Wining, Dining, and Learning

Photo credit: aucurrant.org
As you may know if you follow this blog, I’ve recently been very surprised by and intrigued about New Jersey’s wines. Contrary to popular belief, many wineries are now dedicating themselves to producing fine wines on par with (and sometimes surpassing) those of Europe and California. I am no expert, so I was really surprised (and thrilled), when our friend Dante Romanini of Panther Branch Vineyards invited me to a wine symposium back in March, sponsored by the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association. The topic? “Bordeaux-An Old World Terroir with Lessons for New Jersey.”
Dante, happily displaying an empty glass after a tasting.

Yes, they were serious: Bordeaux and New Jersey are more similar wine making regions than you think. Arriving a bit late at Rutger’s NJ Agricultural Experiment Station in Bridgeton, I was just in time to hear one of Bordeaux’s wine experts, Dr. Denyse Lemaire, speak on the “Similarities and Differences in the Regional Climate and Soil Characteristics of NJ and Bordeaux”. Although I was absolutely convinced everything would be hopelessly over my head, I found that with only a basic knowledge of gardening (and a burning desire to learn more about wine) that this event became the detailed crash course in wine appreciation and viticulture that I’d wanted to take ever since I was a student at Rutgers University (I missed out- I turned 21 too late and the course was full).

Speaking of wine courses at Rutgers University, during the lunch break (which included salads and side dishes made with Jersey-grown produce), I discovered that I was sitting next to Joseph Fiola, a Specialist in Viticulture of the University of Maryland Extension. It turns out that he was formerly of the Rutgers Coop Extension during my time as a student there (from 1988-2001) and was in charge of the above-mentioned wine course. Go figure. At lunch and between presentations, he proved to be a friendly expert, a wealth of information, and willing to answer my endless stream of questions with enthusiasm and patience. I also got to meet and learn from Jim Quarella, owner of the Bellview Winery in Landisville, and Louis Caracciolo of Amalthea Cellars in Atco; they were also really nice guys, passionate about what they do, and were willing to be interviewed for future blog posts (stay tuned!).

I learned quite a few interesting tidbits about New Jersey wines, some of which might surprise you:

  • Most wineries have wonderful, amazing varietals that they’d love you to try, but usually don’t market heavily. Why? Currently, 60-70% of the wines currently sold by wineries are nicknamed “Chateau Cash Flow” by those in the business. These are the sweet, fruit wines NJ has become known (and criticized or simply dismissed for). But most wineries would love to have you try their varietals, where their blood, sweat, tears go. But, sadly, right now it’s a Catch- 22: most people are unaware that New Jersey even makes wine, let alone makes some great ones. Those who have traditionally come to the wineries are the drinkers who expect and seek out the easy fruit wines; those who are looking for more handcrafted varietals have no idea that they even exist in New Jersey. One of the experts I talked to related this story about Cream Ridge Winery: passing by one day, he saw a sign that said “try our Almond Berry wine”. Being a friend of one of the winery’s owners and wondering “What the hell is that?”, he went in to find out. The owner explained that, due to the economy and slow sales, they were 6 months away from being forced to close forever. The simple concoction of American grapes, raspberry juice and almond extract was a hit with current NJ winery-goers- such a hit, in fact it kept them in business and able to continue to make the wines that they want to make (which, he mentioned, were “very good “). Until more wine drinkers are aware that Jersey vintners have something better to offer, they are stuck here. Of course, our blog-readers are in-the-know and will be checking out these better wines, telling people about them, demanding their liquor stores carry them…. 🙂
  • Yes, Virginia, it is a fact: although there are a few differences, the “terroir” of the Outer Coastal Plain has many similarities to the Bordeaux region of France. Its proximity to the sea (salt air) and other bodies of water, soil composition, and climate make it just as promising a wine growing region. The real challenge for New Jersey wine makers will be to go through the same trial and error that Bordeaux wine makers have for centuries, in order to develop their own style of wines.
  • Chambourcin grapes seem to be the early front-runner for vineyards in New Jersey: they just seem to flourish here, and it may very well become the Garden State’s own unique wine variety. Many wineries are producing wonderful, medium-to-full bodied reds with them. It was expected that Cabernet Franc was to be the no-brainer Jersey grape, but it hasn’t flourished as expected (but that doesn’t mean that some wineries haven’t produced a few amazing winners with this rustic-flavored varietal).
Joseph Fiola and Jim Quarella, two great resources, and nice guys to boot.

At one point, someone who looked rather important arrived. It turned out that Douglas H. Fisher, New Jersey’s Secretary of Agriculture stopped by to say a few words and offer the Governor’s support to what New Jersey vintners are trying to accomplish. In his brief address, he mentioned the fact that more people than ever are consuming New Jersey’s wines. After he left, however, I couldn’t help but enjoy the comment made by one of the visiting Bordeaux experts that it’s “because of all the budget cuts.” Hee, hee- those smarmy French…

The tough-judging, but informative, panel of viticuluralists.

The best part of the symposium, however, was the ability to sample the best of what New Jersey wineries have to offer (without wasting all that gas traveling all over). Although they vary in style and character and I had my favorites, each and every one is worth a try. Now that the shipping laws have changed, you don’t have to travel to get them, either: just go online to the wineries’ websites and order. Here’s the list of what we sampled:


Amalthea

Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Europe III

Europe IV


Bellview

Cabernet Sauvignon

Petit Verdot 2007


Sharrott

Cabernet Franc 2008


Heritage Station

Merlot 2007


Tomasello

Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

One of the coolest experiences there, however, was courtesy of Joe Fiola. His friend, Dr. Franklin Selek, handed him a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that he bottled back in 1986, obviously not anything that was available for sale.He opened it on the spot, then generously offered a taste to all of us sitting nearby. I had never tasted anything that aged before and it was a real experience: a Cabernet Sauvignon that was smooth and bright, tannins totally mellowed out. Joe also pointed out that the “different” flavor we were detecting was due to the sassafras trees that grew near the grapes-wow. When I thanked him for being so generous as to share with us a rare gift that was meant for him personally, he casually said, “Well, sure. That’s what enjoying wine is all about.”

With an attitude like that, how can the New Jersey wine community fail?

-Lisa

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3 thoughts on “Wining, Dining, and Learning

  1. I wish I could have gone with you. Thanks for the wrap up. You mentioned Cream Ridge Winery. Wow, I didn't know they were so close to closing. I'm glad they were able to find a way to keep the cash flow going. I would highly recommend their Pinot Gris as one of our states really good wines. I would serve drink it often if I could, and now that it looks like its going to be easier to get wines in our state, I will.

  2. I am surprised at that fact as well, since I found Cream Ridge the best in fruit wines, and you know how I feel about Amalthea!They will be featured at my WAMPP event in Pennington!

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