“This is the culmination of a very, very important time in my life,” says Phyllis Feder, of the Jim Trezise Lifetime Achievement Award she received this year from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. “I’m very touched and moved by it.”
The fact that Feder can say that it’s the culmination of a certain time in her life speaks volumes about the length—she’s 87 years old—and breadth—she’s had two wildly successful careers—of her life.
While Phyllis ultimately joined her husband Ben Feder at Clinton Vineyards, a winery that many credit with putting the Hudson Valley region on the wine map, she didn’t meet him until she was already a woman of “a certain age.”
They did run in the same circles though.
A Blind Date
“I was a graphic designer and a partner at Pushpin Studios in Manhattan,” Phyllis explains, alluding to a world-famous design studio founded by Milton Glaser—the man behind the I Love NY logo, the psychedelic cover art for Bob Dylan’s 1967 Greatest Hits album, the New York Magazine logo, and so much more. Ben, meanwhile, was a noted book designer who created the iconic cover for Kurt Vonnegot Jr.’s “Cat’s Cradle,” and Theodore Strugeon’s “A Way Home,” among many others—before high-tailing it to the country.
Mutual friends set them up on a blind date, and in 1989, they got married at the Radio City Suite in the Rainbow Room. Then, it was off to the Hudson Valley, where Phyllis and Ben would merge their lives and careers at Clinton Vineyards. Ben, a design guru-turned vintner who purchased his farm in the Hudson Valley in 1969 and first planted vines in 1976, was already a successful and established vintner well before the pair ever met. Phyllis understood early on that any relationship would be a package deal: Ben + Clinton.
“When Ben proposed to me, I said ‘yes. But on one condition,’” she recalls. “I told him he had to change the label. Now as a designer himself, he didn’t understand. But I said, ‘look, it’s no good. The color is bad. Let me redesign it.’”
And Ben did. The pair joined lives, and merged their creative forces and intellects, forging a business partnership that defined their lives as much as their marriage did.
“He was very excited that I wanted to be involved,” Phyllis says. “He’d already done so much, but together, we did even more.”
A Turn From Cows to Wine
When Ben purchased what became Clinton Vineyards in 1969, it was a dairy farm populated by cows with an appetite for fermented apples.
“Soon after moving in, Ben got a call from a neighbor who asked him to remove his drunk cows from their field,” Phyllis laughs. “They were rolling around and mooing. Apparently, they’d wandered into a field filled with apples that had started fermenting. Well, that was the end of Ben’s career as a farmer.”
Ben planted 14 acres of grapes on the 100-acre estate, and by the mid-70s had a runaway hit on his hands.
“Seyval Blanc did beautifully there,” says Feder, of the French-American hybrid that could stand up to the fierce winters in the Hudson Valley, ideal as a solo vehicle for off-dry fruit-forward still whites, sparkling and dessert wines. “He was the first person to create a methode champenoise in the Hudson Valley, and by the time I came on board, he already had his wines at the Four Seasons, Windows on the World and the Rainbow Room.”
Elevating the Hudson Valley
When Phyllis came on board, she says that in addition to redesigning the label and joining Ben in the cellar to learn the ropes fermenting, blending, aging and bottling wine, she took it upon herself to augment the estate’s aesthetic, and elevate the profile of Hudson Valley wines, writ large.
“We visited France together, and I got so excited and inspired by the long gravel driveways at estates, I knew we had to do the same thing,” she recalls. “He encouraged and loved it all. We added experiences at the tasting room and made it more comfortable. We wanted everyone to feel at home.”
Phyllis was also invited to join the Board of Directors at the New York Wine & Grape Foundation in the 1990s, eventually becoming the first woman to serve as Board Chair.
“I wanted to give a voice to the Hudson Valley,” she says. “And I also wanted to help other wineries in the Hudson Valley take their wine-growing and making to the next level.”
When Ben died in 2009, Phyllis says that “continuing his legacy at Clinton Vineyards became my mission. He created so many firsts in the Hudson Valley, from methode champenoise wine to Cassis, and so much more.”
A New Chapter
In 2021, Phyllis sold the winery to Barry Milea of Milea Estate Vineyards.
“I will still live here, and contribute and be an ambassador in any way that they want me to,” Phyllis says. “But the vineyards and the winery are now in their hands. Looking around the Hudson Valley now, I see so much variety in terms of grapes, so many styles and so much great winemaking happening.”
Phyllis helped build the foundation and paved the way for this bright future.
“This recognition is thrilling, and I love that it’s Jim Trezise who is presenting it to me,” Phyllis says. “We worked together for many years. It has been quite a journey indeed. And now? I think I’m going to go celebrate with a glass of wine.”
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.