The Rural We: Phyllis Feder
At 81 years young, Phyllis Feder is the only woman of her age operating a winery and vineyard in the United States. Clinton Vineyards, a 100-acre farm winery in Clinton Corners, New York, was started in 1977 by her late husband, Ben Feder. After his death, in 2009, Phyllis decided to continue Ben’s legacy and this year the vineyard will celebrate its 40th vintage with anniversary festivities on Saturday, June 24 from 2–6 p.m. There will be live jazz; a pop-up farmers market of local vendors; and tastings of what many people have agreed is the winery’s best Seyval Blanc yet.
I’m a first generation American; my mother was from Russia and my father from Austria. While they were very interested in seeing that I was educated, their own education was cut short by where they were raised and other circumstances. But I was raised in the Bronx, and there was never any question that I was going to go to college. My choice of study was based on whether I could get a job in that field. Back then, most women were led to believe they would be a secretary or a teacher, then they’d get married and have kids. That wasn’t for me; I always wanted to travel. I remember crying in the piazza in Venice because I was remembering listening to the New York Philharmonic performing from there when I was younger… and there I was… in Venice!
After attending Antioch, I came back to New York for grad school and started working in public relations in the nonprofit sector. I became head of a PR group for those in the nonprofit world. After taking over I realized we needed to think about how we were presenting ourselves, and I enlisted the help of Milton Glaser who headed Pushpin Studios. After living near him and often seeing him on the subway, he invited me to see the studio. Then their PR person left and I was hired for the job. That was the beginning of a marvelous 24-year career.
In the world of graphic design I met a lot of wonderful people. Through some friends, at the age of 50 I was fixed up on a blind date with a book designer named Ben Feder. I’m very tall and I knew he was intimidated by my height, so at the end of the evening I stood in the gutter so we were eye to eye. According to the rules of etiquette at the time, it was okay for a woman to give a man her business card, so that’s what I did.
He brought me up to the farm at Clinton Corners and I called my brother and told him I’d just seen the sexiest thing – Ben on his tractor. Ben was truly a renaissance man; he trained as an artist and he loved cooking, the only thing Ben Feder didn’t do was the tango. He had an amazing smile and sparkling blue eyes. There’s a photo of him in the tasting room and he still is very present here.
When he envisioned a vineyard, he learned about viticulture and chose Seyval Blanc. It’s very versatile, so you can make several types of wine using one grape. He first planted them in 1974, and the first release was in 1977. He only made about 300 cases, and it won all the awards in the Northeastern competitions. Now we’re celebrating our 40th release of Seyval Blanc, and I’ve heard it’s the best we’ve ever made. The growing conditions last year were really ideal.