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September 17th, 2008

Mark Miller

Mark Miller, Wine Pioneer, Dies at 89


            Mark Miller, a noted magazine illustrator and the founder of Benmarl Vineyards in Marlboro, New York, died at the age of 89 on September 9 in Wilmington, North Carolina, after a long illness. He was one of the last of the pioneers in the wine industry in the eastern United States.

Born in Eldorado, Oklahoma, on January 2, 1919, he had a long career as an artist which culminated in the 1950s and 1960s as an established illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post and other leading magazines of the pre-television era. He became a hobby winemaker in 1951 and in 1957, as his interest grew, he and his wife Dene bought a 40-acre property on a hill overlooking the Hudson River in Marlboro, New York, the site of a vineyard established by the early American viticulturist, Andrew J. Caywood.

In 1967, following several years as an artist living in Europe and studying vineyard and winemaking practices in France, the first harvest was held at Benmarl. The winery was later licensed with New York State’s farm winery license number one, reflecting Miller’s leading role in securing passage of the state’s farm winery act in 1976 which allowed small wineries to produce and sell their wines directly to the public.

Borrowing the idea of a brotherhood that he had seen in France, Miller established Benmarl’s Société des Vignerons, whose members could buy the rights to the production of two grapevines. Holders of such “vinerights” were invited to come to the winery for a special tasting in the spring where they would select a case of wine that was later bottled with the Société’s label, including the member’s own personal signature. The romance surrounding the Société gave it an elite status that attracted many prominent people including the ambassador to Ireland , artist Helen Frankenthaler, New York City’s then mayor, and many members of New York’s “400.” At its peak in the early 1980s, the Société had about 1,400 members.

Benmarl Vineyards and Mark Miller won recognition not only in New York, but nationally. Time magazine ran an article in its November 21, 1977, issue titled “Shaking California’s Throne,” which prominently featured Miller and Benmarl. The July, 1978, issue of National Geographic had an article “The Hudson: That River’s Alive,” that prominently mentioned Benmarl under the subhead “Wines to Rival the Rhine’s.”

When New York’s farm winery act was passed in 1976, there were only 19 wineries in New York State as opposed to more than 250 today. There were about 125 in all of eastern North America. Miller and Benmarl were in the forefront of the small farm winery movement. His memoirs, Wine – A Gentleman’s Game: The Adventures of an Amateur Winemaker Turned Professional, was published in 1984.

Miller turned 80 in 1999 and his son Eric, who had been the winemaker at Benmarl for many of its early years, helped assure the continuation of Benmarl by guiding the winery through the years leading to Miller’s retirement in 2004 and eventual sale in 2006 to Victor Spaccarelli, Jr., whose family has vowed to keep Mark Miller’s name alive at their Slate Hill Winery at Benmarl Vineyards.

Miller was predeceased by his first wife, Nadine Grant Miller, always known as Dene, and a son Kim Miller. He is survived by his wife Grace Pendell Miller, a son Eric and his wife Lee, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.  A memorial service is tentatively being planned for November 2nd at Slate Hill Winery at Benmarl Vineyards. 

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