A Grape Trail Through the Hudson Valley

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Fall foliage sends thousands of New Yorkers north in search of brilliant natural beauty. But how long can you stare at trees, no matter how colorful?

You need something to provide a little structure to the trip, and the Dutchess Wine Trail is as good a framework as any. (Grape vines have leaves, too.)

Dutchess County sits two counties up from Westchester, about 90 minutes north of New York City, and I have called it home for a year now. Sadly, I know more about Dutchess than I do about wine. After visiting the three wineries comprising the DWT, however, my knowledge of both subjects is a bit deeper -- and the research certainly was a pleasure.

Trail of Cheers

Start with a morning drive along the serpentine, wooded Taconic Parkway to the first stop along the trail, the Millbrook Vineyards & Winery.

Located in the center of the county, Millbrook is posh horse country, a haven of multimillion-dollar estates surrounding a delightful little upscale downtown. Food-wise, I'm partial to the venerable greasy-spoon Millbrook Diner (224 Franklin Ave.) for brunch. For dinner, it's the wonderful Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant outside of town, Serevan.

The 130-acre winery, five minutes north of town, fits right in. A converted Dutch hip-roofed dairy barn provides stirring views of the vineyards and the Catskill Mountains beyond.

John Dyson, the former deputy mayor of New York City under Rudy Giuliani and the creator of the famed "I Love NY" ad campaign, owns the former estate, as well as highly regarded vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the central coast of California, and Tuscany. Millbrook makes wines from the 30 acres of chardonnay, tocai friulano, pinot noir, cabernet franc and gamay noir onsite; it also produces wines that employ other New York and California grapes.

I learned this, and forgot much more, on a weekday tour helmed by an affable, unpretentious guide. (Tours are available daily from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.; the other wineries offer similar weekend hours in the fall.) Free tours are available, but I upgraded to the $6 "standard loop" that included a six-wine tasting and take-home glass; the "reserve" version will set you back $15 -- quite the bargain, especially for the area.

Weekends find the vineyard packed with people like, well, grapes on a vine, but you can get a more exclusive experience by signing up for the 17th Annual Harvest Party on Oct. 6. For $125 per person, guests enjoy a four-course gourmet meal prepared by chef Chris Harkness, paired with Millbrook wines, and served by students from the nearby Culinary Institute of America, as well as a wine challenge hosted by educator Kevin Zraly.

As it happens, the two other vineyards that make up the Dutchess Wine Trail, including the 30-year-old Clinton Vineyards in Clinton Corners and the more recent vintage Alison Wines & Vineyards in Red Hook, don't offer formal guided tours per se. (I maintain you should use pretentious phrases such as per se in conjunction with wine trails; they add a certain je ne sais quoi.)

Both offer educational tastings, however, and are worth visiting for other reasons, too.

Clinton Vineyards, just 10 minutes on the country roads west from the Millbrook Vineyards, offers a "self-guided tour," which essentially means you stroll the stone path around the drop-dead-gorgeous grounds, which include a serene pond, gardens and top-shelf landscaping. If you indulge in a tasting beforehand, it's easy to get lost in a reverie that you're in the French countryside. Bonus: no sneering French people. Indeed, nearby it's Anglophile heaven at the British-themed Clinton Corners Cafe & Tea Shoppe. Yes, there's even Marmite for sale!

Clinton Vineyards produces white wines, champagnes and dessert wines, most notably cassis: Clinton is, per the vineyard, the only gold-medal cassis producer in the U.S.

The stuff isn't cheap, and I'll admit to a bit of sticker shock when the black currant dessert wine set me back $36 for a slender bottle. Again, I'm a wine naïf. But with it my first Cardinal -- 1/5 cassis, 4/5 red wine -- knocked my socks off, as connoisseurs say.

Relative to its peers, Alison Wines & Vineyards is shorter on ambiance: The tasting area is a cave inside the converted 1840s dairy barn where the chardonnays and pinot noirs are made.

If the rustic setting is less swank, the wine-speak seemed more haute and lingo-centric; but to each his own. What helps make Alison a can't-miss destination is the adjacent 500-acre Greig Farm. Here you can pick your own fruit -- at the moment, apples, pumpkins and raspberries. Less taxing and more compelling to many will be the Gigi Market , which sells a wide array of foodstuffs from the area's many local farmers and food artisans, as well as excellent prepared foods using this produce in its cafe. Sister enterprise Gigi Trattoria down the road in Rhinebeck features these ingredients as well; there are worse places to end the day.

Excellent accommodations abound. The area's oldest inn is the nation's longest-operating: the Beekman Arms ($100-$275 a night) in Rhinebeck. If the Beekman's 23 rooms are sold out, its sister property, the 50-room, carpenter gothic-styled Delamater Inn ($100-$250 a night), is just up the road.

Five minutes back down the road and possessing an unparalleled view of the region is the hilltop splendor of the Belvedere Mansion ($200-$275 a night). Should you have fallen in love with Millbrook, the Millbrook Country House ($200-$275 a night) offers a nice sense of what it would be like to live in an historic Colonial house there -- minus the yardwork.

The following day, if so inclined, you can refocus from grapes to leaves. May I suggest a picnic on a blanket beside the Hudson River under a weeping willow with a nice Dutchess County wine? There's no corkage fee, but tips are always appreciated.

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