Debbie Gioquindo, the Hudson Valley’s Wine Goddess, weathers 2020’s storms
By Steve Hopkins
If there is one thing that has remained constant in the time of Covid, it’s the warm embrace of a good glass of wine. The methods of delivery may have been altered for the time being, but the product is as in demand as ever. That’s not much help to small regional wineries, though, which have a much more difficult row to hoe than large international producers with access to vast distribution networks. In the greater Hudson Valley, there remain 60-odd wineries, all scrambling hard to keep up with government regulations regarding Covid-induced safety requirements and figuring out how to get their wines into consumers’ hands in novel ways.
The Hudson Valley’s wine industry, along with a legion of boosters that include the Hudson Valley Wine & Food Festival and Hudson Valley Wine Goddess Debbie Gioquindo, was as hard hit in 2020 as many other industries. The eagerly anticipated annual festival was cancelled this fall, replaced with a well-attended on-line version. Gioquindo, a mainstay at the annual event, was forced by circumstances to forego holding her yearly Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition, although she was able to conduct her popular wine seminars on-line during the virtual festival. “I gave two seminars,” she said. “One on sparkling wines of the world, and the other was pairing wines with take-out food. Including, if we end up in another shutdown, what to do if you’re ordering take-out and what types of takeout to order that travel well, and how to reheat it.”
Gioquindo takes the title of Hudson Valley Wine Goddess seriously. She’s served as the marketing director for the Shawangunk Wine Trail, as well as the executive director of Hudson Valley Wine Country. Beyond her role in running the annual Wine and Spirits Competition, she is responsible for introducing legions of wine lovers to a boatload of Hudson Valley wine through her seminars, writings, personal appearances and other associated projects. She’s a real force in the regional industry.
A marketing specialist by trade, she became enthused about wines in the 1990s. “My husband and I went out to Napa together, and we just really fell in love with wine,” said Gioquindo. “And when his doctor told him that he’d better lay off the hard alcohol and drink beer or wine, we went the wine route. For a time it was just for enjoyment, but then as technology changed and blogging came in … because I would always be reading up and trying to educate myself about wine, and the process … I got involved with the local wine industry.”
Her wine education, which came at the hands of Michael Migliore from Whitecliff Vineyards, was intense. “He took me under his wing,” said Gioquindo. “He’s a mentor. He taught my husband how to make wine, after which he became the winemaker at Whitecliff for nine years. I was there for every harvest and was involved with all aspects of the winemaking business. Then I started to write about it, starting with wine reviews. But now it’s a bigger story, about the wineries and the winemakers as well as the wines.”
Gioquindo is no wine snob. She takes a laid-back, egalitarian approach, gently coaxing her audience toward developing an eye, ear, nose and throat for wine without annoying them by talking over their heads and trying to prove how smart she is. “Wine can be intimidating. Even, you know, when you go into the liquor store, and you want to purchase something for when you’re going to a dinner party, or whether it’s a gift for somebody. How do you choose? What do you choose? What are you looking for? And really, there’s no right or wrong with wine, because everybody’s palate is different. So what I might find is delicious, you might not like. Some people like sweeter wines. Some like fruitier wines. There’s a difference. But always, I try to get into the story behind each wine. Because people want to have a connection to what they’re drinking.”
Despite her not lording it over the people she’s talking to, one quickly surmises that she knows her stuff. “I like to educate people on the different types of wines that are out there: Spanish wines and Chilean wines. Gruner Veltliner, Austrian wines. Gruner Veltliner is a fantastic grape; it’s an Austrian wine. Millbrook Vineyards planted a couple of rows of Gruner, and two years ago came out with their first vintage, and it was really good. I can’t wait to see how, as the vines age, the grape will come into itself even more. Really, it’s about understanding the grape and where it’s grown, and how that affects the outcome of the wine. The Hudson Valley makes a wide range of wines. Cab Franc is their signature wine. They grow Pinot Noir. They grow Merlot. There are also hybrids that grow very well in the Hudson Valley, that can withstand the cold and the weather fluctuations. Like Seyval, Traminette, and De Chaunac.”
She stops short of naming favorite wines, though. “I’d rather not say. It’s like saying ‘Name your favorite child.’ There are a number of wineries that I like a lot. I would say there are a lot of up-and-coming producers in the Hudson Valley that you should look out for, because there are going to be some fantastic things coming from them. But there are the old-timers, too, that are the backbone of Hudson Valley wine. Again, there’s no right or wrong. It’s understanding what you like, and moving forward and purchasing that. I try and educate the people on the different wines that are out there. I’m a big proponent of buying local, and by that I mean the Hudson Valley and New York State wines in particular. Because there are some fantastic wines in the Hudson Valley and all throughout New York State.”
If Gioquindo sometimes sounds like a public relations person for an entire regional industry, it’s because she is. And much of that work has been done in conjunction with the Hudson Valley Wine and Food Festival and its founder, Michael Babcock, in a relationship that spans decades. “Back then I also owned a travel agency, and I focused on sending people to the wineries of the world,” said Gioquindo. “I actually had a table at the Wine Festival. And then one thing led to another, and Michael and I created a friendship. When I was looking for a place to host the Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition, I reached out to him — it was kind of a match made in Heaven there, a wine competition at a wine festival … and we worked it out. As a wine blogger, I’ve always promoted the festival. I’ve seen the festival grow. I’ve been there during mud baths, and I’ve been there for the good times. It’s a wonderful festival. I love going, I have my one competition that starts Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, and on a good day it’s over by noon so I don’t hold up the cooking demonstrations. I started giving seminars there, and I have people who come up to me and say that they look forward to my seminars every year.”
“I’ve been doing the wine competition since, probably, 2007,” continued Gioquindo. “I didn’t start with that, though. The person that was running it moved to Washington State, and I took it over. During that time, I also would work in the back room at the New York Wine and Food Classic, which is a competition featuring all New York State wines. I would work there primarily to see how I could better my wine competition. They would have, sometimes, 1,000 bottles of wine. I’m lucky if I have 150 bottles of wine. I was looking for comparisons … how can I do better, and so on. And it’s been going really well. It’s only open to wineries, cideries and distillers in the Hudson Valley. I put out a call for entries. Wines have to be produced in the Hudson Valley, using 100% Hudson Valley grapes or New York State grapes. The same for the distilleries and cideries. Winners get trophies … plaques … that they can display in their tasting rooms. There is a category for Best Hudson Valley Wine Made With Hudson Valley Grapes.”
As mentioned above, Gioquindo’s wine competition was not held this year, due to the Covid situation. “There was no in-person festival and I couldn’t find a suitable venue to have the competition and adhere to Covid restrictions in which the staff, judges and back-room help would feel comfortable,” said Gioquindo. “My judges are great. I have a fantastic panel of judges. And with what wineries have to do right now in light of Covid, I wasn’t able to have enough space. Also, my judges have day jobs, so I would have had to stick to a weekend. I really wanted to have it in November this year, but I couldn’t find a space. I’m really hoping next year will be different, and there will be a festival. We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”
A lot of space would be needed. “Each panel has three judges, sitting at a table,” said Gioquindo. “There would be 10 tables. They have to be able to be sitting far enough apart at the table so that they are safe but can still have a confidential conversation about the wine. When they’re done with that flight of wine, they’ll move to the next table, and the table they were at will be cleaned up and re-set with a new flight of wine by staff. Then there has to be a large space in the back, where the judges can’t see what’s going on with the pouring of the wine and so on.”
Like every other talented entrepreneur, Gioquindo is thinking ahead. “I’m working on some on-line seminars that I’m hoping to do over the winter. Similar to what I do at the wine festival. Short webinars. I have also been working on something for the past five years. It’s a course for business people, when they go out and entertain with wine. I might hold off on that to see what happens with Covid, though, because people aren’t entertaining at the moment. “ She also co-hosts, once a month, an on-line education program called Winephabet Street, with Lori Budd from Dracaena Wines in California. “We go through the alphabet, one letter at a time, talking about different grapes.” It’s educational, and fun. To delve further into the world of Debbie Gioquindo, Hudson Valley Wine Goddess, you can visit: https://hudsonvalleywinegoddess.com/ or subscribe to her YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/DebbieGioquindo. And meanwhile, do yourself a favor and enjoy that glass of wine. Preferably local.