J. Maki makes wine sourced from 32 acres of vines in Elverson, Chester County – not far outside of Philadelphia. Perhaps, like us, you first heard of them from their attraction signs on the Turnpike. Then again, you may have tuned into the word-of-mouth about their dessert wines or champagne.
That’s right, champagne.
Despite what you might think, anyone can use the term, according to winery owner Jim Maki. “It’s just that the French have been real effective with their PR campaign for centuries about what you can call it,” he said. “We just use ‘champagne’ with small ‘c’ and everyone knows what it is.” (Note: The law might take issue with that stance.)
Prior to taking the plunge with a winery, Jim and his wife, Janet, brought juice back from the Finger Lakes to test their meddle and “experiment with.” Heartened by the results, they were compelled to have a go at it. Upon opening, their operation was called French Creek Ridge Vineyards – somewhat appropriate considering the focus on “small ‘c’” bottlings.
The Elverson land was mostly walnut trees back in 1991 when the Makis purchased it. They dotted the pretty, south-facing land that slopes along a quiet country road. About 18,000 vines were planted on the site and, in 2004, the vineyard capacity was doubled. Today, with 14 different varietals planted and three people working the winery, the bottles bear the J. Maki brand, named for Janet. Get it? J for Janet. Rather than, er, Jim.
During a sunny, snow-covered afternoon in February, Jeff Kralik and I drove to Elverson to spend time with Jim and sample some of his wines.
As he poured, he told us that it was the sweeter stuff that put his operation on the map. “Ice wine has a mystique that’s just unbelievable,” he claimed. “Even fine wine lovers that have been drinking wine for 30 or 40 years don’t even know what ice wine is (and) people who don’t even drink wine will drink ice wine.”
In the following email exchange, Jeff and I compare notes on our J. Maki experience.
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Jeff A.: First off, it’s a beautiful setting, even in the dead of winter. A very scenic trip. It’s worth noting, though – for those who haven’t been to the winery – a tasting costs $30, which they waive if you buy a bottle. The wines range from $29 up to $100-plus.
I had no background with their wines but you did, right?
Jeff K.: Well I would not say a “background.” I have tried a few of the sparkling wines (sorry, I just can’t bring myself to say “champagne”), and I was rather impressed, I have to say. I had noticed through the PLCB stores that their sparkling wines are shelved with the premium sparklers and Champagnes – something that I thought was certainly a coup for the winery. Last, I had seen their signs on the Turnpike so I always thought it should be a place to visit.
Jeff A.: Looking over my notes, the sparklers didn’t exactly knock me out, though the 2004 Blanc de Blancs was pretty expressive and toasty. It’s probably the J. Maki selection that’s most widely circulated in the state. A couple of the ice wines made a good impression, too – the ’09 Pinot Noir in particular. Its nose totally rocked me back on my heels and it was less sweet on the palate. That said, you can’t overlook the prices. The PN costs $65. It’s a classic conundrum in an evolving market: Either buy into paying more for good local wine or spend the cash elsewhere.
Jeff K.: We have talked about this before, but it is worth repeating: In order to consider buying a PA wine, it has to compete on quality AND price. Maki certainly competes on quality – I was surprised by how good some of their wines were. But. And that is a rather large but. The prices of the wines are really steep. Is the Blanc de Blancs at $40 better than a “real” Champagne at the same price? No. Sorry, but no. Imagine any situation in which you might serve a $40 sparkling wine. Nine times out of 10 you will want to serve the Champagne even if the two wines are equal on the quality scale. Sure I am a French snob, but come on.
I agree that the Pinot ice wine was really, really good (at least the eighth of an ounce that we tasted), but $65 for a 375ml?!? I believe you bought a bottle of the Gewurztraminer. For $40. Wow. I need to save for my kids to go to college….
Jeff A.: I was charmed by their Chard but I went for the Gewurz because we were going out for sushi that night. The first thing I picked up was a distinct spice on the palate. Not pepper but more of a seasoning, mixed with floral flavors and fruit. It was pungent, too, just how I like it. On the price, I get it – they probably harvest a tiny lot of Gewurz but you’re right. It’s too heavy a tariff, especially when I know I can pick up a white from Alsace for less than half that price.
The reds surprised you. On that front, I give them a lot of credit for the subtle use of oak. For example, the Merlot had just a kiss of sweet vanilla that didn’t impose on the character of the juice.
Jeff K.: I was not criticizing your choice of wine (although you seemed to like the Gewurz far more than I), but rather the fact that it was $40. A Grand Cru at the same cost would blow that wine’s doors off. Don’t get me wrong, if Maki is selling wines at those prices, more power to them, but I just think there are a host of wines in similar price ranges that are either better or have more prestige appeal (I know that sounds snobby, but there are plenty of wine snobs out there). As for the reds, I was very impressed. The VSP blend in particular. The fruit really came out and the oak was expertly integrated. The 2005 is $42 and the 2002 is $99. Whoa.
You are right, the place is beautiful and it is worth a trip to check it out – and you will leave with a bottle of wine ($30 for a tasting, really?). Maybe, in the end, it is J. Maki who has figured it out and he is the one laughing.
Jeff A.: Of course, it’s not so calculated. I give them credit for creating a destination winery and a solid brand, as well as growing demand for some well-made wines. Proof that there’s a market for everything.
J Maki Winery
200 Grove Rd
Elverson, PA 19520