Living in New Jersey these past eight years hasn't been all that bad. I got to marry my beautiful wife. I've made (and maintained) some great friendships. And, of course, I've gotten to know a little about the wine made here (and spirits and beer, don't forget about those). Last month, I took a day to visit Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, NJ. I've been working on a podcast episode (my first ever) about that visit, but in the meantime wanted to whet your appetite.
I got to meet Cameron Stark, the winemaker there, and learn how he ended up in New Jersey and what his approach to winemaking is. "Part of my schtick if I have a schtick, is that we should stop trying to make California-style wines because we can’t do it, A, and B, there’s enough of it out there.” And Cameron knows about California-style wines. He actually started out making wine in Napa after attending UC Davis. He spent time at Robert Sinskey before a brief stint trying to make a go of his own winery with a friend.
I found it pretty interesting that a winemaker in Napa would end up making wine in New Jersey. Usually something like that would go the other way around. A winemaker would start off in New Jersey, the minors let's say, and end up "graduating" to the big leagues like Napa or Oregon. Even the Finger Lakes in New York is considered a step up right now. New Jersey actually ranks 14th in wine production in the US, according to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau--I know, the acronym seems a bit off, right?), which regulates wine production here in the US.
But Cam seemed like just the kind of guy to do that. At medium height, solid build and bright red hair, he strikes you as a bit of a rebel, and not one to play into conventional rules. And being that the New Jersey wine industry is so young, it's a good match. "It’s all experimentation. Well, maybe 30% of what we’re doing I’m fairly confident." One of the wines where this attitude of experimentation became apparent was in the Mountain Road Chardonnay. Cam had trouble describing it, "It’s an interesting Chardonnay? I’m probably restraining it more than I should. I almost feel like I’m trying to move it to what these are [Home and Pheasant Hill] which are higher acid. I should just let this be what it’s gonna be." We began a conversation about California chardonnay and how some of them are overwhelmed by oak and are rich and unctuous. He doesn't want to do that, "But," I interjected, "if you think that this would naturally submit to that style, why not just let it…” He relented, “This year, that’s what we’re going for...we’ll see what happens.”
Speaking of the owners, Bob Wilson, the only actively involved owner, happened to stop in while I was there. A jovial, clearly well-cultured and travelled, older gentleman, he started the Pheasant Hill Vineyard back in the late '90s because of his passion for wine. In 2008, the other owners of Unionville stepped away and he took on more control. We had a great time talking about the wines of Alsace and Burgundy, wines we both have a passion for. And it's clear what his vision for the winery is. "I like to be able to tell people in California that we're the best winery on the East Coast. California's got some pretty good places, and Washington and Oregon, but other than that, we're the best in the country."
Them's fightin' words, Bob. But you may be onto something.