Conjure this image, if you can: busloads of thirsty people caravanning from one New Jersey winery to another, looking to get their grape on. State roads and byways resembling Napa Valley’s Rt. 29, where you can’t throw a magnum without hitting a tasting room. And a “new” Jersey where shelves loaded with wines from orchard fruit vies for space with “real” wine. New Jersey as New Napa, morphing from Springsteen and Sopranos to Semillon and Sauvignon. The potential is there, if you believe recent newspaper articles – including one in the New York Times – and dialogue circulating in the blogosphere.
To gain perspective on matters relative to the state of Jersey wine affairs, I headed down Rte. 55 to the eponymous winery of Bill and Penni Heritage in Mullica Hill. Their vineyards, most of which have been family owned since the 19th century, occupy the second highest elevation south of Trenton. The first branded winery in Gloucester County, Heritage Vineyards currently has 40 acres under vine, double the amount from 2009, which was also the inaugural crush for head winemaker Sean Comninos, a rising star in East Coast wine circles. It’s not a coincidence that the increase in plantings at Heritage mirrors the recognition he’s received, including a favorable review in the San Francisco Chronicle for his 2010 Brut Sparkling Rose.
Over the course of a casual two-hour conversation, it became evident that Sean is a believer in the relevance of terroir, a viewpoint he readily admits “changed as [he] transitioned from wine drinker to winemaker,” while citing the nine separate soil profiles of the acres he tends. Most of it is loamy sand, which drains well and is common to the Outer Coastal Plain AVA (American Viticulture Area) of which Heritage is a part, but he also spoke of distinct variations in the unique compositions from one side of the road that bisects the vineyards to the other, and the effects those differences produces in their seven acres of Merlot, a grape he feels is well-suited to the conditions of the AVA.
“The varietal requires only a short growing season, unlike other familiar grapes, which is what we have in South Jersey. So it ripens more easily and can achieve great depth of color. And since it doesn’t develop strong tannins, you can drink it young.”
Regarding the challenges he and nearby winemakers face, he was quick to respond, “East Coast humidity and the lack of cool nights”, a double whammy that makes it hard for grapes to achieve natural balance and build up sufficient acidity. He added that unpredictable weather patterns the last two years compounded the normal problems that he deals with. Despite the havoc wrought by Sandy, Sean felt that 2012 was overall a solid vintage, the most balanced of the four he has helmed.
Having faith in what can be accomplished in New Jersey, Sean is firm in his commitment to working with the owners and staff to make Heritage a quality-based vinifera winery, a conundrum for Garden State producers since it is easier to market the fruit-based wines that have been an economic staple for decades. Income generated from on-site sales and events pays the bills – and allows for experimentation and growth in the fine wine sector. But let’s face it, the reality of sweet wines has created the general perception of that being all the state has to offer. Though he acknowledges that Heritage markets generic “New Jersey” wines under a separate label, Sean states that the winery is invested for the long haul “in making the land profitable, becoming a leader in our state’s viticulture, and maintaining the viability of fine wines.” It won’t be an easy task; the local wine industry is still in its infancy contrasted to California, Oregon, and other American wine areas. Part of that is the history and continuity of the types of wine made in those places and the capitalization that makes expansion and improvements possible.
How, then, to elevate consumer awareness and acceptance of New Jersey wines, if not to the level of the West Coast, at least to being in any discussion that involves the Finger Lakes and Long Island? Certainly not, as one writer proposed (facetiously I hope), by not labeling them as New Jersey grown and produced.
Sean shared some thoughts on how to bring about a transformation. First, “…bringing together the key players, the winemakers, vineyard managers, the business people to push the idea of making quality wine.” He stressed “the need to understand the land and what it can and can’t do”, leading to “improved practices in the vineyards, which is primary, but also in the cellar.” His grassroots approach, natural for someone so intimately involved in the final product, is markedly different from suggestions in academic circles for some sort of collective action reliant on marketing strategies and economic models. The teamwork he and the Heritage family envisions “could make New Jersey a truly Garden State of well- made wine,” and return it in some degree to its agricultural roots. He also points out that education is a key “in helping people understand wine, and in building a market base with the knowledge of what New Jersey is capable of becoming.”
With the growing season upon him, I asked Sean what a winemaker does in the off-season. He spoke of needing to “monitor the reds from the fall harvest to make sure they are ready to blend”, of pruning and new planting, “of taking an inventory of where you are and where you want to be. It’s a clean slate, a time of hope. You play on your strengths and correct the weaknesses. Every vintage is a new challenge.” Sounds a lot like life, or the manager of every major league team in April.
As our afternoon was drawing to a close, I asked which wine he was most proud of. Without hesitation, he picked the aforementioned sparkling rose, a first ever attempt at a true methode champenoise style. It’s 51% Pinot Noir, the rest Chardonnay, aged two years on its lees and disgorged in August 2012. Though I must admit that sparkling wine is not my libation of choice, the obvious attention to detail and results in the glass piqued my taste buds: yeasty, with lively acidity and bright fruit, clean and vaguely nutty. The only downside is that it’s only available at the winery. But after you’ve traveled over the river and past the malls, you can also sample Sean’s 2010 Bordeaux blend that placed third of ten entries in a blind tasting of French and New Jersey wines, sandwiched between a prestigious (read that “first growth”) $650 French heavyweight and a noteworthy Gallic representative with a $120 price tag. Not bad for a guy just shy of turning thirty – and a fine example of a heritage in progress.
480 Mullica Hill Rd.
Harrison Township, NJ 08062