Brotherhood: America's Oldest Winery
The extensive vinicultural history of New York’s Hudson Valley has been celebrated for over three hundred years. When French and Dutch settlers arrived in the mid-1600s, they cultivated grapes native to the Americas and fermented them with traditional European winemaking techniques, yielding remarkable products with distinguished structure and refined flavors. Today, the Hudson Valley produces some of the world’s finest wines, renowned for their purity and balance. No other establishment embodies these aforementioned qualities of craftsmanship and sophistication more so than America’s oldest continuously-operated vineyard—Brotherhood Winery.
Brotherhood was the genesis of Jean Jaques, a French cobbler who started growing grapes in the early 1800s. In 1837, Jaques purchased land in Washingtonville, New York, where he sowed the seeds of a 180-year enterprise. As the price of grapes dropped precipitously during the late 1830s, Jaques decided to focus on winemaking. He excavated underground cellars at his Washingtonville vineyard—the oldest and largest such cellars in the United States today—and fermented his first commercial wine in 1839 under the name “Blooming Grove Winery.”
During the vineyard’s inaugural years, the majority of its sales came not from popular consumption, but local clergies. Jaques had reached agreements with several local church ministries to supply sacramental wine, which secured financial stability for his developing business. Over the next two decades, Blooming Grove gained a reputation for producing high-quality wines thanks to Jaques’s dedication to preserving the unadulterated flavors of native grapes. In 1858, Jaques retired from winemaking and deeded the vineyard to his sons John, Oren, and Charles, who renamed it “Jaques Brothers’ Winery.”
The Jaques Brothers operated the winery for another 28 years, expanding their manufacturing and distribution centers across the Northeast. In 1886, the last surviving Jaques brother, Charles, sold his family’s winemaking business to Jesse and Edward Emerson—father and son wine merchants from New York City and the winery’s largest consumers. The Emersons renamed the vineyard “Brotherhood” after a spiritualistic utopian community called The Brotherhood of New Life.
The Emersons’ connections with prominent wine connoisseurs brought Brotherhood unprecedented success. The small Washingtonville vineyard grew into a large complex of buildings and underground vaults to accommodate production demands. The Emersons also introduced Méthode Champenoise, the traditional French style of champagne fermentation. While not authentic champagne, Brotherhood is one of a few American wineries today that utilizes this customary method with properly-sourced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.
Brotherhood Winery’s prestigious growth came to an abrupt halt on January 17, 1920, with the passage of Prohibition. Unable to tolerate the resulting financial hardships, the Emersons sold Brotherhood to Louis Farrell in 1921. Instead of liquidating the vineyard’s assets, Farrell kept the winery in business throughout Prohibition by producing altar wines and “medicinal” ports, both of which were permissible to sell under law.
After Louis’s death in 1947, ownership of Brotherhood passed to his cousin, Francis, and his wife, Eloise, both of whom were pioneers in the evolving wine tourism industry. The couple offered in-depth historical tours of the vineyard and entertained guests with elegant parties in the winery’s underground cellars. The age of automobiles and Brotherhood’s close proximity to New York City allowed hundreds of thousands of visitors to patronize the winery each year. As “America’s Oldest Winery,” Brotherhood was a major tourist attraction for wine-lovers and history buffs, but an economic recession in the 1980s forced the winery to significantly scale back operations.
In 1987, Brotherhood was purchased by Chilean winemaker Cesar Baeza. He envisioned the vineyard as a premier wine destination and sought to rejuvenate interest in its history. However, on January 7, 1999, Baeza’s efforts were hampered by a devastating fire that consumed the tasting room, sales room, and Grand Monarque Hall (c. 1893). Fortunately, all the other original structures on Brotherhood’s campus were spared. The winery continued to distribute wines as the damaged buildings were renovated.
In 2005, Baeza agreed to partner with Luis Chadwick and Pablo Castro, two fellow wine connoisseurs from the Maule Valley Region of Chile. Their combined capital allowed the vineyard to undergo massive restoration efforts and production upgrades. Today, Brotherhood Winery is a major bottling facility for dozens of East Coast wines and caters to over 100,000 visitors each year.
Brotherhood Winery is not merely a vineyard and tasting room, but an entire village made up of stone buildings, underground cellars, receptions halls, a chapel, and the award-winning Vinum Café. Information about wine tastings and tours can be found in the Tasting Room. A tour and tasting package costs $10, which also includes a free tasting glass.
The tour begins with a walk around Brotherhood Village. The guide points out various historic buildings and describes their roles in the vineyard before descending into the network of underground wine cellars. The first cellar vault contains a miniature museum that displays antique winemaking implements, advertisements, bottles, and casks. The next room displays several immense wine barrels that extend from the floor to the vaulted ceiling.
The tour proceeds down the dimly lit hallway to a gated wine library that contains hundreds of unopened vintages from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Adjacent to the library is the Champagne Finishing Room, where actively-fermenting champagnes are stored for two years. The final room is a massive storage area that holds countless wooden barrels filled with various wines awaiting to be bottled.
After exiting the cellar, the tour concludes in the Tasting Room. Visitors can indulge in one of two flights: Varietal or Traditional. The Varietal Flight offers six samples of drier, contemporary wines whereas the Traditional Flight provides five samples of sweet wines that have been in production since the 19th century (on a personal note, I would highly suggest sampling the May Wine).
Through its commitment to craftsmanship and tradition, Brotherhood Winery has maintained an impeccable reputation for over 180 years. Modern viticulture and historic context are intertwined into a unique sociocultural experience that fosters a renewed appreciation for culinary tourism.
Visit Brotherhood Winery for more information on their wines and history