The iconic Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, NY, has long laid claim to being the oldest winery in the United States. That claim is being challenged by a tiny Livingston County organization.
The upstart is the York Historical Society, headquartered in the Warren Homestead which was built in the 1830s by Samuel Warren (below left), a York grower and businessman.
They note that Warren’s first wine vintage was 1832, which would make Brotherhood not even the oldest in the state although it still can claim the title of oldest operating winery. By 1853, Warren’s line of York Wines topped the 3,400-gallon mark and had a national reputation. His sons, Josiah and Harlan, succeeded him in the growing and winemaking efforts. After five decades of operation, a railroad development program put the family out of business.
His reputation lay fallow for generations, until the York Historical Society recently purchased the property and decided to create tourism interest to help finance restoration and development of the property, in part by making it known as the birthplace of New York State’s wine industry. Society President Gary Cox has spearheaded the effort, and cites an 1836 newspaper ad for York Wines as proof of the tenure of Warren’s wines.
Cox, a retired college philosophy professor and amateur historian, says Samuel Warren came to the area from eastern New York at the age of 19. The following year, he purchased a 33-acre farm in what would become the Town of York. He built one of the area’s first sawmills, and made bricks and drainage tiles on his property. He also taught in the local school and became known as an expert horticulturist.
“By the late 1820s,” Cox writes, “Samuel Warren had married Sarah Flagg of Boston, MA, and had begun planting a vineyard near Bidwell’s Creek (a.k.a. Warren’s Creek) about two miles south of York Center. … Instead of European grapes, Samuel Warren, like a few others at that time, wisely chose for his vineyard American varieties like Catawba and Isabella. These were, it appears, chance inter-specific hybrids of American wild vines and the European varieties, and, in some cases, like Warren’s Early Catawba, the seedlings of such vines.
“In the autumn of 1832 — 28 years before the founding of Hammondsport’s Pleasant Valley Wine Company and several years before the planting of vines and founding of Blooming Grove, now Brotherhood Winery, Warren’s vineyard had produced enough fruit for a tiny vintage of 20 gallons. … By 1836 Warren was marketing the wine from his own vineyard in York. Cornell Librarian Marty Schlabach uncovered Warren’s advertisement [left] in, of all places, a widely-read periodical of that time called New York Evangelist, now accessible in digitized form. Marty’s discovery has had quite an impact.”
On Brotherhood’s website, it dates its history in these word (bold-faced emphasis mine):
“In 1810, a French Huguenot emigre named Jean Jacques purchased land in New York’s bucolic Hudson Valley and began planting grapes. By 1837, Mr. Jacques needed more land, so he purchased a plot in the quiet village of Washingtonville, NY, and planted another vineyard. By 1839, his first underground cellars were dug and Mr. Jacques fermented his first wine vintage.”
The Livingston County advertising discovery has prompted a number of well-known chroniclers of the wine industry to revise their works to recognize Warren’s pioneering efforts.
The relatively quick demise of the York Wines line came about 1880 when, Cox writes, “apparently with an unrestrained power of eminent domain, the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad acquired a right-of-way through the Warren farm that destroyed their family businesses. When travel through York on the DL&W began in 1882, Harlan Warren — Civil War veteran, farmer, winegrower, miller, musician and purveyor of musical instruments –- tragically hung himself in the remains of the winery.”
Today, the York Historical Society markets the New York Heritage Collection of wines (some labels shown above) and a sparkling hard apple cider based on heirloom 19th Century grapes and the Northern Spy apple such as the Warrens and other farmers grew in Livingston County (shown in marked area of map). A charitable donation to the society is built into the selling price. The New York Heritage Collection has collectible labels that link these wines to the story of the pioneering Warren family.
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