Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the August 11, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Perfect Together: New Jersey Wine & Good Times
The partners of Silver Decoy Winery in Robbinsville had twin goals in
mind when they, their family members, and friends planted the first
three acres of Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc grapes in the spring of
2001. During a chat with these eight local-boys-made-good on a warm
Saturday at the vineyard, Mark Carduner put it this way: "We wanted to
make full-bodied wines of high enough quality to serve at our own
tables, and we wanted to have a good time doing it. Over the years,
when we stayed on Long Island or visited the Finger Lakes and
Virginia, we could see that regional wines can be of very high
About that quality criterion: Since the name Carduner has been
associated with wine retailing in central New Jersey for half a
century, that bar is set pretty high. Mark, Brian, and Scott Carduner,
all in their 40s, are three of the founders of Silver Decoy, which
became the 22nd winery in the state’s burgeoning wine industry when it
received its license late last year. (By the end of 2004, there are
expected to be 26.) Their grandfather established Carduner’s Fine
Wines and Spirits in East Windsor in 1954, and all their parents were
involved in the store as well.
Mark Carduner, a graduate of Washington & Lee (Class of 1983) owned
and managed the business for 25 years, until he sold it in 2000 to a
couple who renamed it Windsor Wines & Liquor. Brother Brian, a
graduate of Denison (Class of 1984), was chief financial officer over
that period, so it is fitting that he now calls himself "official bean
counter" for Silver Decoy. Cousin Scott managed bars and restaurants
after graduating from Cornell University’s School of Hotel
Administration in 1979, prior to establishing his own real estate
As if that weren’t wine expertise enough, partner Todd Abrahams was
lead sales associate at Carduner’s Fine Wines for a decade. At 37,
Abrahams is the youngest partner. He grew up in Cranbury and teaches
fifth grade in Monroe Township, but at the vineyard he is often found
operating the heavy equipment. All the partners, who are friends as
well as business associates if not blood relations, go by at least one
nickname, and Abrahams is "The Professor."
Add to the wine knowledge the skill sets of the other partners, who
work in agriculture and the building trades, and this group has it
covered. Jerry Watlington ("Big W") is a commercial in-house
electrician for a large processing facility. The son of Jerry
Watlington of the eponymous house painting company in Princeton
Junction, his is another surname well known in the area. He had worked
for his father for a short time, but says the pair "had more fun
drinking beer and wine together than working together." He was
initially reluctant to get involved in the winery venture, but
eventually became the eighth and final member of the team.
Perrine is another name long linked to central New Jersey. Will
Perrine and Richard McIntyre are co-owners of Design by Perrine, a
landscaping business founded by Perrine’s father. Silver Decoy’s
vineyards, production facility, and tasting room are located on the
site of Design by Perrine, a fact that allows Mark Carduner to joke
that "since Will and Richard owned the property, we dragged them in."
Will Perrine is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s School of
Agriculture. All the partners speak about their love of the outdoors
and almost all share a particular fondness for duck hunting, as their
winery’s name implies. Like the others, Richard McIntyre is a local
boy, having grown up in Princeton Junction.
Russell Forman is the senior member at 60 (all but he and Abrahams are
in their 40s) and goes by two nicknames: the Silver Fox and the
Raspberry Czar, the latter because he contributed the "recipe" for the
winery’s surprisingly crisp and fresh-tasting red raspberry wine, made
from five varieties grown on site. Like his father before him, Forman
is a building contractor with more than 30 years of experience. His
Silver Decoy partners credit Forman as the originator of the project
and say that he convinced them all, one by one, to join in his vision.
He also came up with the winery’s name.
What about the fun part of the endeavor? Spend just a little time with
this group of tight friends, and it becomes evident that is no lack of
good-hearted kibitzing. It helps, as Scott Carduner points out, that
they have all kept their day jobs. No one works full time at the
winery, but most weekends find the partners and their families –
wives, children, siblings, pets – working, playing, or just hanging
out. In warm weather, chicken legs will be grilling on the
commercial-sized grill; in winter when there is snow, kids and adults
alike take turns sledding down the property’s gracefully sloping
This spot, now shared by Design by Perrine and Silver Decoy Winery,
has for many years been the site of a grand party each July, for which
this group of extended families and friends has been known to roast a
whole pig for a luau and provide hayrides and even a moon bounce for
the kids. Last fall they all camped out overnight, complete with
bonfire and roasted marshmallows. "A big part of the venture is for
ourselves and our families. We grew up surrounded by this amazing
group of family friends, and we’re picking up on that," says Mark
Carduner. "We want our children’s children to be able to enjoy this
Silver Decoy Winery started out with 16 acres off sleepy
Windsor-Perrineville Road in Washington Township (which includes
Robbinsville). Each of the neatly manicured rows of trellised
grapevines is punctuated at the end by a beautiful rose bush. The
elevation is key to the growing of grapes, Mark Carduner explains,
"because the prevailing winds give the vines the opportunity to dry
out. New Jersey has lots of humidity, which fosters fungus and
After having the soil tested and consulting with experts at the ag
schools at Rutgers, Penn State, and Virginia Tech, as well as the
Garden State Winegrowers Association, the group bought their first
plants in the spring of 2001. "We bought Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc
because those were the only grapes available that late in the season,"
laughs Carduner. "We bought 1,500 plants – more, it turned out, than
we needed. Three hundred would have done nicely. At that point, we
knew it was more than a hobby."
"We brought in friends for a big planting party and planted it all in
one week," his cousin, Scott, continues. "We thought we were done.
Then came the trellising, the pruning, the irrigation system, the
spraying." At this point in the conversation the entire group is
shaking their heads and laughing.
Silver Decoy produced just over 100 gallons of Chardonnay and Cabernet
Franc that first year, and a tiny amount of Cabernet Sauvignon. Those
initial vines, as well as an additional three acres planted in 2002 of
Merlot, Chambourcin, Marechal Foch, and Traminette, have weathered two
exceptionally harsh New Jersey winters, yet the group has been greatly
encouraged by the results so far. "We’re pleased with our first
wines," Mark Carduner reports. "We’re seeing high quality wines from
two-year-old vines that have gone through two severe winters. Without
question, the quality is ahead of schedule."
The group concurs that their favorites so far are the reds, especially
the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet Franc, in
fact, sold out in less than two months. The group is also proud of the
awards it received at the 2004 New Jersey Wine Competition held in
April, where they entered three wines and came away with three bronze
medals, for their Cabernet Franc, red raspberry, and blueberry wines.
Blueberries are the only fruit they purchase, from a farm south of
Hammonton. With it they make a sweet dessert wine.
"We’ve been very well received," Carduner says. "The only complaint is
that we didn’t have enough red wine, so we simply signed up those
customers on our E-mail list and keep them informed of our release
dates. In that way we’re no different than small wineries in Napa
Valley." The Traminette, a white wine similar to Gewurztraminer, had
just sold out the previous week. "It’s very exciting," he says. "We’ll
continue to build inventory and varieties, but we won’t mess with
quality by buying inferior fruit. We’ll wait for our own."
A barrel tasting of the 2003 Cabernet Franc, which was expected to be
released at the end of July along with the same vintage of Chambourcin
and Chardonnay, displayed to this reporter’s palate a wonderful nose
and surprising smoothness. At $16 a bottle, the Cabernet Franc is
Silver Decoy’s most expensive wine; the Chardonnay is $10.
Some but not all of the grape wines spend time in oak. The 2003
Chardonnay resembles its many California cousins in its noticeable
toastiness. The group takes pride in what they call its "ripe honey
and citrus explosion on the back of the palate." Their first Merlot,
the 2003 vintage, is expected to be released soon, perhaps in time for
the Jersey Fresh Wine & Food Festival Saturday and Sunday, August 14
and 15, on the grounds of Mercer County Community College in West
Windsor. Silver Decoy Winery will be one of many New Jersey wineries
participating at this event.
The fledgling vineyard has survived brutal winters, uncommonly rainy
growing seasons, and invasions of hungry starlings and deer. "The deer
actually wait until the grapes are ripe, then they come in droves. We
lost almost all our Traminette until we put the fence up," Scott
Carduner says. But the biggest surprise for these start-up vintners is
the amount of effort entailed. Talking all at once, they say: "It is
much more time consuming. Much more of everything: the amount and
kinds of work, the quantity of research you need to look into, what
you have to learn, and certainly the amount of money."
Mark Carduner addresses that last point in particular: "It takes a lot
of money to be in this business. The fixed costs alone are so high.
It’s more expensive than we anticipated, but that’s one benefit of
having eight partners."
The group also knows they are not alone. They attend winemaking
seminars, go to annual trade shows such as Wineries Unlimited in
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and regularly attend meetings of the New
Jersey Winegrowers Association, where they say they have received a
warm welcome. "It’s been great," Scott Carduner says. "The other
winemakers recognize that New Jersey can become a wine tour
destination if there are more of us." His cousin Mark adds, "At the
monthly meetings we all share our successes and failures. There is
room for improvement, so the more experimentation on the viticulture
side, the better."
There have been reciprocal visits between the owners of Silver Decoy
and Mercer County’s other winery, Hopewell Valley Vineyard in
Pennington, owned by Italian-born Sergio Neri. "Jim Quarella at
Bellview Winery in Landisville has been extremely helpful to us," says
Mark Carduner. "Jim’s winery is most like ours. He has 25 acres, he
grows all his own grapes, his wines are estate bottled. We call Jim
when we have a question or problem, like ‘Hey Jim, fermentation has
stopped. What do we do now?’"
New Jersey’s wineries produce just over 1 million gallons of wine
annually, which means the state ranks fifth in the nation, after
California, Washington, New York, and Oregon. Last year more than 40
varieties of wine were produced on the 200-plus acres dedicated to
wineries and vineyards in the state.
The Silver Decoy partnership recently purchased an adjacent lot as a
buffer between their operation and surrounding residential areas. The
lot, which is in the Eilers Corner section of East Windsor, is
preserved farmland bought from the state at auction. "That gives us
another 95 acres to play with," says Scott Carduner with a smile. The
group reports no problems with local ordinances or officials and, in
fact, the deputy mayor of Washington Township performed two wedding
ceremonies at the winery last year.
In 2003 Silver Decoy added small plots of Pinot Gris and Sangiovese,
as well as test plots of Syrah, Viognier, and Pinot Blanc grapes. At
this point they have close to 10 varieties growing, and a couple of
clones of each, just to see what grows best. "This spring has been
spectacular for grape vines. Dry is good, since we have drip
irrigation," says Mark Carduner, as he watches his brother Brian
kicking up dust out in the field on the brand new tractor the group
recently purchased, along with a grape destemmer, stainless steel
tanks, and barrels made from new American oak. These can be found
inside their production building, which the partners converted from an
existing structure of Design by Perrine.
The various members did the design work and much of the manual labor
on their facility themselves, including laying the large concrete
apron outside. Inside they bottle six bottles of wine at a time. Each
is hand labeled with labels featuring a drawing of a pintail duck,
which these avid duck hunters made sure is an accurate rendition.
Another building holds a modest tasting room – complete with beautiful
taxidermied ducks – but construction is about to start on a larger and
After turning out 100 gallons of wine their first year, Silver Decoy
expects to produce 10 times that much – between 500 and 600 cases of
wine – from the 2003 harvest, just being released, and to double that
production with the fruit currently growing on the vine. "But,"
cautions Mark Carduner, "we must also continue to have a good time
Robbinsville. 609-448-0008. Website: www.silverdecoywinery.com.
Tasting room is open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., or by
appointment during the week.
Saturday and Sunday, August 14 and 15, from noon to 5 p.m. at Mercer
County Community College in West Windsor. Tickets cost $20. Call
with Pat Tanner" on MoneyTalk AM 1350 and over www.moneytalk1350.com
from 9 to 10 a.m.
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