Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rutgers Magazine: Grads Filling Out the Vineyards (NJ)

Learned It Through the Grapevine

Four recent graduates from the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences have carved out careers at New Jersey vineyards.

 Rich Heritage, Ryan Matthews, John Cifelli, and Justen Beneduce Hiles

Rich Heritage, Ryan Matthews, John Cifelli, and Justen Beneduce Hiles 

Clockwise from the upper left, alumni Rich Heritage, Ryan Matthews, John Cifelli, and Justen Beneduce Hiles are part of the surge in winemaking in New Jersey. Photography by Benoit Cortet

New Jersey has a ways to go before it’s in a league with Napa Valley or Sonoma, but vineyards are becoming big business here. Local vines are sprouting as consistently as the state’s famous summer tomato crop—and producing wines that are garnering rave reviews, too. A handful of recent graduates from the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) have carved out careers for themselves at New Jersey vineyards, having prepped for the wine industry in different ways while at SEBS. — Tammy La Gorce

JUSTEN BENEDUCE HILES, who studied agricultural sciences, opened the 51-acre Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown last summer with her brother, Mike Beneduce. Now, they make eight wine varieties, including a dry chardonnay and a pinot noir. Mike is the grape-wrangler, and Justen is the event director and handles management and sales. “I took one wine course at Rutgers, and Gary Pavlis [a Rutgers agricultural agent] gave me a little exposure and got me going with the Garden State Wine Growers Association,” says Beneduce Hiles SEBS’08.

JOHN CIFELLI earned his degree in meteorology after years of working in restaurants to pay his way through college. Instead of becoming the next Al Roker, he followed his nose to Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, where he is the director of operations at the former 89-acre peach orchard. “With our Bordeaux blend, called The Big O, we hold the Governor’s Cup for best wine in the state,” says Cifelli SEBS’10, who invites other grads to come visit the trophy in Unionville’s tasting room.

RICH HERITAGE graduated with a degree in economics and marketing. His entrée into wine was almost predetermined: his family has run Heritage Vineyards in Mullica Hill since 2001, when his parents converted the former 150-acre peach and apple orchard into a vineyard. Heritage is among the largest wineries in the state, with Heritage SEBS’09 at the helm of marketing. Several wines have won gold medals in national and international wine competitions.

RYAN MATTHEWS, who studied plant science, is maybe the most hands-on winemaker of the recent graduates. As the vineyard manager at Renault Winery, a century-and-a-half-old vineyard in Egg Harbor Township, he spends most of his time in the fields of the 1,400-acre property, which includes a hotel and golf course. A trip to Tuscany as a 16-year-old solidified his decision to make wine. “I fell in love with it,” says Matthews SEBS’11, who points out that New Jersey’s wine profile has changed a lot in recent years. “During my first couple of years at Rutgers, I didn’t know how good the wine was here. Now it’s definitely on the map worldwide.”