Hello, all! I am so glad to be pattering away on the keyboard again. These past two weeks have made it tough- the Coxsackie virus blew through this household, causing much pain and sleeplessness (the week John took off for our “family staycation”, of course!). After we recovered, it was time to prepare for and enjoy a few days with some good friends who had come all the way from Boston to stay with us. Thankfully, we’re back this week: healthy, rested, and with a backlog of food experiences to share and report. I think I’ll start with the most recent events this weekend. Yes, John and I made a fun pilgrimage on Saturday to none other than…Vineland? Yes, you heard right. In fact, we have so much to talk about, we have to bring it to you in a trilogy (just like Star Wars!).
Our first stop was the Panther Branch Vineyard, where we were invited by husband and wife team Dante Romanini and Karen Talarico for a tour. As we drove up to the small, sunny 27-acre farm, I realized I was a bit nervous. Though I am a veteran beer brewer and aficionado, have tasted many wines, toured a few wineries, and am somewhat familiar with the wine making process, I have always been intimidated by the complexities of viticulture and wine appreciation. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Dante and Karen gave us a warm welcome and were happy to answer any questions we had. In fact, they inisisted that their vineyard is nothing but “a hobby that ran amok”. Back in college, Don began dabbling in wine making; Karen was impressed by a business trip to the Napa Valley, and inisisted he also come to see the famous California wine country. Those trips prompted them to create their”own little Napa” right here in Vineland back in 1982.
So why Vineland? By now you may be saying to yourself, “Hmmm, Vineland, vineyard”…well, you’re getting the idea. Vineland was and continues to be a rich farmland area, but was originally named for the abundance of wild grapes found growing there when the city was founded over 150 years ago (Welch’s Grape Juice got its start here). Apparently, the sandy, loamy soil and the temperate climate encourages the growth of certain wine grapes; in fact, the only disadvantage Don reports is excess humidity, which can be managed by keeping a close eye on and preventing fungal growth. It’s a combination that seems to work- their first commercial harvest was in 1985, and they’ve supplied grapes to such award-winning local wineries as Bellview Winery, Cape May Winery, and Amalthea Cellars (which, in June, beat some of the best of Napa and French wines in a blind tasting!).
However, the philosophy has been to keep the vineyard small. Smaller means closer attention to detail in the characteristics peculiar to growing grapes in the Vineland area. This not only creates a higher standard of quality, but also a product with its own local identity. The ultimate goal? Wines that are not only inexpensive and indigenous, but well-made (as they have been in Europe for centuries). As we walked the vineyard, Dante stopped to point out the different varieties they are growing and give us a taste right off the vine. They primarily cultivate five: Viognier (which, he points out, gives a wine an “unctuous” mouth-feel), Pinot Grigio (even I knew this one-but did you know it is a red-skinned grape? Only the juice is used to make this popular white wine, not the skin) Vidal Blanc (of which they make a great “NJ dry table wine”), Cabernet Franc (the famous Bordeaux grape), and Chambourcin (which they blend with Cabernet Franc to make a “Rainy Day Red”). When I asked what the pride and joy of the vineyard was, he walked us over to their latest “experimental” vines: Muscat. These grapes were not only a gorgeously unusual pinkish gold, but the flavor was a bit of a shock; it left flavors of lemon and orange on my tongue and I was amazed that this had not even been fermented yet, this was right off the vine! They’ve had some success with this one by freezing the juice to create a dessert “ice” wine.
The only disadvantage to seeing and discussing all of these wonderful grapes is that Panther Branch is currently a vineyard only, there is no winery as yet (despite all of the wonderful wines they make for themselves). When I asked if they had plans to create one, they acknowledged that they were “looking into it” and wanted to “see where it goes”. With this relaxed attitude, blended with the intensity and dedication to their labor of love, it looks like they’ll go far. -Lisa
Want a shot at possibly trying some of Panther Branch’s and other exclusive NJ Wines? Check out the “Harvest for Hunger” wine tasting and live wine auction event to be held on Friday, November 14, 2008, 7-10PM at the Collingswood Ballroom. All proceeds go to supporting Cathedral Kitchen in Camden. Get details by calling (856) 964-6771 or check out www.cathedralkitchen.org