The scene: a beautiful day in New Jersey. Hundreds of people are relaxing in the sun. Some sit on blankets, others on portable chairs; some are under umbrellas, others under pop-up tents decorated with sports team logos or Greek letters. Determined toddlers toddle among the crowd, eluding their silver-haired grandparents. Over here someone is setting up a game of cornhole. Over there teens toss a frisbee back and forth.

In the shade by the bar groups of people sit around tables, bottles of wine on ice in their midst. Some are watching and listening as the Williamsboy (Matthew-Billy Williams), a Burlington County-based musician, plays guitar and sings his original compositions. It’s 80 degrees out, but the vibe is chill as chill can be. When the clock strikes three people are still streaming in, arms full of gear, as cars continue to pull into the lot.

Is this the Jersey shore? No, it’s Working Dog Winery, straddling the border of East Windsor and Robbinsville a fraction of a mile from the New Jersey Turnpike. But on warm weather weekends, one could be forgiven for confusing it with the beach. In place of sand there is a stretch of green grass where people (and pets) are welcome to lounge; out beyond the edge of the crowd, instead of the pounding surf of the Atlantic, there are rows and rows of vines. The vines that are bare in April will be lush with fruit and leaf by the middle of summer. Beachgoers can swim in the ocean, and winery guests are welcome to walk through the vineyard.

Working Dog is a vineyard with 20 acres of grapes, a successful business to be sure. But it has become much more than that over the years, something akin to a public park. A social space where friends and family gather to get away from it all, where strangers meet and, brought together by a common interest — wine — often become friends.

Scenes like this one unfold every weekend throughout the state as more and more wineries, breweries, and distilleries open and develop fervent followings. There are 47 wineries in the Garden State Wine Growers Association today. Around the turn of the century there were 10.

Why the growth? A better question is, why has it taken until now? The 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, but state lawmakers were unhappy with the repeal. They crafted rules so restrictive that the local production of alcohol and alcoholic beverages was effectively banned for generations.

It is only in the past few decades, and particularly in the last decade, that legislators in New Jersey have relaxed these laws and allowed small businesses to blossom. First came the New Jersey Farm Winery Act, in 1981, which lifted restrictions on how many wineries there could be. Then in 2012 Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill permitting breweries to sell pints for onsite consumption — a big factor in the recent brewery boom that has seen the Jersey brewery count triple in five years.

In 2013 Christie signed a craft distillery law lowering the cost of a distillery license from $12,500 per year to $938, bringing it in line with the cost of a farm winery license. In the five years since New Jersey has seen 21 new distilleries open, giving the state a grand total of 22. (Brewery license fees can be as low as $1,000 a year.)

And whether we’re talking winery, brewery, or distillery, all tend to benefit from the rapid cultivation of a loyal customer base to keep them going. Some do little or no marketing, selling anywhere from some to all of their inventory right at the source. Many have been able to count on word of mouth and consumer curiosity to drive people to them. Or perhaps it’s just that we have been really thirsty.

#b#On the Wine Trail: Working Dog Winery#/b#

Working Dog Winery was started by a group of five friends as Silver Decoy Winery in 2001. Seventeen years and one name change on, all five partners are still involved. (The name change came about in 2013 because of a trademark dispute with Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Winery, which has been known to take legal aim at other duck-themed wineries.)

Todd Abrahms, Brian Carduner, Mark Carduner, Russell Forman, and Jerry Watlington have literally grown the venture from a hope and a prayer into a thriving business, capable of attracting 500 people to spend a lazy afternoon buying and drinking wine.

The winery is open to the public for just 19 hours a week — on Fridays from 1 to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Yet it has proven to be so successful that it has recently pulled back from selling bottles to retail clients. Working Dog is prepared to sell its 2018 inventory entirely from the winery, by the bottle, by the glass, and in tastings. There are currently 15 varieties available to taste or purchase, including reds such as chambourcin and pointer, whites such as traminette, and sweet wines such as sunrise blush and blueberry.

Winemaker Mark Carduner and his staff have steadily added vines over the years to meet growing demand. For this year they have added two more acres of chardonnay and merlot vines.

“We can’t grow enough grapes for the customers we (already) have,” says Carduner, 56. “We used to have a great relationship with Wegman’s and other retailers, but until we grow more grapes we’ve had to leave the retail market entirely just to be open three days a week. That puts us exactly at that balance point where we aren’t running out, but we don’t have too much.”

Working Dog gets a yearly yield of around 60 tons of grapes from its 20 acres of vines in Robbinsville and East Windsor. That should result in around 3,500 cases of estate-grown wine for the year. They also sell between 500 to 1,000 cases of wine made with fruit grown elsewhere in the state. For instance, the blueberries used in Working Dog’s blueberry wine come from Hammonton, as do the Cayuga grapes used in their Ugly Duckling White and Sunrise Blush wines.

Carduner believes New Jersey has the best wine customers in the country. “Our customers not only spend more per bottle than in any other state, they frankly know the most about wine. They really have given us the opportunity to become a world-class winery in less than two decades.”

While the weather was one reason Working Dog was busy on the first hot day of the spring, the release of a new wine that weekend was another. Their dry rose, called Equinox, is a major lure for Working Dog’s loyal customers. While most Working Dog wines are available year round, Carduner expects 2017 Equinox to be gone by the end of June.

“What a great wine as we enter summer — bright, crisp, beautiful salmon color to it,” he says. “Over half of New Jersey wineries are making a dry rose. They’ve done an amazing job of entering that market.”

You could say that Carduner and his brother Brian knew a little bit about the wine business before becoming vintners. The Carduner family owned two liquor stores in the East Windsor area until 2000, and the brothers worked at the stores with their father, Robert, from the time they finished college in the early 1980s until the businesses were sold. The brothers grew up in East Windsor and attended Hightstown schools. Both live by the Jersey Shore today.

As Working Dog’s winemaker, Carduner calls all the shots. Chief among his responsibilities is working with field staff to ensure that the vines and their fruit get into optimum condition and stay there. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done by hand to get a grapevine to a position it needs to be to get the grapes properly ripened,” he says.

He decides what to grow and where, and when the grapes will be picked. Workers usually start picking the grapes in September, and the winemaking process continues until the end of December.

Everything is made using purpose-built stainless steel equipment. “It’s an almost antiseptic process,” Carduner says. “That’s why wine is such a higher quality product than 50 years ago. The equipment that’s available allows us to handle fermentation with a lot more care.”

Carduner says the evolution of the winemaking process is change you can taste. “If you had a bottle of wine today and a bottle from 50 years ago, you would notice that wines today are cleaner, brighter, and fresher tasting,” he says.

As is the case for many New Jersey wine producers, Carduner and the other partners are evangelists for their products. Carduner will tell anyone who will listen that the way they make wine at Working Dog Winery is no different from the way they make it in Napa Valley, Bordeaux, or Tuscany.

“There are certain standards that we can all follow. I can go to a trade show and look at new barrels and new fermenters and new great technology. It’s all at my fingertips,” he says. “But also at that very same conference I can have one-on-one discussions with world-class winemakers and chemists from all over the world. That’s why you can buy great wine from every area of the world at this point. The consumer has never had it better.”

Which is not to say that Jersey winemakers have had it easy. Carduner says that when Working Dog was starting up, few people in New Jersey had any meaningful experience growing Vitis vinifera, the species of grape from which the most famous wine varieties are made. Renault Winery in Egg Harbor and Tomasello Winery in Hammonton have been open since Prohibition ended in 1933; most of the rest have been around for less than 30 years. “There wasn’t a lot of history,” he says.

One reason that Working Dog sells so many different types of wine is because in the early days no one could say for sure what grapes they ought to be planting. “We just started planting things based on geology and average temperatures and frankly we guesstimated what would thrive.”

It took three years for the plants to produce wineworthy grapes. In the years since, Carduner says, they have found that chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc, and pinot gris are their best bets. “Those are the varieties our customers love, and they’re the things we’re making our best wine from,” he says.

The long wait for good grapes is not unusual. Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes planted its first vines in 1987 and didn’t have wine for sale until 1993.

Carduner adds that New Jersey winemaking continues to evolve today. “We’re not done innovating,” he says. “All of us in New Jersey, we’re all doing the same thing — trying to figure out what will make the best wine for consumers.”

To that end Working Dog is a member of the Winemakers Co-op, along with three other New Jersey wineries: Beneduce Vineyards of Pittstown, Heritage Vineyards of Mullica Hill, and Unionville Vineyards. The mission of the Winemakers Co-op is to raise the profile of Jersey-made wines throughout the state, the country, and the world. And it’s working. Working Dog and other state wineries are garnering attention from national wine periodicals on a more frequent basis. In May Working Dog wine was featured in Wine Enthusiast, a publication with 80,000 subscribers.

Carduner sees this as a sign of growing acceptance of the quality of the product that he and his fellow winemakers are making. “We’ve had tastings we’ve done where we had representatives from Wine Spectator, from Wine Advocate. Wine Advocate is a newsletter with unbelievable integrity and we’ve scored very high. We’re just scratching the surface of how high quality a wine we can make,” he says.

There’s nothing unusual about American winemakers striving for recognition in the marketplace. In 1976, the California wine industry got a major boost from an event that has become known as the “Judgment of Paris,” a competition hosted by a British wine merchant in which French judges did a blind tasting of wines from California and France. The judges named California wines as winners in that competition, and Napa Valley has been thriving ever since.

In June, 2012, a group of professors from Princeton and New York Universities, along with wine writer George Taber, who had been at the Paris tasting, hosted the “Judgment of Princeton,” a blind tasting pitting New Jersey against Bordeaux and Burgundy instead of California. The tasting coincided with a conference of the American Association of Wine Economists and was held at Princeton University.

While a Burgundy white did score best with the tasters, red and white wines from Working Dog, Unionville, Heritage, and others from New Jersey scored as well or better than several French wines in the competition.

“It showed the world and regionally just how good wine in New Jersey can be. For us it was a real first step,” Carduner says.

Carduner says people shouldn’t be all that surprised. After all, many New Jersey wineries have sandy loam and gravel soils similar to those that Bordeaux wines are grown in. “We have the same rainfall and heat units as Bordeaux,” he says. “They’ve shown over 300 years that they can make great wine there. Why can’t we do the same? It’s just that our legislature was not supportive of the wine industry, and we were left on the sideline. We’re just starting to realize our potential in terms of grape growing.”

Working Dog Winery, 610 Windsor Perrineville Road, Robbinsville. Open Fridays, 2 to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. 609-371-6000. www.work­ing­dogwinerynj.com

Screamin’ Hill:

What’s Brewing?

Think back to the sunny day at the winery. Now transport your mind six-and-a-half miles southeast to Screamin’ Hill Brewing Company, where customers are soaking up the sun as they sip up the suds.

Some of them even spent an hour that morning doing yoga in the shadow of the brewery, led by Pam Trembow of Yoga 4 Peace. Now they are sitting together in Adirondack chairs and around rustic picnic tables or standing in the shade around large barrels that double as tables, enjoying a farm-to-table experience unlike almost any other.

It was scarcely three years ago that Screamin’ Hill started pouring pints in Cream Ridge. Starting up the business was a dream come true for a group of friends who met as Allentown High School students in the 1990s. Brett Bullock, Ryan Cole, and Patrick Jones opened the state’s first, and to date only, farm brewery at Bullock Farms, the sixth-generation farm where Bullock grew up.

They got the idea to open back in 2012, when the New Jersey Legislature was contemplating a farm brewery bill. That never went anywhere, but the Screamin’ Hill partners, all now in their late 30s, went forward with their plans anyway. With 12 years of homebrewing experience under their belts, the buddies set up a professional brewing system in a small building on the farm and began production.

On their first day of business in summer, 2015, they had three beers on tap: a chocolate cinnamon porter, a habanero ale, and a wheat ale. The partners stood behind the handmade bar of their tasting room and chatted with customers who had come to see them. Bullock says 100 cars rolled up that first day, and things really haven’t slowed down since.

Like Working Dog Winery, Screamin’ Hill makes it all happen in very limited hours. They are open to the public only on Fridays from 3 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. Even so, and selling beer only at the brewery, they have vastly increased the amount of beer they make to handle demand, going from three taps to nine. Last year they added an oak foeder, a special kind of brewing vessel used for funky farmhouse saisons (fruity pale ales), and in March they added two new fermenters.

“We started this as a hobby. We thought it would be fun,” Bullock says. “It’s still kind of unreal to have this on the farm. It’s amazing, and we feel super lucky to have such loyal local customers. It’s become the community’s place. People come from around the area just to meet here and have a beer.”

Bullock Farms has been owned and operated by the Bullock family since 1860. The brewery is situated on the farm property but run as an independent business. Screamin’ Hill does take advantage of its surroundings in terms of brewing ingredients, however.

Traditionally beer has four ingredients: water, malted grain (usually barley but sometimes wheat or rye), hops, and yeast. Screamin’ Hill gets all of its (well) water, most of its grain, and some of its hops from the farm property. The farm already grew wheat and rye before the brewery got started. Since the opening Bullock Farms has planted 15 acres of barley to be used for brewing. They send the grain away to a malthouse in Pennsylvania to prepare it for brewing.

Bullock says there are challenges inherent in growing their own grain that don’t exist for brewers who buy from malt purveyors. “Commercially available malt is easier for yeast to convert into sugar,” he says. “With ours it is what it is — small batch equals variability. Our malthouse produces really tasty malt, but the brewing process evolves along with the ingredients. From 2016 to 2017 there was a big change, and we had to brew differently. This year it will probably be the same thing.”

Bullock Farms also grows many of the crops the brewers use for adjunct ingredients — pumpkins for their pumpkin ale, habaneros for their habanero ale, and tomatoes for their heirloom ale, to name a few. Hops are unlike other crops and notoriously difficult to grow, but Bullock Farms does have an experimental plot of seven hops varieties, some of which find their way into Screamin’ Hill beers.

“There are not many places where you can drink a beer and see the ingredients growing right in front of you,” says Cole, who grew up in Millstone.

Customers can, after taking a brief tour of the tiny brewery, buy beer by the pint or flight to drink on site. A flight is for sampling: a set of four five-ounce glasses giving a drinker a chance to try a number of different beers at one time. A recent tap list included habanero ale, a wheat ale, a vanilla stout, an oatmeal stout, an amber ale, a pale ale, and an India pale ale.

Like most breweries, Screamin’ Hill also sells 32 and 64-ounce growlers of beer for off-site consumption, and has recently begun selling four-packs of cans of their Desperado IPA in the tasting room as well. They have also begun distributing their beer to retail clients. As of now most are along the shore, with the closest being Surf Taco in Jackson.

Screamin’ Hill hosts private events at the brewery during hours that it is normally closed. They have done birthday parties, anniversary parties, corporate retreats, and more. They don’t have live music or entertainment, but every second Saturday of the month from April to October, $15 gets you a one-hour yoga session plus a pint or flight of Screamin’ Hill beer afterward. Proceeds benefit the volunteer auxiliary of the Ocean County Animal Shelter.

Gregg Marantz, 38, manages the tasting room and events for the brewery. He says yoga at the brewery was Trembow’s idea.

“It started off with about 15 people, doing yoga right in front of the farm,” Marantz says. “It’s designed for everyone from beginner to expert. Now sometimes we get as many as 40 people.”

Yoga and beer might sound strange to some people but not to Marantz. “This is a place people come to relax,” he says. “You see people walking in and a lot of their stress just melts away. So many awesome relationships have been built here. Total strangers get to know each other and become friends. It’s just a nice social atmosphere.”

Nor is Screamin’ Hill the only brewery in the area to combine beer and exercise. River Horse Brewery in Ewing, for instance, has a regular running club.

Marantz says there is no one person who personifies the Screamin’ Hill customer. “We see people everywhere from ages 21 to 90,” he says. “Some people come here in a shirt and tie. Retired couples. People come in and get a beer and go out and sit in the chairs. Some of them know each other and some of them are new, and they are just welcomed in.”

Despite the high demand for his product, Bullock says he and his partners have no intention of growing into a large concern. “We don’t want to grow too fast, you see places that do that go out of business,” he says. “We want everything to go while it’s fresh. We want the business to be local.”

Screamin’ Hill Brewing Company, 83 Emley’s Hill Road, Cream Ridge. Open Fridays, 3 to 8 p.m., and Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. 609-401-2025. www.screaminhill.com

#b#Skunktown Distillery: In Search of Spirits#/b#

Skunktown Distillery was conceived one night when a couple of friends were sitting around a fire, so Caine Fowler wants the Skunktown experience to harken back to that fateful day.

Alas, Skunktown Distillery, in an industrial park off Minneakoning Road in Raritan Township, doesn’t have any outdoor space, so distillery partners Fowler and Paul Hyatt have made do by re-creating the firepit experience in the distillery’s tasting room.

“We have it set up like a backyard,” Fowler says. “People can sit there, listen to music, and have drinks. We’re all neighbors, so let’s hang out and have a drink together, get to know each other.”

Fowler, 40, and Hyatt, 50, hail from Sergeantsville, a small community in Delaware Township, Hunterdon County, once known as Skunktown. “We were both sitting around the firepit one night drinking a little moonshine and decided to take on the hobby of figuring out how to make liquor,” Fowler says. “We did that for a while, and when we started to make a decent product we went through the process of getting legal.”

They opened in December, 2016, with four products: potato vodka, spicy pepper vodka, white rum, and oaked rum, which is soaked on charred oak chips “and drinks a lot like a whiskey,” Fowler says. Since then they have produced a number of other spirits, including golden gin, silver rum, rye whiskey, their popular apple pie moonshine and peach shine, and more recently a gin made with rooibos tea, bright red and currently available only at the distillery.

As much as possible, Fowler says, they use New Jersey ingredients in their products. For Skunktown’s Peach Shine, he uses end-of-season fruit from Valley Crest Farms in Lebanon. “They’re just about to turn, and the farm can’t use them anymore,” he says. “We buy them at a discounted price, they make money, and we make a good product out of something that probably would have gone to waste.” To make vodka, Skunktown gets potatoes from Hunterdon County-area farm stands on weekends, making enough deals in season to get them through an entire year.

Skunktown Distillery is another destination that keeps limited hours. It is open Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 8 p.m. Even so, Fowler says they see between 40 and 75 patrons on a typical Friday and 100 to 125 every Saturday. Between retail store sales and the 10 hours a week the distillery is open to the public, they struggle to keep up with demand, Fowler says.

Skunktown offers tours as well as $10 flights of three half-ounce pours to introduce people to their spirits. Fowler says nearly everyone tries at least one flight on their initial visit. After that some go for a second flight to try more of the spirits, and some try mixed drinks made with Skunktown liquor, such as the Skunktown Mule, which is made with Apple Pie Moonshine, ginger beer, and a lime wedge. Also popular, especially in summer, is the Island Volcano, made with spicy vodka, coconut water, and olives.

Very soon Skunktown plans to have “a brand new product, a totally different experience. Alcohol like you’ve never heard before. Different flavors, different ways to even consume alcohol,” Fowler says.

Business has been good since the day Skunktown opened its doors. The distillery has developed a loyal local following of customers who visit every weekend. “Mostly people who will appreciate a good drink that’s made locally, with ingredients that are grown locally,” Fowler says.

Skunktown Distillery, 12 Minneakoning Road, 110B, Flemington. Open Fridays, 5 to 9 p.m., and Saturdays, 2 to 8 p.m. 908-824-7754. www.skunktowndistillery.com

#b#The Business of Booze#/b#

Large-scale brewing and winemaking companies have long sought to keep restrictive alcohol laws in place in every state. Such laws give rich producers a way to maintain or even strengthen their competitive advantages.

When the craft movements started in wine and beer, the worry professed by industry giants was that these new businesses might someday grow to where they rivaled the established companies in size. And many craft producers have realized significant growth in recent years, though all are still dwarfed by international conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch.

Most states have, like New Jersey, softened their ’30s-era liquor laws in recent times, and craft beer, wine, and spirits movements are in high gear throughout the U.S. The result has been less that these startups are competing with Bud or Ernest and Julio Gallo, and more that they are competing with one another. Few open today with the idea that they will someday be on the shelves in 37 states or expect that this will ever make them rich.

Many are content to make a living, if they can even reach that level. Many continue to work full-time jobs at the same time they are reaching for the stars with their wineries, breweries, and distilleries. All of the partners in Working Dog Winery have other jobs to sustain them. Working Dog is much more than a hobby, Mark Carduner says, and he often works 40 hours a week at it and more. But it doesn’t pay for the kids’ college tuitions.

For entrepreneurs, the dream of ever attaining global significance in beer, wine, or spirits may be a bubble that has burst. Yet the end result, for consumers at least, appears to be overwhelmingly positive.

Focus has turned inward, shining now on the people these businesses know they can serve. For all that a winemaker or brewer might daydream about someday being the toast of Bordeaux or Belgium, there are communities right here who want to have something special to call their own, who are willing to be won over. Who are being won over right now, every day and every weekend, who wonder why they would even go to the grocery store to get wine when they’ve got great wine practically in their backyard.

The local focus also has would-be competitors looking for more and more ways to work together. Wineries have long attracted visitors with organized multistop bus tours and Valentine’s Day “wine trails.” Nowadays these partnerships transcend alcohol type. Skunktown’s distillery is in the same industrial park as popular Conclave Brewing and just minutes from Lone Eagle Brewing in Flemington. They know they have customer overlap, which is why they are at work looking for products they can produce together.

Perhaps the most interesting iteration of this cooperative spirit is at Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, where Sourland Mountain Spirits, Troon Brewing Company, and the award-winning Brick Farm Tavern restaurant all share a common site. The beer and spirits are on tap at the restaurant, and visitors can stop in to tour Sourland Mountain and Troon in a single visit.

Mark Carduner is a fan of Screamin’ Hill and appreciates the ways in which the brewery and the winery share DNA. Both appeal to people who love things that are both local and natural.

The farm-to-table movement is marrying summer Jersey produce and fresh fish caught in Jersey waters with local beer and local wine, Carduner says. “Our customers, their customers, it’s a different group of people, but in a way it’s the same group of people, you know? I go to Screamin’ Hill,” he says. “I love those guys.”

Carduner doesn’t see the fascination with local going away anytime soon. “This next generation? My kids are all in their late 20s, early 30s, and people in that age bracket are doing everything they can to keep in touch with the local agricultural scene. I think it’s really exciting. It’s really important to their lifestyle.”

And that is why Working Dog continues to work on the customer experience. The winery has seen how powerful the local community can be and is banking on those ties only getting stronger.

“When you’re walking through the crowd, you’re trying to make sure everyone’s enjoying themselves,” he says. “We’re super child-friendly, but it’s important that our customers don’t take that too far. We love having dogs on site, but they have to be leashed. They have to be friendly. I think it’s important that people are respectful of one another.”

He and his staff are always working on the way they present their wines in the tasting room. They have added more shade to help customers deal with the oppressive heat of summer. They routinely bring in live entertainment and food trucks to boost the party atmosphere. They know that people have heard that Napa or even Long Island wines are superior. All they want is the opportunity to convince you that New Jersey wines are on that level.

Based by the crowds turning up every weekend at Working Dog, at Screamin’ Hill, at Skunktown Distillery, the message is getting through.

Carduner says he can easily imagine Working Dog having double the land under cultivation 10 years from now. “We keep adding grapes out of necessity because of how many people have found us,” he says.

He also believes that as New Jersey wine gains more of a foothold in the marketplace, more farmers will plant grapes to help support the industry — even those who don’t intend to open up wineries of their own. “If we had a grape farm around us to provide grapes I could purchase, I could work with that farmer to grow better grapes. That’s what they have California and in Washington State. That’s what we’ll need in New Jersey to help our industry grow much faster.”

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