If you grew up in or around New York City, chances are you’ve been to the museum for a hay ride in the summer or pumpkin picking in the fall. Perhaps you’ve even taken photos of your kids holding the biggest pumpkins they could find in the patch.
But take a closer look and you'll see a robust, one-and-a-half acre vineyard, nestled in a 200-year-old farm, that has been a fairly well-kept secret - until now.
Since 2004, museum staffers have been quietly toiling away on the tiny vineyard, planting, coaxing, pruning and harvesting Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet grapes. Perched on his tractor, operations manager and overseer of the vineyard, Gary Mitchell, said all their hard work is just now being rewarded.
“We planted the vineyard with limited expectations and as part of our mission to promote New York and Long Island agriculture,” Mitchell said. “With a lot of hard work and the labor of dedicated people, it finally took off.
“The first wines produced from those grapes, the 2006 and 2007 vintages, include grapes from our own vineyard and also grown for us on Long Island,” Mitchell said. The wine is made at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, New York, with the help of the award-winning winemaking consultant, Russell Hearn.
The entire venture was a gamble. According to Mitchell, the vineyard was planted in 2004 as an “experiment” suggested by the farm museum's president of the board, James Trent, who wanted to expand the Farm’s visitors to adults.
“We serve school children and families very well, but we wanted to develop adult programming,” Mitchell said. At an upcoming auction and wine-tasting festival, the museum will be offering the first 30 collectible and historic bottles of its finest homegrown wines.
Making their debut at the festival will be a 2006 Adriance Blend, a premium red wine (named for the Dutch family who first farmed here); a fruity, ruby-red 2006 Merlot; and a rich and distinct, yet delicate, 2007 Chardonnay. The wine labels bear a simple drawing of a vineyard with the Manhattan skyline in the background.
Because it is tolerant of cold temperature the Chardonnay grape is particularly well-suited for New York State. Not only can it endure the cold winters, but the varietal buds late, reducing the risk of spring frosts.
“Grape growing in the Northeast is a particular challenge, especially since we practice sustainable and organic principles on the farm,” said Mitchell, who also credits Alice Wise of the Cornell Cooperative Extension and an expert grape grower, Steve Mudd, for help with the project.
Indeed, the green trend has been popular here for a long time. The Queens County Farm Museum is dedicated to sustainable livestock, produce and environmental education. The museum aims to educate people about sustainable and organically grown local foods, and its farmers are passionate about the local food movement.
A throwback to a simpler era, the museum's 18th century barn seems out of place in the city. Still it remains a comforting sight at the museum, which traces its roots to 1697. The farm itself is the longest continuously farmed site in the state.
But please don’t call it old-fashioned. With the vineyard the museum, only a stone's throw from Manhattan, joins the wave of new urban wineries which have been popping up all over the country.
Of course, the Farm Museum’s diminutive vineyard can’t rival the vast sun-drenched vineyards of California’s Napa Valley, but amazingly, New York’s sun and soil have managed to produce a tasty variety of grapes and a bountiful harvest.
“We look forward to the public’s response, as we introduce our wines in the small wine shop” at the farm, said Mitchell.
Whether you’re a true wine connoisseur, or not, plan to bid, or just watch, the upcoming auction and wine-tasting event on May 18 at the Queens County Farm Museum promises to be a unique experience. Visitors can enjoy some cool jazz music in the barn, and sample scrumptious hors d’oeuvres.
If you can’t make it to the auction, the quaint barnyard gift shop (in the corner of the greenhouse), will be selling their tasty vintage collection starting May 19, and through the fall. Prices will range from about $21 to $26.
For more information about the farm, which is located at 73-50 Little Neck Parkway, Floral Park, visit www.queensfarm.org or call (718) 347-3276. Tickets for the auction can be found at www.brownpapertickets.com.