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Mark Miller, Wine Pioneer, Dies at 89

Artist and founder of New York's Benmarl Vineyards

by Hudson Cattell
Mark Miller, Benmarl Vineyards
Mark Miller in the Benmarl Vineyards high above the Hudson River in 1977.
Wilmington, N.C. -- Mark Miller, a noted magazine illustrator and the founder of Benmarl Vineyards in Marlboro, N.Y., died at the age of 89 on Sept. 9 in Wilmington, N.C., after a long illness. He was one of the last of the pioneers of the wine industry in the eastern United States.

Born in Eldorado, Okla., on Jan. 2, 1919, he had a long career as an artist that culminated in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was 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, 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, he completed his first harvest at Benmarl. The winery was licensed in 1971. Winery licenses in those days cost $1,500 per year, and Miller played a leading role in securing passage of New York state's farm winery act in 1976, which reduced the annual license fee to $125, in addition to expanding allowable retail sales at the winery. In recognition of Miller's role, Benmarl was granted farm winery license No 1.

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 two vines, come to the winery for a special tasting in the spring, and later receive a case of wine with the Société's label, which included 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 and many members of New York's "400." At its peak in the early 1980s, the Société had about 1,400 members.

Mark Miller, Benmarl Vineyards
Mark Miller holds his bronze statue, "Angel of Benmarl," surrounded by other pieces of his artwork.
Benmarl and Miller won recognition not only in New York, but nationally. Time magazine ran an article in its Nov. 21, 1977, issue titled "Shaking California's Throne," which included Miller and Benmarl. The July 1978, issue of National Geographic had an article "The Hudson: That River's Alive," which 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, compared 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 the early years, helped assure the continuation of Benmarl by guiding the winery through the years leading to Miller's retirement in 2004 and the winery's eventual sale in 2006 to Victor Spaccarelli Jr.

Miller was predeceased by his first wife, Nadine Grant Miller, always known as Dene, and a son Kim. He is survived by his wife, Grace Pendell Miller, their son Eric and his wife Lee, the proprietors of Chaddsford Winery in Chadds Ford, Pa., four grandchildren and one great-grandson.

A memorial service is tentatively planned for Nov. 2 at Benmarl Vineyards. For further information, phone (610) 388-6221.
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