“Buy and Eat Local!” This latest rallying cry of quality and conscience for foodies worldwide has been done to death. But what happens when one strolls down to the local liquor store? There is still one exception, one important indigenous New Jersey product that has been sadly neglected. Wine.
Wine indigenous to New Jersey? Yes, and stop snickering for just a moment. You’re thinking about those cheap, nasty wines produced in the 1970’s, not good for much besides religious ceremonies or a college kid to down with a Twinkie or two. However in a recent New York Times article entitled “What’s Red and White And Made In New Jersey?”, wine writer Kevin M. Atticks made this bold claim: “These days, if you go into a wine shop and blindly grab a California wine, your chances of getting something mildly unpleasant are greater than if you pick up a wine from New Jersey.” It’s worth pointing out that the Garden State actually once had a respected viniculture. More than two hundred years ago, London’s Royal Society of the Arts recognized two New Jersey vintners for their success in producing the first bottles of quality wine derived from colonial agriculture. Wineries are now re-discovering and successfully cultivating many of the grapes that apparently do well in the New Jersey climate (such as Chambourcin, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cynthiana, and Vidal Blanc), and these are the wines that are quickly snapping up awards, both nationwide and worldwide. John Foy, a wine writer for the Star Ledger, has identified a distinct character to New Jersey’s wines and described them as having “…a soft texture supported by acidity, with spicy aromas and red berry and plum flavors, and the alcohol level [is] consistently within a percentage point of 12.5-percent. This structure is akin to many Burgundy, Oregon, and New Zealand pinot noir wines.”
So why, if grape-growing conditions have traditionally been so ideal in the Garden State all along, did its wine-making reputation become so miserable, or, at best, non-existent? Prohibition. Many wineries struggled with one of two options: going out of business, or hanging on to their livelihood by changing their very product. Thus, the time-tested methods of crafting fine wine were abandoned (and in many cases lost) to the production of inexpensive sacramental wines, or cloying “tonics” that could be legally sold in pharmacies.
Now the New Jersey wine industry wants to shake off that reputation, and are putting their efforts and money into changing your mind about them. A Quality Wine Alliance program, modeled after similar wine programs in Italy and France, was instituted in 1999. The program, called QWA for short, insures that all wines sold to consumers meet set quality standards. A QWA label is now being added to the labels of wines that have passed its rigorous reviewing process- akin to a wine expert’s “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”. In an event that seems to predict Jersey wines are on the verge of getting more respect, Inside Jersey Magazine reported that “…a dry Riesling from New Jersey bested several hundred from around the world at the venerable San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition…Blind tastings supervised by certified wine experts in the southern part of the state saw New Jersey blends beating out French Bordeaux and California reds.” Beating out French Bordeaux and California reds? Amalthea Cellars of Atco, NJ presented its best wines alongside top Napa and French wines in a blind tasting back in 2007. Their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve beat all of them, including huge names such as Chateau Mouton Rothchild, Silver Oak, and Far Niente. For an encore, they did it again in 2008.
This is not a one-time accident. South Jersey’s maritime growing climate (as of 2007, an officially designated wine-growing region known as the Outer Coastal Plain) has been compared to both the Bordeaux region in France and the Napa Valley in California- so much so that this month, the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association (yes, NJ also has its own vineyard association) is sponsoring a wine-growing symposium entitled, “Bordeaux-An Old World Terroir With Lessons For New Jersey.” Enologists, viticulturists, and various wine folk with PhDs earned in France are coming together to discuss and educate the New Jersey wine community on such subjects as “Crafting Bordeaux Style Wines in NJ” or “The Similarities and Differences in the Regional Climate and Soil Characteristics of NJ and Bordeaux”, as well as to taste and talk about NJ wines.
Not only are these wines imitating the classic European style and surpassing it in some instances, but some are also on the cutting edge of experimentation. Challenging the notion that good wine has to be made from grapes, Chestnut Run Farm Winery in Pilesgrove started offering wines made from Asian pears and Fuji apples in 2007. Unlike the syrupy fruit wines of the past, these have some finesse. One that got my attention at the 2009 Jersey Fresh Wine and Food Festival was the “Dry, Crisp Asian Pear Wine”. This wine was not for dessert: this was for sipping and enjoying in its own right, the way you would a good Chardonnay.
The best news overall for wine lovers in New Jersey is one of the benefits of anything local – the price. As many retailers and wine-makers will tell you, pricing is critical for wine. Despite the myth of the serious wine lover regularly savoring a rare vintage at $100+ a bottle, people will usually buy within the $18-$25 range. Most high-end New Jersey wines are marketed in this price range, making them an “affordable luxury” to locals. Knowing that you can get a Cabernet Sauvignon for $25 that beat out a $300 Cab from France? Priceless!
I present this challenge to all of you avid locavores: steel your courage, and search out New Jersey wine. I even dare you to serve it alongside a spread of your local artisan cheese and sliced Jersey tomato to your out-of-state guests. And if they still feel the need to make any prejudicial “What exit?” or toxic waste comments, you can always conk them over the head with the conveniently empty bottle.