Bart Jackson, a U.S. 1 contributing writer since 1987, has written “The Garden State Wineries Guide,” recently released by the Wine Appreciation Guild of San Francisco. Profiling all the state’s 36 wineries, with a history, description of the vintages, driving directions, and events calendar, the book helps readers hit the wine trail and discover new wines and new corners of the state. The “Garden State Wineries Guide” is available in most bookstores and online at www.BartsBooks.com. He appears Sunday, July 10, noon to 4 p.m., at Hopewell Valley Vineyards in Pennington.
It was an evening of high hopes and high cynicism. In October, 2008, 200 of the region’s most highly touted oenophilic experts had gathered at Amalthea Cellars in Atco, NJ, to witness what some called the New Jersey presumption: not only had the Garden State had the gall to hold up its vintages against the best of France and California in a blind tasting, they were titling it “The Judgment of Paris,” imitating the name of the historic blind tasting in 1976, when California wines beat out the best wines of France. In fact, George Taber, the then-Time Magazine reporter who had made the 1976 upset in France public, had come to see if a repeat might be expected.
As a journalist who has covered New Jersey wines since 1987 (my first assignment was for U.S. 1) I also had been invited down to this Outer Coastal Plains vineyard, deep in the New Jersey pinelands. The sandy soil, the warm coastal breezes, and the long frost-free season make it an excellent climate for both vines and humankind. As twilight turned to dark and the last votes were tallied, the hooded bottles were uncovered. The Garden State wines had triumphed handsomely, taking the top honors. The cynics had been routed. Another Bottle Shock had occurred.
For me, this test, and others that followed, sparked my writing the “Garden State Wineries Guide.” Here in New Jersey we laid claim to world class competitive wines, and nobody seemed to be taking note of it. My article, “New Jersey Wines — We’ve Captured the Palates, Can We Capture the Shelves?” had received a resounding “no” from liquor store owners. Fearing previous decades of bad press, they were loathe to yield shelf space to wines of their own state.
Thus, I thought, if one could not bring the wines to the people, why not lure the people to the wines? Visiting the winery, walking down the rows of grapes and among the barrels, glass in hand, and discussing the product with the vintner who has made it — now that’s the best way to experience wine. And many wine lovers were beginning to agree.
Thousands, from Delaware to Connecticut, are flocking to Garden State wineries every weekend. Two years after New Jersey’s “The Judgment of Paris,” an estimated 45,000 wine lovers jammed into Allaire State Park in Farmingdale in September, 2010, within the course of one weekend to sample the offerings from 25 of New Jersey’s 36 wineries at the Jazz It Up Food and Wine Festival (this year’s festival takes place Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4). It was an oenophilic frenzy. And, 45,000 wine lovers, French or Garden Staters, can’t be wrong.
Though the ways of wine may be steeped in aged tradition, the wine loving public stands ever poised to snatch up and celebrate a new taste, no matter how unlikely the region. In 2004, when my wife, Lorraine, and I were climbing the Andes, our mule skinner guide led us into the foothills of Mendosa, home of Argentina’s best wines since the 16th century. Here we discovered a startlingly full-bodied, long-flavored Malbec. Within two years, from this “nowhere backwater” of the wine world, importers globally began filling their shelves with Malbec vintages.
We had witnessed similar upstart popularity explosions when exploring the South Island of New Zealand, and South Africa’s Karoo. Both proffered wines that rivaled anything we had enjoyed in France’s Loire Valley. Now, without a doubt, in my opinion, New Jersey stands next on the wine lovers’ surprise discovery list.
Not only is New Jersey the sixth largest producer of wine in the nation, we rank as number one in wine imbibing per capita. We love the grape, and increasingly, we love it at home. That Argentinean Malbec that store owners are so proudly importing is finding a great popular rival. Eight Garden State vineyards also produce a Malbec that equals or trumps anything I’ve tasted from below the equator.
Likewise, while the white wine market stands awash in California’s Chardonnays, most of these are, as I term it, oaked to a pucker. The taste is less of the fruit and more of the barrel that held it. But come to Garden State wineries, and you will learn the true taste of this delightfully smooth grape, perhaps for the first time.
Then, there is New Jersey’s Cabernet Franc. While New Jersey explodes with too many varieties to have one signature grape, this rich, dark full tasting cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon flourishes uniquely in all our state’s vinicultural regions. Some vineyards blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in highly guarded recipes; others offer its spicy flavors alone. Either way it is a New Jersey wine taste not to be missed. And for hobby wine growers, like myself, it is easily grown.
Those who cast disparaging references to the Garden State’s fruit wines, i.e., sweeter wines, should realize that they stand in a markedly slim minority. Vintners across the world whom I meet assure me time and again that the average individual coming into a winery asks, “What have you got that’s sweet?” Satisfying this global wine sweet tooth leads California to pump out its Zinfandels; Germany, its Rieslings; Italy, its Chiantis; and the Garden State its many fruit wines. While winemakers lovingly labor to create those award-winning fine wines — the Cabernets, Merlots, and Chardonnays — they admit that their sweeter offerings keep them fiscally afloat.
Launching my “Garden State Wineries Guide” explorations proved a profound education. Yes, I had produced our “Chateau Bonne Chance” wines from our hobby vineyard at home in Cranbury, and yes, it could claim to be the finest (if only) wine in Cranbury. But now my wife and I were stepping into the realm of the real pros. We began our research close by. Some wineries, like Silver Decoy in East Windsor, Hopewell Valley Vineyards, and Cream Ridge Winery, we could reach on our tandem bicycle. Others, even our GPS couldn’t locate. I would interview the owners, taste their favorite vintages, and tour the pressing room and vineyard, with the goal of capturing each winery’s unique flavor, literal and figurative. Lorraine followed, capturing the winery’s essence in photographs.
Winemakers, I soon learned, are a tough, independent breed, used to hard labor and intolerant of idleness in any form. Almost all the work — the pruning, the incessant leaf pulling to let in the sun, and the weeding, spraying, and harvesting — is done by hand, vine by vine, row by endless row. The hands that pour you a tasting of their labors are hard and calloused.
Some, like Ray Johnson and Randy Shea’s Laurita winery in New Egypt, are platforms for elegance, with the winery’s two enormous blended barns housing imported bars, a fromagerie, vast patios, and an attached spa. Others, like Ollie Tomasello’s Plagido’s Winery in Hammonton or Al Natali’s Natali Vineyards in Cape May, provide merely a few wooden chairs overlooking the vineyard. Here one may sit, hold a glass, gaze down the long rows of laden vines, while eyes and mind are drawn to the distant source of the Outer Coastal breeze drying the grapes.
But don’t let your eyes prejudice your palate. When we found Sylvin Farms Winery in Egg Harbor Township, we entered its wooded lot, sprawling with thick pines and enough rusting farm machinery to excite any antiques dealer. The tasting room was a tight nook with a bar, consisting of two collapsing barrels spanned by a door. But the immensely knowledgeable Frank Salek’s fabulously narrated tales served with his incomparable Cabernets and Merlots reward all visitors.
Recently, New Jersey wineries have come under legal attack from the major, well-lobbied, giant liquor distributors. New Jersey’s wineries’ right to sell their wine at their own wineries may be taken away from them by the Federal Court and state legislature, which could force some wineries into foreclosure.
The state laws governing wine sales were deemed unconstitutional in December, 2010, placing the decision in the hands of a U.S. District court judge, who before ruling, turned the decision opportunity back to the state legislature.
On Monday, June 27, I found myself in Trenton’s State House Annex at a press conference with the winemakers trying to defend themselves. Finally, one reporter asked in all ignorance, “Let’s be honest, is any of New Jersey’s wine any good?”
I was a lit fuse. Standing up amid the crowd of dignitaries, I strode to the front of the room declaring that I would like to answer that question. Whether it was my words or passion, I must have been convincing. Folks applauded and even former Governor Florio praised me.
On Wednesday, June 29, the New Jersey State Senate passed, 25 to 10, bill S2782, which would have allowed the wineries to both ship their wine, and to keep selling their wine at their wineries and festivals. Unfortunately, the Assembly, did not vote on the companion bill A2782 and thus, if no solution is worked out, New Jersey wineries may soon be able to make wine but not sell it anywhere. For most of the state’s wineries, selling at their own tasting room and festivals comprises 100 percent of their income. It would be a shame to lose this $1.2 billion industry and the thousands of jobs that go with it.
“If this goes through, it will shut us down. We will have no legal place to sell the wine we make. We’ll have to close our doors,” says Scott Gares of Old York Cellars in Ringoes.
More optimistically, Charlie Tomasello, owner of Tomasello Winery in Hammonton, who has been dealing with this issue from the beginning and was on Governor Christie’s transition team says: “I am very pleased by the senate’s vote yesterday. The sky has not fallen yet, and I am sure that the politicians will make the right moves to save our industry.”
And that is the way of our Garden State’s wines. The wines, the farms, and the people who run them are an experience to behold. I encourage you to make this pilgrimage.
Book Signing, Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington. Sunday, July 10, noon to 4 p.m. Bart Jackson, a contributing writer to U.S. 1 Newspaper and author of “The Garden State Wineries Guide,” signs copies of his book, which profiles all of New Jersey’s wineries. This visit is part of the “Find Bart” series, so if you see a man wearing a wine-stained shirt saying, “Where in the Wine World Is Bart?” and you are the first to tap him on the shoulder, you’ll win a wine-gift basket. For Jackson’s blog, visit www.njwineriesandvineyards.blogspot.com. 609-737-4465 or www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com.