When Matthew Spaccarelli and his partner Casey Erdmann opened Milton’s Fjord Vineyards in 2013, Spaccarelli was already steeped in the Hudson Valley wine industry. He’d taken the leap into all things winegrowing and winemaking in 2006, when his family purchased Benmarl Winery in Marlboro—believed to be America’s oldest vineyard—from the Miller family who started it in the 1960s.
Benmarl’s property has grown grapes for around 300 years. Matthew, who had just graduated from college when his family purchased the historic property, had a sizable learning curve ahead of him. After a great deal of informal on-the-job training and study, he mastered both winemaking and vineyard management while shepherding the historic property into its next phase.
“I had no professional wine making skills,” says Matthew, who was born and raised in the Hudson Valley. “I was never involved in agriculture beyond the garden at the house.” He jumped into the new family business as the general manager while also working in the cellar and out in the vineyards.
As time went on, he found he enjoyed growing grapes and working in the vineyard more than the winemaking side.
“I look at the vineyard as the first step in winemaking and probably the most important,” he says.
When the Spaccarelli family purchased Benmarl, it was a 1200 case a year winery, but the fruit for all but one of its wines was sourced from outside the state. After gaining experience and connections within the state’s wine industry, Matthew had a conversation with his father about switching over to using solely New York-grown grapes.
“We have access to really, really nice fruit,” he told his dad.
It took a little convincing, but in 2010, they made the switch to all New York state production.
Starting a Second Label
“In the meantime, I’d been working on all these little vineyard projects in town,” he says. “An acre here, two acres there. In 2013, my partner Casey and I decided to start our own label. We had this really cool story to tell with these little vineyards.”
They launched Fjord Vineyards—named for its location in an extremely old fjord 60 miles north of Manhattan, one that just happens to be the most equatorial fjord in the world— at what Matthew describes as “kind of a crazy time” because they started a family and the new venture at the same time.
Fjord uses Benmarl’s facilities to make the wine before putting it into tank or barrel on Fjord’s property. Matthew and Casey work with small vineyard plots. They’ve planted Albarino, Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Merlot, Blaufränkisch, Chardonnay and Gamay—one of only two producers growing Gamay in the region. After their first vintage, they’ve decided to keep going with it. The Albarino has also been a hit for the winery.
Honored with a Unity Award
Fjord is situated at the gateway to the growing region, and its location is fitting for someone honored with the New York Wine & Grape Foundation John H. Brahm III Grower Award in the 2023 Unity Awards. The award recognizes an individual for dedication and contributions to the New York grape industry.
In addition to seeing the value in using all New York fruit at his family’s winery and Fjord over a decade ago, Matthew is a part of the community that’s helping the Hudson Valley wine region move forward. He was part of the Grower Sustainability Advisory Committee formed in 2021 to establish a statewide, sustainable winegrowing certification program verified by a third party. Out of that committee came a pilot program in the spring of 2022 that Matthew also took part in. This year, all wineries and vineyards are open to earning the certification.
“The nice thing about this sustainability program,” says Matthew, “is that it doesn’t just address the earth. It’s addressing people as well, which organic certification doesn’t necessarily do. This certification makes sure you’re taking care of your workers and providing a living wage—all things that contribute to a healthy system.”
The certification is good for sustainability, of course, and it’s helpful to sell wines to those who shop their values, but Matthew sees another benefit to the “Trust Mark” that certification gives a winery the right to use. Those wineries become a de facto list of contacts for sustainable industry advice.
“I can call a person [with the certification] when I have a question about new bio-fungicides or all the things that might make your growing more sustainable,” he says.
Both Benmarl and Fjord are also members of the Hudson Valley Cabernet Franc Coalition, a group that positions Cabernet Franc—a grape that does very well in the region’s vineyards—as the calling card of the region. The coalition grew out of a group of growers who would get together to talk about growing practices and blind taste each others’ wines.
Matthew has always relied on the guidance and knowledge of those in the region whom he respects, and when he took a look at the list of people who have received the John H. Brahm III Grower Award, he says he was humbled.
“They’re all people that I really looked up to and depended on the evolution of where we are today in our vineyards,” he says. “What makes me happiest about it is that I’m on that wall with people who were my mentors, especially Steve Mudd out on the North Fork of Long Island. I was always able to call him and ask questions and pick his brain.”
“Coming from a family that never farmed, it’s kind of cool to have something that I love to do and I’m lucky I get to do it. When my dad purchased the winery he could have hired a winemaker and a vineyard manager, but he let me take it over and make lots of mistakes. Now we’re growing over 40 acres and making some nice wines.”
About the Unity Awards
The Unity Awards were created in 1990 as a way to recognize, encourage, and celebrate cooperation among grape growers, wineries (and their staff), researchers, retailers and others to advance the entire industry. The winery and grower community in New York state has a rich history of working and succeeding together despite facing a variety of challenges through the years. Recognizing the longstanding and bold spirit of our community members and their numerous achievements, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is proud to continue honoring industry leaders & champions of New York wine for more than 30 years.