Within moments of shaking hands, Cape May Winery & Vineyard owner Toby Craig asked about the extent of my New Jersey wine exposure. Limited but some, was the reply. “Don’t hold it against us,” he replied with Seinfeldian timing and a wry smile.
Craig and his winemaker, Darren Hesington, laugh a lot. In the margin-sensitive wine business, you might expect it to be de rigeur behavior though, in this case, it hardly seemed like an effort to dim the painful realities of cold climate grape growing. Craig and Hesington appear to genuinely revel in their rarified position – the ability to share pleasure and comfort with their customers – and, to their significant satisfaction, they’re met by demand that consistently outpaces their labors.
Historically, purchasing Garden State wines wasn’t entirely dissimilar to, say, rooting for the Chicago Cubs. The output was professional and well-intentioned but surrounded by disappointment. The occasional bright spot was, in short order, extinguished by inconsistent support. A bad experience was just around the bend.
In case you hadn’t heard, the cask is turning in the Jersey, and the folks at Cape May Winery are quick to acknowledge the better works of their peers – producers like Alba Winery, Unionville Vineyards and Laurita Winery who have begun to fill the gap.
Craig and Hesington claim that the path to achievement is straightforward: Grow good fruit, make wine that’s true to the vineyard, and success will follow. Of course, climate is key. Breaking even doesn’t come easily, though, according to Hesington. “You have to get to 12, 13 thousand gallons, truly, to make money in New Jersey, he said. “And you’ve got to sell all of that retail.”
Businessman Craig made his mark as a restaurateur, operating a handful of establishments including the landmark Washington Inn, which he purchased more than three decades ago. Along the way, he picked up the estate of Isaac Smith, a coffin maker who made his bones in Cape May during the 1820s. Craig planted vines on the plot, seemingly (and literally) entangling his future in wine. He bought the modest Cape May Winery & Vineyard in 2002.
“In 2003, we were making 2,800 gallons…We were sort of just having fun,” said Hesington, noting they’ve reached 26,000 gallons annually and the wine routinely sells out. “We grew the business word of mouth…We’re not meeting the demand yet.”
“We keep wondering where the limit is. When we came here, we made wine under there,” Hesington recalled and motioned to a tiny, garage-like space of an adjacent building. “We had a 10-year plan to be at 20,000 gallons, and in New Jersey that’s about right. By 2008 we were at 20,000 gallons.” He laughed. “So, it’s good.”
“It just keeps growing,” Craig confirmed from across the table.
When asked about the growing conditions in Cape May, Hesington was quick to respond. “Perfect,” he said. “The worst thing in New Jersey for viticulture is the fluctuating temperatures in the springtime.” The moderating climate of the Cape May peninsula, with its protective cover of ocean air, tamps down threatening extremes. “We don’t have the peaks and valleys,” Hesington confirmed. “We don’t worry about a killing frost until about Thanksgiving…I get to hang my reds longer and develop those flavors.”
Conversely, there are challenges. Like rain. Sandy soil, they explained, drains the vineyards quickly but frequent precipitation, and more severe events like hurricanes, can make grape growing expensive and heartbreaking.
Even still, the Cape May winemaker likes his odds with a growing season that is longer (by weeks, he estimates) than other Northeast regions like Long Island. Of the nearly 25 wines he makes – vinifera varieties, blends, Port – he calls out a handful of grapes that are best suited to the climate: Pinot Grigio, Chard, Merlot and Cabs do best, with Syrah showing promise. Zinfandel is a newer foray, and he’s also pleased with the Chambourcin yield, used in Port.
For the most part, I agree with him.
By the third Cape May bottle I tasted, the 2010 Merlot, I knew this was a different kind of East Coast situation. There was no call for the “it’s good for New Jersey” qualifiers. Improbably rich and sure footed, I’d challenge any blind taster to peg it as anything but a West Coast effort.
It was encouraging to taste restraint in the wines and a judicious use of oak, even though Craig and company drop heavy coin on French wood casks. The lighter touch was evident in the whites, as was a distinct pear profile in the Pinot Grigio and Riesling, both from the 2011 vintage. In fact, they were reminiscent of a Long Island Pinot Blanc I recently reviewed.
The aromatics of the whites were impressive. This included the pretty, just-sweet Isaac Smith Albariño, a nascent experiment for the winery and one, Hesington semi-joked, that keeps him on the hook. “One problem we do have is, we’ll get something new in and once you establish it and people like it, you have to make it every year,” he said.
The mineral and fresh 2011 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay was medium bodied, lemony and steely-clean. An attractive Chard for anyone feeling over-buttered.
But let’s get back to the reds.
I mentioned the Merlot, dense and rich, with deeply colored black fruit and menthol, and a strong candidate to convert non-believers. Its bottle buddy, the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon displays a great nose from the jump. It’s intense and concentrated but decidedly tart red in fruit – a plus for me. Focused and acidic, it’s a Cab with edge, skillfully crafted.
Similarly, the 2010 Zinfandel was less-than-big-bodied, fruity and ready to go from the pour. Far from a deep purple pounder, it doesn’t require grilled meat to tame it.
The non-vintage table wine, Cape May Red, filled with sure fruit in a tightly wound package and an impressively long finish, might win best of show. I’d like to see the oaky-vanilla levels dialed back a tad but can’t knock its full-flavored, attentive tannins and punchy acidity. The approach on the Red, explained Hesington, is one of economy. During harvest’s crunch time, in an effort to free up tank space for incoming grapes from the vineyards, they heap the leftover lees from various presses into one tank, allowing them to accumulate willy-nilly. “People say, ‘What’s in it?,’” Hesington chuckled. “I’m like, ‘Everything.’ ‘Well, what’s the percentage?’ ‘Hmm, we don’t know! It works out pretty well.” It certainly does. It’s an affordable weeknight red I’d stack up against most.
I was less enthusiastic about other 2010 reds including the Pinot Noir, Isaac Smith Syrah (though I can see this variety blossoming with more time) and the Cab Franc, typically a cold climate ringer that I found foxy and uneven.
All in, Cape May Winery should feel the love for their food-friendly lineup, and, indeed, their efforts show in the numbers, according to Craig. Visitors drop in on the tasting room year-round, and futures sales (purchases of their yet-harvested wines at discount prices), driven through “case club” membership, keep the heat on in February. “It pays to stay open,” he intoned.
“We’re happy with bringing people (here) because we have good wine and we know that,” said Hesington. “We want people to be comfortable, happy, drink the wine and, really, that’s what we built the business on.”
Ready to depart, it was time for full disclosure: I was truly out of the loop on New Jersey wines prior to the journey down the Garden State Parkway. It was an invitation to my hosts. Before a beat and a half could pass, Hesington stepped in with the punchline: “You’re going to be disappointed from here on out.” And they laughed again.