Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fine Wines of South Jersey (Yes, South Jersey)

Specifically, Heritage Vineyards of Richwood, N.J.. It's outside of Swedesboro, if you know that charming little farming town--about 30 miles south-east of Philadelphia, smack in the vegetable-growing area of New Jersey, famed for its indescribably delicious tomatoes. I spent a nightmarish summer in my youth as a ketchup cook for ancient HJ Heinz packing plant in nearby Salem; I have almost recovered.

South Jersey is pretty much ignored by everybody, from the Philadelphians who feast on its veggies, to the denizens of North Jersey, which is the oil-refinery-and-Mafia-corpse-ridden part of the state that most people think of when they say NJ. South Jersey is south of Trenton, south of Camden—bet you didn't quite realize there was anything down there, did you? But something has to keep Philadelphia from banging into Atlantic City; that's our job, the land on which I was raised. Though, thank God, not on a farm, but in a tiny industrial town called Gibbstown. My only dreadful experience on farms was summer jobs. But most of my high-school classmates were from farmer families.

Went out to South Jersey in early June to visit the relatives, and remarked in my blog that I was going to get me some good Jersey wine. This provoked mockery.

But I was serious. Last year when I visited, my brother Dennis poured me a Cab from Heritage that was entirely drinkable. To my California-snob surprise. Great? No. OK? Yes. I wasn't expecting it; can you grow wine in swampland?

Apparently you can.

Nice Place Ya Got Here

My brother drove me out to Heritage—he had to ask around to find it; Jersey isn't exactly wine country, yet, anyway. It was outside of Mullica Hill, on 322 on the way to Glassboro. A new tasting room, still with finishing touches being put on, was empty when we got there in the middle of the week – but 322 is one of the main roads from Philadelphia, southern Pennsvylvania, and Delaware to the Shore (and doesn't cost anything, like the Atlantic City Expressway, though it gets crowded), so as things get hot and muggy, that could change.

It was a pleasant place, but I wasn't sightseeing—I wanted to find out what wines they were making. The list surprised me: three whites (all Chards), six reds, a rose ("blush"), and five fruit wines. Jeez. I tasted some of them.

The Chardonnays were oaked (2005, $13), unoaked (2007, $15), and Estate (2006, $17). I skipped those because I only had limited time. The reds included the 2006 Cab I was looking for ($18), an 06 Merlot ($18), an estate Syrah, for Christ's sake (06, $18), two Cab-Cab franc blends—Steel Rails Red, NV, $17 and Red Caboose, NV, $18, which included Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and a touch of Chambourcin.

There was also a straight Chambourcin, 06, "limited production," $22.50. I'm not familiar with that grape, I'm afraid, but they grow it here – and all the other components mentioned above. I had no idea. Ambition!

I tasted the Syrah and the Steel Rails Red, but they didn't move me; I settled for several bottles of the Cab, to take home to disbelieving Californians. Next time I'll try the other ones too.

The Blush, $9.99, was described as "for all you white zinfandel lovers," so I passed. I also, but regrettably, didn't get to try the fruit wines: Apple, Peach, Cherry, Sugar-Plum, and Blueberry. Shades of Aunt Myrtle! Next time, for sure! They were $12 each.

So How Was It?

I popped the cork on one bottle at a friend's party when I got home, and it blew socks off nobody. One problem was context: In Jersey last year I was at an afternoon outdoor party featuring mostly canned beer, and was gratified to have somebody show up with a bottle of Cab to go with the white Zins and Chards. In California, the party was held by a guy with two 7-foot wine fridges in his converted garage, so the table groaned under twenty or so bottles of California wines, mostly reds of many varieties but also whites, real roses, and even a champagne. The Heritage 06 Cab didn't stand a chance.

But as I say, on its own, in quiet company, it's drinkable. And that, as I also say, is not what I was expecting from a South Jersey wine!

Heritage Vineyards of Richwood, 480 Mullica Hill Rd., Richwood, NJ 08074; (856) 589-4474

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wine Judge -and- Pinot Days Volunteering

On Friday (June 26) Lew Perdue and I will be down in the Central Valley of California, judging at the 5th Annual San Joaquin Wine Competition.
This is part of the Valley winegrowers' efforts to make clear that flat, dry, hot lands can produce quality wines -- contrary to the impression everyone (including me) has that you need at least some coolness, preferably fog, at certain times in the growing season if you want depth and character to your wines.

I very much look forward to the Association proving this point to me in the form of many dozens of their best wines. A full report will follow!

The same weekend, I'll be volunteering at the Pinot Days festival at Ft Mason in San Francisco, the annual display of the best efforts of some 200 (!) producers. Yes, folks, it's another 500+-wine tasting opportunity! I'll be roaming the floor Sunday before my shift starts. Volunteering for such events gives you added insights into what wines people are talking about, and the mood of the show. Again -- a report will follow In Due Time.

Image via Wikipedia

Sunday, June 21, 2009