserve pinots. “Our reserve wines are super popular; they’re aged three to five years,” he says. They’re award-winning, too.
A 2021 reserve zinfandel made with grapes from the Russian River Valley ($48) won a platinum medal from the Great American International Wine Competition; a few others in the Reserve collection have received gold and silver awards. Reserve wines are limited edition and typically fall in the $40-$50 range.
Signature Series wines are a collection of their finest offerings, with label artwork designed by acclaimed artists and typically cost $65 and up. The 2017 Signature Series Pinot Noir won a Best in Show award at the Denver International Wine Competition, out of hundreds of wineries. “The Signature Series is the best of the best,” he says. “It’s very exclusive, they’re not made every year. Whereas our Reserve wines are produced each year. We also offer a Neighborhood series that is more moderately priced, but still, the high-quality people expect from the City Winery name.” And for those who can’t decide, they offer a wine club — for $30 a month you’ll receive a monthly bottle of wine, a flight of wine on your birthday, a tour of the winery and more.
“As a winemaker, I love that our tagline is ‘Indulge your senses’, and it’s something we try to embrace from the wine to food, to events — it all provides an escape from the everyday. Here, you can go someplace special, be with good people, and enjoy the moment.”
So what’s next for Van Caster? “More wine events,” he excitedly says. “When I was in Oregon, twice a year there would be these incredible wine release events where every winery in the Valley hosts a release with music, food, wine and more. It’s a tradition that people plan their whole season around. I’d love to do something like that here, where we can further establish the Hudson Valley as a premier wine region with even more cultural events.”
Van Caster also teamed up with Angry Orchard to create a cider wine they’ve dubbed Cidewineder, using the pet nat process to make a bubbly, tart cider wine that will be served at both City Winery and Angry Orchard’s tasting rooms this summer.
“A big part of what I love about winemaking is the problem-solving aspect — how to create something, how to always improve it — it’s very future-facing,” he says. “The decisions you make today are really important in two years. And even better, at the end there’s something tangible that people enjoy. That’s a true reward for all the hard work.”
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