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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the August 11, 2004

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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

quality."

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

appraisal business.

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

hills.

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

spot."

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

mildew."

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

grander room.

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

doing it."

Silver Decoy Winery, 610 Windsor-Perrineville Road,

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.

The Jersey Fresh Wine & Food Festival takes place on

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

609-588-0085.

Pat Tanner can be heard each Saturday on "Dining Today

with Pat Tanner" on MoneyTalk AM 1350 and over www.moneytalk1350.com

from 9 to 10 a.m.


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