Optimistic Outlook For Jersey Wines

An upbeat report from a tasting of chardonnays produced by a collaboration of Jersey wineries.

Robert Bennett works sweet magic as a pastry chef in Philadelphia, spinning sugar, plus flour, water and all manner of flavorings into confections that have brought his Classic Cakes nationwide acclaim.

On Sunday, June 3, he was at the Winemakers’ Co-Op Spring Portfolio Tasting at William Heritage Winery in Mullica Hill, sipping and touting New Jersey’s wines—and the culture of quality the Garden State’s top vintners have embraced.

“I’ve been all over the world,” said Bennett, who lives in Glassboro and has a suburban retail outlet for Classic Cakes in Cherry Hill, “and I come to William Heritage. The BDX (red blend) is my favorite—I love its full body, plush texture. It is a great wine.”

On this day, with rain and storm clouds keeping the afternoon and early evening skies dark, Bennett was far from the only wine lover at the event presented by William Heritage Winery and its partners in the cooperative: Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown, Working Dog Winery in Robbinsville, and Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes. Indeed, the crowd of culinary professionals and patrons of New Jersey’s burgeoning quality-wine scene had the first taste of the co-op’s chardonnay collaboration, and listened to Lenn Thompson of the Cork Report present a comparative sampling of East Coast wines.

“New Jersey is on the precipice of being the next great East Coast region,” Thompson said.

There were some in the crowd who thought Thompson might be a bit behind the times in his forecast. They’d just sampled the co-op’s four Open Source chardonnays.

“Open Source,” a term coined in the software industry by authorities determined to make discoveries in technology available to everyone, not simply proprietary, is the name the co-op wineries’ four vintners have given their collaborative chardonnay. Made with two tons of chardonnay grapes grown in equal shares by each of the four wineries, the grapes were crushed at William Heritage Winery and the juice divided among the co-op partners.

Each winemaking team then took that juice back to their own wineries and made their own decisions on how to ferment, cellar and bottle it. The unveiling of the four chardonnays to the public took place under the VIP Tent.

“I’m pretty impressed,” said Ron Healey of Cherry Hill. “I have memberships in many California and West Coast [winery] clubs. I’ve been visiting New Jersey wineries for four years now and I’m finding top wines right here.”

Healey noted the crispness of Working Dog’s version of Open Source chardonnay, which its winemaker labeled “bright.” Mike Beneduce, winemaker at Beneduce Vineyards, worked to achieve—and did achieve—in his Open Source chardonnay, a crispness as well, one balanced by a creamy mouthfeel. At Unionville Vineyards, Zeke Johnsen brought a refreshing acidity to his bottling, while Sean Comninos, winemaker at William Heritage and the Garden State Culinary Arts Awards 2018 Wine Professional winner, created a desirable tension between fruit and acidity in his chardonnay.

Overall, the chardonnays were elegant and ripe—and, importantly, exactly what Thompson said of Garden State wines in his seminar: diverse, distinctive and delicious.

Thompson presented four pairings that matched a wine from each of the co-op members with an East Coast standard-bearer in sparkling wine, gewurztraminer, pinot noir and cabernet franc. He tasted the 2015 William Heritage Winery Brut Rose alongside the 2014 Sparkling Point from Long Island; the 2017 Beneduce Vineyards Gewurztraminer alongside the 2016 Keuka Spring Vineyards Gewurztraminer from the Finger Lakes; the 2015 Unionville Vineyards Pheasant Hill Pinot Noir alongside the 2016 Forge Cellars Classique Pinot Noir, also from the Finger Lakes; and the 2015 Working Dog Winery Retriever Cabernet Franc with the 2014 Macari Reserve Cabernet Franc from the North Fork of Long Island.

Linda Houghtaling, who came with her husband New Jersey Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling from Monmouth County to the co-op event, said she’d been visiting New Jersey’s wineries and tasting the state’s wines for 12 years. “There’s a huge difference in quality today,” she said. “The quality has improved and you can taste the difference in wines from different parts of the state like you can taste the differences in, say, beef or milk or water.”

“It’s about the grapes,” said Eric Houghtaling. “The root of quality wine is in good quality grapes.”

From left: Sean Comninos of William Heritage Winery, Zeke Johnsen of Unionville Vineyards, Mike Beneduce of Beneduce Vineyards and Mark Carduner of Working Dog Winery.

What’s our cultural terroir? Some at the co-op event wanted to know.

John Cifelli, executive director of the Winemakers’ Co-op, believes the state’s cultural terroir is being shaped right now. We’re a cool climate wine region, we’re a melting pot of people,” he said. “We’re also raising the bar.”

The bar is being raised, noted Mike Beneduce, “by family farmers. We’ve got an exploratory spirit and we’re down-to-earth people. We’re growing a spectrum of grapes and we also feel like we have something to prove. We’re New Jerseyeans.”

Comninos added: “We’re not shackled by the traditions of ancestors, like in Europe,” where only certain grapes are permitted to be grown and also used in certain wines. “We’re adventurous—and, if you don’t believe me, well, I just put rosé in a can. You can taste it right here.”

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  1. Lenn Thompson

    So happy to hear that you enjoyed the event — including my talk.

    One big challenge that NJ wine faces today is the fact that the wines rarely leave the state — even to restaurants in New York City. Virginia and New York have earned their greater attention in the wider wine market through improved distribution over time. That — along with a greater number of wineries focused on quality wine — is the next step for New Jersey.

    The best of the wines we all tasted yesterday are on par with anything else being made in the east — but New Jersey lags behind for other, non-wine reasons. Organizations like the Winemaker Co-Op are working to change that.

  2. Lenn Thompson

    BTW — say hi the next time we’re at an event together!