Ocean County Winemaker Crafts Wines With Clambakes in Mind

Mary McAuley discusses the inspiration behind her wine brand, Clambake Wines, and looks ahead to opening two Shore tasting rooms later this summer.

Photo courtesy of Clambake Wines

With Ripe Life Wines, winemaker and sommelier Mary McAuley is doing something a little different: She’s asking you to trust the winemaking choices implicit in her brand—Clambake Wines—from year to year. In return, you get an expertly made “craft wine,” chardonnay or rosé that does pair beautifully with a clambake (her original inspiration), but also represents a new kind of hybridized winemaking style.

While based in Jersey, Clambake wines are made with California grapes that are picked younger for fresher acidity. The wine is unoaked and emphasizes the terroir of a single vineyard. It’s also incredibly food friendly, with slight variations in flavor from year to year.

We caught up with McAuley, who says sales of Clambake were stalled somewhat by Covid-19 (“We were stacked with tasting appointments at restaurants for March and April.”) but is now catching back up, reconnecting with restaurant accounts and about to open two tasting rooms down the Shore. Read on to hear more about her unique wine brand.

Table Hopping: You source grapes from California, but you are from New Jersey, right?
Mary McAuley: I’m from Franklin Lakes. I grew up going to the Jersey Shore all my life. Technically we’re a “California winery,” but we’re a California winery with headquarters in [Ocean County’s Mantoloking].

TH: Why is the clambake your focal point dish?
MM: We host a lot of clambakes down here! They’re near and dear to my heart. In fact I was hosting a clambake when I thought this up in 2011. At that point I’d become the “wine guru” to my friends and family, and I said ‘For next year’s clambake I want to try to make the perfect wine!’ Of course it does pair with a clambake, but the name tells the story of how we fell backwards into being the first single vineyard craft wine brand in America for under $20. Basically, it’s bigger than a clambake now!

TH: What do you mean by “craft wine”? More often we hear “craft beer.”
MM: What a “craft wine” is to me is harvesting particular grapes from the beginning to make a batch of wine. You’re sourcing grapes you feel fit the particular requirement for what you want to make.

TH: Speaking of sourcing, your wines are made with single vineyard fruit. What’s the goal?
MM: For single vineyard, we’ll go to a vineyard, study those grapes, see how that soil is farmed. Everything has to fit our requirements. All our wines have a batch number that correlates to the vineyard they came from. I’m not trying to say a blended wine, or Scotch, isn’t good. Johnny Walker Blue is a blend! But single vineyard fruit keeps us accountable. And being single vineyard is really cool. You get these nuances to the wine. They’re different from year to year.

TH: You make a chardonnay and a rosé. How would you characterize the style?
MM: We always pick our grapes at the same level of ripeness, and you see that reflected in the ABV, which hovers around 13 percent for the chardonnay. Clambake Chardonnay has a much lighter body [than typical California styles.] We’re concerned with that acidity and refreshing factor—we want more lemon notes.

TH: It’s also unoaked, which chardonnay drinkers might not be used to.
MM: There’s still enough richness and chardonnay-ness to it to appease someone looking for a chardonnay. Though if you love the big buttery oaky thing, that’s not what we are. But it’s definitely full enough for chardonnay, and if you have a friend who likes sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, it’ll work for them, too.

TH: And the rosé? What grapes do you use?
MM: The rosé is made with 100% carignan. It’s also not oaked. In fact what happened with our rosé this year is a great example of our winemaking, how we let the grapes tell us what to do each year: we had the hottest heat wave in recent California memory, so everyone was scrambling to get the fruit off the vine. All grapes get weighed, so there was this long line of trucks filled with fruit, waiting to get weighed, and the fruits kind of boiled in their skins. It dyed our rosé darker. It doesn’t taste extra sweet—there’s still that acidity. But it has richer overall content of flavor, darker notes that pop a little bit. It’s still a little tart, but the notes are richer.

TH: Clambake Wines are made with California grapes, but they seem to have a Jersey Shore branding vibe emerging. Is that the goal?
MM: We were distributing in Massachusetts before I could find a distributor in Jersey, funnily enough. But people are asking about the back story, “Why is this called Clambake?” and I’d tell them about going down the Shore, the whole story behind the label, and they like it. It works.

TH: I know things have been slowed by Covid-19, but I heard your next bottle will be a bubbly?
MM: Yes! That’ll be the next addition. We have a methode champenoise coming out, 100 percent Chardonnay, too.

TH: Bubbly also sounds good for a clambake. Will all Clambake wines be good for pairing with seafood specifically?
MM: No, I think we’ll branch into a red soon. But a lighter, more refreshing red.

TH: You also had tasting rooms in the works prior to Covid-19, and that’s back on track?
MM: It’s a little touch and go right now because the restrictions are changing, but we’ll be opening up in Ocean Beach Marina [in Lavallette] and at Loveland Town Grocery [in Point Pleasant]. The [Loveland] location will operate more like a sales outlet, but we’ll be able to do some weekends there with outdoor tastings. I’m hoping to open in both places in the coming weeks.

TH: And since Jersey’s entered Phase 2, I assume you’ll have outdoor service?
MM: Both places will be outdoors. The only permission we’ll have indoors is for someone to come inside the space to buy a bottle. In Ocean Beach Marina, I spent a fortune building this beautiful outside space. This one piece, to call it a “bar” is an understatement. We all knew it was coming, but still, it showed up today and it’s so massive!

TH: You have a background as a sommelier, so I assume you’ll be doing food pairings?
MM: Yes. My ultimate dream is to have the tasting room feature local bivalves. We’re [making] single vineyard wine that’s all about place. I want the seafood on the menu to reflect where it’s from. We have terroir, but there’s this thing called “merroir.” There’s a sense of place when it comes to the sea.

TH: Speaking of place, can anyone order Clambake Wines for delivery?
MM: Yes, we can ship anywhere in Jersey. And the sparkling wine will be out by the end of the year, if not sooner. If it’s not an “end of summer” toast it’ll definitely be there for a New Year’s toast!

McAuley says Ripe Life Wines and their Clambake brand got stalled by Covid-19 but she plans on expanding to as many New Jersey restaurants as possible. For now, you can find Clambake at several restaurants, including Cross and Orange and The Bonney Read in Asbury Park as well as B2 Bistro in Point Pleasant. You can also find Clambake Wines at retailers including Bay Head Cheese Shop, Burke’s Market, Hanley’s (in Belmar), and Bottle Shop of Spring Lake.

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