North Country wine growers and cold climate viticulture lost a visionary, sharp witted, friend, colleague and sometimes antagonist when Rob McDowell passed away earlier this month on December 13th. Rob grew and operated Purple Gate Vineyard in Plattsburgh and was one of the first people to dedicate serious efforts to the propagation of cold hardy hybrids in the Lake Champlain Valley of New York.

Rob was a founding member of the local wine community and shared generously of his knowledge at site visits, meetings and workshops, with locals and visitors alike, some who would go on to become growers and winemakers themselves. Well-versed in the basics, Rob was also an avid innovator and willing to try new techniques and obscure varieties, and doggedly pursued the idea of a robust cold climate red wine. He was known to be provocative in conversations about the pros and cons of site selection, variety choices, training regimes, harvest targets, and the building of a brand-new regional industry.

Several years ago I spent the better part a day with Rob driving around the north west lake shore as he pointed out promising pastures and fields, imagining them covered with trellises. Earlier this summer I saw him in attendance with George Gale at the Northern Grape Project cold hybrid comparative tasting in Burlington, VT. In between, I’ve been the grateful beneficiary of his knowledge and feedback, and sometimes his wine. Just last year, Rob hosted a retirement party for our Cornell Extension Associate Kevin Iungerman, where he shared a “trial” bottling of a St. Croix / Oberlin Noir red blend that actually caused me to stop mid-conversation to admire it…it was so good. It saddens me to know that I won’t be able to share that wine with him again and ask the outstanding questions I still have about it.

While he was not a commercial viticulturalist or vintner, Rob always endeavored to reach the highest quality fruit he could grow and best tasting wines he could make. He’d been in the planning stages of “going-pro” for a few years. Then, just before Labor Day he sent a note to the local group saying that he would be hanging up the pruning shears to move on to new priorities. His subsequent absence was noted at a regional advisory board meeting several weeks ago. He was private about his health issues and so his passing came as a surprise to many of us, even though it would seem, he had already prepared us to be without him.

He is missed now and will be in growing seasons and harvest to come. Rob was passionate about the future of north country viticulture and believed that we could produce wines that were like no others. When explaining the opportunity in the region he could be heard saying something quite like this quote picked up by Lake Champlain Life:

“The real magic in the Lake Champlain Valley is the serendipitous fit of grapes to vineyards. The cold hardy hybrid crosses of Vinifera, the European wine grape, and the hardier, more disease resistant American grape species that thrive in this region. These hybrids are capable of producing grapes in the Lake Champlain Valley with great winemaking potential.
High sugars, deep flavors, and crisp acidity combine into outstanding wine. One of the great advantages of the cold hardy hybrids is their unique character. Their flavors result in wines that are often quite different than the usual fare from California, Australia, and Europe. This translates into a palette of flavors that are refreshing in a world tired of the same old Merlot and Chardonnay. And, our wines are distinctly local; they come from this land of ancient mountains, crisp sun and air, and deep cobalt waters.”