Tuesday, February 20, 2024

State Wineries Show Evolution During New Jersey Wine Week

A map of the wineries in North Jersey. The five wineries in the Warren Hills AVA from north to
south are: (11) Brook Hollow Winery in Columbia; (21) Four Sisters Winery in Belvidere; (30)
Little Ridge Vineyards in Phillipsburg; (2) Alba Vineyard in Milford; and (48) Villa Milagro
Vineyards in Phillipsburg. Image courtesy of the Garden State Wine Growers Association.

On Sunday, November 19, the Garden State Wine Growers Association (GSWGA) concluded this year’s annual New Jersey Wine Week celebration.

Since its founding in 1987, the GSWGA has brought New Jersey’s wine makers together during what has been a boom time for the state’s wine industry. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of wineries in New Jersey increased by over 180%, and wine is now the state’s fastest growing division of agriculture.

Yet, for all that exciting growth, Princeton University Professor Orley Ashenfelter sums it up best in his foreword to the 2020 book “Wine Grape Varieties for New Jersey” by saying “New Jersey wines are among the most underrated in the world.”

The world? As in, wines from our dense little corner of the Northeast deserve mention in a conversation about the whole planet?

According to Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Coia, owner of Coia Vineyards and co-author of “Wine Grape Varieties for New Jersey” alongside Daniel Ward, absolutely.

Brothers Nick (behind bar with baseball cap) and Tom Sharko (far right) facilitate a group tasting at Alba Vineyards. Photo by C. O’Chang, 11/2023.

“Our whites, chardonnay, were compared to the best of Burgundy,” he said. “And our reds, cabernet franc, cabernet sangiovese, were compared to the best of the French. And I do mean the best.”

He’s describing a 2012 wine competition known as the Judgment of Princeton.

The contest took its name from the more famous 1976 Judgment of Paris, when California wines competed and won against renowned French wines in a double-blind tasting. The results revolutionized the wine world and elevated California’s reputation as a source of high-quality wine.

In 2012, New Jersey wines got their own chance to compete on the world stage. George M. Taber, a “Time” magazine journalist who had reported on the original Judgment of Paris, organized a blind tasting with the same structure.

This time, New Jersey wines faced more highly regarded (and generally much more expensive) French wines. French wines won the top ranking in both the red and white categories, but our wines tied the fine French wines for the rest of the list, with judges finding them indistinguishable.

This is not a “second place is first loser” situation. It’s like tying for silver medal at the Olympics– proof that you belong with the best of the best. Not shabby for a state that’s 4% the size of France and hardly noticed in the wine world.

Over 10 years later, New Jersey wines can list that achievement alongside gold medals in national and international competitions and ratings of over 90 out of a 100 from big-name wine critics who show up regularly in liquor store blurbs.

If only people noticed.

Warren County: Wine Country

New Jersey’s winemaking brag sheet is impressive, considering the state’s late entry into the game. Though New Jersey winemaking started in the 1700s, Prohibition shattered industry operations and the rigid liquor laws that followed killed almost everything left, limiting wineries in the state to a maximum of one winery per one million people.

That changed in 1981 with the passage of the Farm Winery Act, which lifted the strict limit on wineries. Three years later, New Jersey formally established its first American Viticultural Area, or AVA.

An AVA is a recognized winegrowing region with specific characteristics that affect the final product. The designation lends credibility and can support quality control. Even casual drinkers recognize the AVAs with the best reputations: Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Columbia Valley.

New Jersey’s first AVA had “valley” in its name, too. The Central Delaware Valley AVA includes Hunterdon and Mercer counties, stretching across the Delaware River to include Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

In 1988, New Jersey got its second AVA: Warren Hills AVA, covering 182,000 acres inside the borders of Warren County.

Cape May and the Outer Coastal Plain joined later, for a total of four New Jersey AVAs today.

Though it may not have “valley” in the name, most of the Warren Hills AVA sits in river valleys made by the Delaware and its tributaries, and it benefits from the same geological traits that produce great wine in river valleys around the world.

The owners of Alba Vineyard, situated at the southern tip of the Warren Hills AVA in Milford, have noticed. Alba is a family-owned business modeled after a northern French winery, with owner Tom Sharko, his wife, and two sons, Tom and Nick, all involved in the day-to-day operations. This year, Alba released its 27th vintage.

Tom Sharko, vice president of Alba Vineyards, leading a guided tasting. Photo by C. O’Chang. 11/2023.

According to Nick Sharko, the family grew up with an appreciation of fine French wines and the landscape that produced them. On trips to France’s wine-growing regions, they noticed that some areas had similar geography and climate to Warren County, especially in the Loire Valley.

The Loire and the Musconetcong River Valley share a mineral-rich soil composition that includes granite, limestone and ocean marl left behind by glaciers which are prime conditions for grapes.

Why care so much about dirt? Simple: good dirt makes good wine.

“It translates into the wine, with our white wines exhibiting beautiful acidity, minerality and freshness,” Nick Sharko said. “Our red wines have a nice depth of mineral and earth, as well as some good fruit and tannin structure.”

That lovely, untranslatable word terroir describes the natural characteristics that shape a grape’s development. It’s dirt, and it’s also climate, average temperature, elevation, exposure to sun, exposure to wind. When conditions are favorable, they’re an irreplaceable gift. When they’re not, viticulturists have to adapt however they can.

“It’s like a game against Mother Nature,” Nick Sharko said, a game that changes with each year’s changing conditions. In last year’s drought, his vineyards thrived and the grapes ripened perfectly in the long, sunny days. Grapes don’t like a lot of rain.

So this year, with its periodic downpours and the threat of fungal infections and disease, the Sharkos had a much greater challenge, followed by a greater reward, in Nick’s eyes.

That’s why the Sharkos prefer the French term: not wine maker, but wine grower. The difference between a $200 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle of wine might just be the land it grows on, and the farmer’s ability to work with it.

Cabernet franc vs. chambourcin: the search for New Jersey’s ideal grape

Of course, the winemaker makes choices that affect the final product, too. Two miles down the road from Alba Vineyard, Dr. Audrey Cross and Steve Gambino have run Villa Milagro Vineyards since 2001. They make lively, bright wines designed to accompany food. Their vine rows end about 30 feet from the Delaware River.

Dr. Cross’ resume runs 18 pages long. She’s got a storied career in nutrition, public health policy and a unique bullet point on her resume: she authored the original Food Pyramid. With her background in law, she works on the legal committee for the GSWGA. But her most recent degree was in oenology – winemaking.

Before she and her husband can make the wine, though, they have to get grapes.

“It’s not easy, growing grapes. Probably a degree in viticulture would have been a better background,” she said with a wry chuckle.

Since 1981, New Jersey winemakers have improved their craft by hiring experts, consulting with veteran winemakers in well-established regions and learning through years of trial and error. But one all-important practice still has plenty of differing opinions: which grape variety to plant.

A region’s distinct characteristics lead some grape varieties to thrive better than others. After decades or even centuries of experimentation, the established wine regions have found the varieties that do best with their conditions. In France’s venerated wine regions, the permitted grape varieties are even established by law.

In the Champagne region, you’ll find plantings of chardonnay. In California, cabernet sauvignon. In Oregon, pinot noir.

How about here?

“In New Jersey,” Dr. Cross said, “we can’t agree on anything.”

Part of the problem is the same thing that plagued the Sharkos this year: New Jersey’s humidity and considerable rainfall, which will continue to worsen with climate change.

The good news is that grapes can thrive in New Jersey’s wet conditions.

The bad news is that it’s much harder for the wine grapes that most people recognize. Cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, shiraz, chardonnay, riesling and malbec, all hail from the European grape species vinis vinifera, a grape suited to dry conditions and long growing seasons.

Some traditional vinifera species can thrive in New Jersey’s climate. Nick Sharko is a particular fan of cabernet franc, the boldest and most structured wine that Alba offers. Unfortunately, not all of the vineyards in New Jersey have the conditions to grow a hearty cab franc.

Many winemakers are tackling the problem of rainfall by planting a more rugged type of grape. By crossing grapes native to the American continent with traditional vinifera species, they get a hardier species.

In good news, these new American-European crosses, known as hybrids, are naturally resistant to disease and cold Northeastern winters. Some, like the red grape chambourcin, are starting to develop recognition locally.

“Some people call it the zinfandel of the East,” Dr. Coia said. “I don’t think it’s exactly like zinfandel, but it’s got a lot of fruity characteristics. A lot of fruit. Good acidity.”

There’s a “but” coming: “The only thing it doesn’t have is tannins.”

Unfortunately, that holds true for many American-European crosses. Wine made from American grapes can be thinner, especially reds, and considered lower quality. Even those that make a balanced wine lack name recognition with customers.

Some winemakers point out the hypocrisy of dismissing American-European grapes just because they’re hybrids. “All grapes are hybrids,” Dr. Coia said. He uses the much-vaunted cabernet sauvignon as an example. Long before the grape conquered California, it was itself a cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. 

That may be true according to science and biology, but so far, it’s not convincing to palates and the emotions of wine consumption. Nick Sharko grows American-French grapes like Chambourcin and Traminette (a white) in his vineyard, especially in less favorable spots where the vinifera do poorly. But he’s pragmatic about the place of hybrid wines in his portfolio: “You’re not ever gonna get famous or rich from growing hybrids.” 

The market: a vine waiting to bloom 

Still, the science of making wine in New Jersey is becoming more exact every year. The learning happens in each individual vineyard. At Alba, the Sharkos used to grow all kinds of grapes. Now, they’re down to six vinifera and a couple American-European hybrids. They found out what works– and across New Jersey, within each individual AVA, winemakers are figuring that out and sharing the word. 

“We are over the age where everyone who walked through my door and tasted my wine said, ‘Oh, these are Jersey wines? They’re so good,’” Dr. Cross said. “I never felt happy about that… if you’re in California, nobody comes into your winery and says ‘Oh, your wines are so good. All the other California wines suck.’ You want all of our wines to have a good reputation.” 

She’s seen the quality improve across the board as wine makers bring in professional help and give feedback on each other’s wines, sharing viticultural practices that work. 

Some help comes from the sheer passage of time, according to Nick Sharko. Most of New Jersey’s 60+ vineyards had to start after 1981, usually as family farms that moved into wine and had to experiment to find the best varieties and practices for their region. Grapes are slow-growing compared to NJ’s other fruit and vegetable crops; it takes six years for a newly planted vine to produce enough fruit to harvest. 

The vines at Alba aren’t newly planted anymore. Over half of them will be twenty years old or older next year. “So we’re really just starting to see what the true potential of our vines are,” Sharko said. 

To reach consumers, NJ winemakers couldn’t be in a better location. According to Sharko, New Jersey is the number one consumer of wine bottles that cost over $25. Clearly, New Jersey loves wine– though not always its own. 

Devon Perry, Executive Director of the GSWGA, sees a new generation of drinkers with different preferences gravitating toward local vineyards. With the locavore, or eating local, movement continuing to drive appetites and a movement toward sustainability, drinking local seems like a logical extension. Visitors to a vineyard will “be able to actually point to the vine that grew the grapes that ended up making the wine that’s in their glass,” Perry said, a point that the Sharkos prove instinctively– they can point to the exact terrace that supplied the grapes for their Pinot Noir Reserve. 

“There’s a story behind every bottle of wine in New Jersey,” Perry says. Winemakers are still trying to tell that story to the customers in their backyard– the 44 million people within one tank of gas of New Jersey, according to Perry. 

Nick Sharko, for one, is sick of the discovery story. It goes: “Who would think wine grows in New Jersey? Well, it does, and it’s pretty good!”  

New Jersey wine has been here for decades, he says. And still, 10 years after New Jersey wines held their own against French wines from legendary houses, New Jersey wine accounts for only 2% of wine sales in New Jersey. 

Maybe, he thinks, the story about New Jersey wine has to change.

“The quality level is higher than it’s ever been before,” he said. “But I think we need to maybe get away from, like, ‘Discover this stuff,’ and be like: ‘We’re here. We’ve been here. Come see how we’ve evolved.’”

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.