By Paul Vigna
Back in 2015, four New Jersey wineries decided to pool their resources and create a consortium that would push them toward improving their wines and increasing their national recognition.
A couple weeks ago, they received their latest and biggest confirmation that the plan was a good one.
Co-Op winemakers Left to Right: Mark Carduner (Working Dog), Michael Beneduce (Beneduce), Sean Comninos (Heritage), Zeke Johnsen (Unionville)
Wine Advocate and Philly-based writer Mark Squires tasted wines from William Heritage Vineyards, Unionville Vineyards, Working Dog Winery and Beneduce Vineyards, all part of The Winemakers Co-Op. His column was positive as were his scores, from a 90 for Heritage’s Vintage Brut to three 89s to Unionville for its Pleasant Hill Chardonnay, Rose and Pinot Noir.
Tom Cosentino, the executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, wrote in a release Sept. 7 that this was the first time a New Jersey wine has received a 90-point score from the Wine Advocate. These scores, he added, “continue the positive momentum for our state’s industry.”
But it’s also an affirmation of the group’s decision to collaborate, an idea unique to the East Coast. Other producers use their proximity to gather and sample their wines and offer critiques, and three in Pennsylvania (Allegro, Manatawny Creek and Pinnacle Ridge) have shared grapes and talent to make several vintages of a blend called Trio. But the formality of this arrangement is rare and its success could cause others to take notice.
John Cifelli, the general manager at Unionville and the executive director for the co-op, said the mean scores this year were .3 higher than a similar tasting with Squires last year, and exceeded an aggregate score of 87. “So not only did we break a barrier, but we showed improvement, which I expect and hope will continue each year,” he said. “We are trying to carve out a name for a new wine region on the East Coast, and events like this are a major accomplishment toward that goal.”
Co-op members twice a year hold a public tasting where each of the wineries is represented. The next one is scheduled from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at Working Dog in Robbinsville, Mercer County. Tickets are $35 and $60 (VIP).
But it’s the private aspect of the mission that Cifelli says the group members are growing into, starting with an ongoing exchange of information and visits to each other’s sites. “We are all in constant communication through the growing season, especially harvest,” he said. “We all know when each other are picking and what ripeness levels everyone is picking at. It really informs the decisions each of us make in our own vineyards.”
Several grant projects in application that are viticulture-focused should promote more structure and goals in these efforts, which include revamping the statewide vineyard weather station network to add leaf wetness sensors and better rain gauges to help understand moisture-born disease pressure. “The system in place has several blind spots, and insufficient equipment for what is needed to have adequate comprehensive monitoring,” he said.
Working Dog’s co-owner and winemaker Mark Carduner said that one consistent component of the co-op is the frank conversations that group members are having about their wines, from the technique to fault identification to winemaking practices. “We don’t tiptoe around each other in giving opinions,” he said.
Added winemaker Sean Cominos from Heritage, “Broadening my experience with other growers and regions around the state has informed our decisions with what to plant here. The diversity of microclimates over a short distance statewide could present opportunities for planting missteps. Knowing what works well just a county or two over, and what doesn’t, is important.”
The identity of New Jersey wine, Cifelli said in a 2016 interview, is “muddled or muddied or possibly undefined, and for wineries that want to market and assert themselves as fine wine producers, there’s a need for us to have our own voice to do so. That’s what the co-op was formed for, to give a specific voice and a consistent message for fine wine producers in the state.”
Having the Wine Advocate offer this kind of positive feedback will provide some clarity to that voice and add momentum to a group effort that is expected to grow in membership. Said Cifelli in a recent interview for the Wine Industry’s Advisor’s series on East Coast wine excellence: “I’m always eager to promote others who are making high quality, dry wines from New Jersey grapes. That’s how you build consumer confidence, by showing patrons that there are other excellent producers across the state. . . . Developing the market for premium local wines is a bigger job than one winery can handle, and a more satisfying mission when shared with industry peers.”
Here are the wines that received the highest scores.
- Beneduce Vineyards: Blaufrankisch 88 points
- Unionville Vineyards: Chardonnay “Pheasant Hill” 89 points, Rosé 89 points, Pinot Noir 89 points
- Working Dog Winery: Syrah 88 points
- William Heritage Winery: Chenin Blanc 88 points, Rose 88 points, Vintage Brut 90 points