What I Learned This Summer at New Jersey’s 33 Wineries

One summer. 15 weeks. 33 wineries.

It is hard to believe that what began as a lofty goal for the days following my college graduation is now an actuality. Heather and I finished the NJ wine trail this past Saturday at Four JGs Orchards and Vineyards in Colts Neck.

We tasted more varieties of wine than you can possibly imagine – Chambourcins, Merlots, Cabernet Francs, Pinot Grigios, fruit wines, blushes, roses. You name it, we tried it. We drove for a seemingly endless number of hours and miles across NJ, through towns we had never heard of and parts of the state we had never seen, despite living in New Jersey our entire lives. We got lost, turned around, and even ended up in Pennsylvania once or twice. We randomly ended up at state parks and the Jersey Shore, getting a sense of the most gorgeous parts of a state that is frequently passed off as dirty (thanks for that one MTV).

All in all, it was a great way to spend a summer – our last real summer before things like having a career will become a reality. I have learned several great tips and facts about wine production in the Garden State.

1. Everyone disses NJ wines… until they try them.

When we began the wine trail, so many people immediately said, “Why New Jersey wines?” My mother even suggested that we go to the Finger Lakes if wanted to taste “real wine”. (Yes, mother, we can. But who is going to pay for that?) It seems that there is an immediate assumption when hearing about NJ wines that they will be disgusting or tasteless or just plain bad. Watch this video from The Today Show. As the the hosts go through the wines from various states (there is wine production in all 50 states), only the NJ wine from Alba Vineyard is met with a chorus of Springsteen references and subtle disses. But once they taste the wine, you hear a comment, “Oh that’s actually very good.”

This scenario has also played out in my house when I gave some wine to my wine snob parents. (Remember they LOVE the Finger Lakes.) After a few missteps on my part (it is hard to judge someone’s taste buds), they have ended up enjoying a glass or two of NJ wines. Especially the 2008 Pinot Grigio from Bellview Winery.

2. “Let’s just go down the list” can be dangerous words.

Most wineries have you pay a tasting fee and select only five or six wines to try. Others don’t. Those wineries can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. (I’m looking at you Westfall Winery.) On one hand, you get to taste a ton of wine and get a true sense of a winery’s character, strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, things like this picture happen:

3. Talk to the owners, you’ll learn more that way.

Two of my favorite moments happened at Ventimiglia Vineyards and Sylvin Farms. At Ventimiglia, we were waiting in the tasting room, when suddenly the owner burst through the door and took us on an impromptu tour of the winemaking room. At the same time, he was showing a couple from Indiana, who are interested in opening their own winery, the finer points of winemaking and telling his own story of how he had been making wine for over 20 years but only began selling it within the last five.

At Sylvin Farms, we met Frank Sylvin. When asked how he got into winemaking, his response was: “Madness, really.” Needless to say, this was one of our favorite wineries. Talking to the owners and the winemakers can only enhance your experience and make the wine taste all the better.

We also received great tours at Amalthea Cellars, Four JGs and Alba, three wineries where the tour is worth taking.

4. If you have never heard of it, try it.

Dandelion wine from Bellview, nectarine wine from Cedarvale Winery, kiwi and strawberry wine from Swansea Vineyards, banana wine from Natali.

When you go to several wineries in a short time period, the Chardonnays, Merlots, and Syrahs all blend together. If you’re in NJ, then the blueberry wine will certainly run together. (Practically every NJ winery has one.) This is why when a winery offers something you haven’t heard of, try it. Don’t be afraid of something new. You might end up enjoying it, like I did with the kiwi wine.

5. Location, location, location.

No two wineries are alike. Some are extravagant expanses complete with restaurants, museums, golf courses, and hotels like Laurita Winery or Renault Winery. Others are converted farms or barns like Westfall, Unionville and Alba. Wagonhouse Winery can be found at Grasso Girls Farm Market. And what do you do when there is no tasting room? You head to local wine festival to taste the wines from Chestnut Run Farms and DiBello Winery.

6. Complimentary wines glasses are a great perk.

After you have driven for miles and just paid anywhere from $5 to $7 for a tasting, receiving a complimentary wine glass can make your day. The more wineries you go to, the bigger, better or more comical your collection will become. Sure it will be mismatched but each wine glass tells a good story. If you complete the New Jersey wine trail, you will receive a grand total of 14 complimentary wine glasses.

7. Suck it Napa.

This could very well be the undeclared motto for NJ wineries. Until recently, the only NJ wine sold in California was blueberry wine. Slowly wine production in the Garden State is gaining momentum and is making its way across the country. But who cares about whether or not those wine snobs in California will enjoy a glass of white merlot from Hopewell Valley Vineyards. What is more important is that if you support the local wine industry in whatever state you live in, you are supporting local agriculture and therefore reducing your carbon footprint. For this reason, maybe we should be grateful then that NJ wines are not big sellers in other states.

8. Wineries that card? Let me break it down for you.

I understand that carding is the law and a way of life. However, I do not understand why certain wineries felt to the need to card us. Yes, I am only 22 so I should expect it. But what underage fool is going to the local winery to get trashed? None of them.

Carding only happened two or three times on our travels. The thing that was incredibly irritating however that stemmed from us getting carded these few times was the assumption that because of our age, we therefore knew nothing about wine tastings.

9. No matter where you are in NJ, you will always hear Bruce Springsteen playing on the radio.

Some days we drove two or three hours to get to certain wineries. When we went to the six wineries located in the Cape May area – Renault, Sylvin, Cape May Winery, Hawk Haven Vineyard, Natali Vineyards and Turdo Vineyards, it felt like we were driving forever on the glorious turnpike. (Probably because we were.) Then there was the day when we tackled four wineries in one day – Cedarvale, Amalthea Cellars, Auburn Road Vineyards and DiMatteo Vineyards. It was yet another arduous day of driving.

This is why we learned about the power of Wawa (seriously, North Jersey, get on board with Wawa!) and of four musicians – Mumford and Sons, Tegan and Sara, Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen – to get us through these long rides on the Turnpike, Atlantic Highway Expressway, and Garden State Parkway. At least once per hour, no matter which radio station we were listening too, the Boss, New Jersey’s patron saint of all things musical, came on the radio. It didn’t matter which middle-of-no where town we were in, there was always Bruce.

10. Good company is key.

If you are going to tackle any wine trail, you need to choose your companion wisely. I chose my best friend since middle school. (Or, rather she chose me. It was her idea after all.) We also occasionally invited some of our other friends along for the wine trips – the day we ventured to Valenzano, Tomasello, and Plagido’s.

The person or people you go to wine tasting with can make or break the experience. I’d also recommend going with someone who enjoys different wine than you. For instance, I loathe Chardonnay. Heather loves it. I love Syrah. Heather loathes it. By teaming up, we can actually gain more from a tasting and try a greater variety of wines.

Also, if you’re like me and you are not a fan of driving, you should be grateful to have a wine tasting partner who drives EVERYWHERE. Heather drove the entire time while I fiddled with the radio. (Maybe that is why we listened to so much Bruce Springsteen…) Regardless, I am appreciative of Heather’s car and her willingness to drive.

Going on a wine trail is a great way to spend your summer days and even better way to gain new appreciation for your home state and the company of your best friend. Try it some time. You don’t need to go to 33 in one summer. States like Delaware only have one winery! You won’t regret it.

© Joanna Arcieri, 2010

One of Those Nights

The longest summer of my life – one filled with laughter and romance, never ending drama, countless mistakes, new places, people and experiences, more than 2000 miles of driving and sheer exhaustion – is finally coming to an end.

As I pack up my Mount Everest of crap before I head back to Mount Holyoke on Monday, I can’t help but to think about everything. I’m at this strange stage in my life where I have to start thinking seriously about the future, but not so seriously that I don’t enjoy being 20 (almost).

Fortunately (and perhaps coincidentally), when I collapsed on my couch tonight and turned on the television, there just happened to be Katharine Hepburn, attempting to make Spencer Tracy breakfast in the last moments of Woman of the Year. And that was followed by The African Queen.

These movies don’t necessarily help or even solve my problems. But they certainly help me forget about something. Just for a little while.

That’s more than enough to get me through the next few days.