Sometimes we’re so busy traveling remote corners of the earth, or planning our next trip, we forget that there’s actually all kinds of good stuff going on right on our front doorstep. Case in point: The New Jersey Winemakers Co-op Spring Portfolio Tasting at Beneduce Vineyards , which I attended for the first time this year. When my wine buff friend Lara asked me if I wanted to come along, I didn’t need much convincing. Spending a warm spring day at a pretty winery, sipping on local New Jersey wines and listening to people talk intelligently (but not for too long!) about wine sounded like a good way to spend a day.
The New Jersey Winemakers Co-op was founded fairly recently by Beneduce, as well as Unionville Vineyards , Working Dog Winery and Heritage Vineyards , and this was only their second event of this kind. Our group had decided to get the VIP tickets, which came with a number of perks.
An hour before the official event started, we were invited to a panel discussion that included a tasting of one wine from each of the co-op members. We happily slurped away as the panel talked about New Jersey as a wine-making region, and the different style wines produced by each winery. All co-op members are committed to producing wines that are classic vitis vinifera varieties, dry or classically off-dry, and made from 100% New Jersey-grown grapes. As it turns out, New Jersey is a very diverse region geologically speaking, and packs in as many different types of terrain as France.
The Beneduce panelist explained how many millennia ago, their part of New Jersey was covered by the Atlantic Ocean. It left behind sandy soils and a distinct brininess in their wines. Heritage Vineyards, in Southern New Jersey, has a warmer climate (comparable to that in Bordeaux) and soils ranging from gravelly to clay-heavy.
The discussion went on, covering styles of wine, levels of pesticide use, and other diverse topics. It was actually highly interesting, even for people not that immersed in wine knowledge and vocabulary.
After the discussion, we headed over to the VIP area, where there was an excellent spread of cheese and charcuterie – just the ticket to soak up all those wines we’d just tasted.
And on to the main part of the program – sampling lots of New Jersey wines. Each vineyard was providing liberal tastings of several of their wines. Given the fairly small acreage they mostly have, it’s actually surprising how many different wines they produce. My big a-ha moment came when I realized that it’s the grapefruit and grapefruit pith taste, which is a little bitter, that I don’t like in so many rosé wines. This is what I love about events like this, and attending them with people more knowledgeable than me; I learn something new every time. And I do feel that that equips me to make better choices when I’m buying wine (well, sometimes).
(The day was actually a lot sunnier than it looks.)
We eventually decided it was time to take a break from imbibing, and hopped onto the hay ride-style vineyard tour. While the audible buzz from the power lines is a little distracting, Beneduce keeps a very neat vineyard, with each row labeled with its varietal. They’ve continued the tradition of planting rose bushes at the end of every row. Rose bushes are extremely sensitive to a type of powdery mildew that also affects grape vines, and act as an early warning system against outbreaks.
We wrapped up with a presentation by George M. Taber, who was the only member of the press present at the landmark blind tasting in 1976, also known as the ‘Judgment of Paris’, when Californian wines outperformed French wines for the first time ever. While there was already an established wine industry in California by then, it was known for cheap plonk, and French wines reigned supreme. The organizers, a Brit and an American, hoped to prove otherwise.
Why was Mr. Taber, who wrote for Time Magazine back then, the only journalist there at such an important event in the wine world? The press were invited, but convinced the result was a foregone conclusion, and no-one else bothered showing up. Mr. Taber, in his own words, didn’t have anything better to do that day. So he found himself at what turned out to be a historic event. He was able to derive particular amusement from being the only person there who the organizers had furnished with the list of wines being tasted, and had a good chuckle each time the (French) tasters praised a particularly good French wine that was actually Californian.
The interesting thing to me is how close in style French and Californian wines must have been at the time: All the judges were French, and would have given higher scores to French wines if they could have figured out which ones they were – but they weren’t able to. For me, this shows how much Californian wines have changed and developed their own personality in the intervening years. These days, I think of the two regions as producing very different styles of wine, with French wines on the dry side, and Californian ones more full-bodied and fruit-forward. Even I feel I’d stand a chance in a blind taste test between the two.
While Time Magazine felt that this outcome only merited four paragraphs on page 58 of the following week’s edition, the wine world was never going to be the same.
For more information on the wines that won, this is a good place to start: Visit California: Judgment of Paris