Published: March 12, 2013
NEW YORK TIMES
The Outer Coastal Plain might be the perfect place to make fine wine in America. The region, which has nearly the same sandy soil composition as Bordeaux, experiences a warm growing season; spring frosts are rare; and the breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and a local bay are ideal for winemaking. The O.C.P. has only one real challenge: it’s in southern New Jersey, a state associated with many things — Springsteen, Snooki, industrial pollution, the mob — but not great wine. Much of what is bottled there, in fact, isn’t even grape-based.
Surprisingly, there’s a lot of great wine in New Jersey. But it can be hard to find among the plonk. That’s not a taste problem; it’s a financial one. Louis Caracciolo, a vintner in Atco, N.J., just down the road from the Camden County Airport, is trying to change this reputation. Caracciolo, who refers to himself as Johnny Grapeseed, has spent a considerable amount of time promoting the notion that New Jersey may yet become an internationally recognized wine capital. It’s a long process but not without precedent. Caracciolo started making wine there in 1976, the same year as the famous blind tasting in which a bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon scored higher than several from the finest wineries in France, like Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion. The Judgment of Paris, as it became known, transformed the reputation of the California wine business and helped build it into a $20-billion-a-year industry.
New Jersey’s wine industry currently generates about $35 million a year, but Caracciolo has large ambitions. A trained food scientist, he has learned that while merlot grapes have a rough time with his region’s cold winters, cabernet franc does remarkably well. He has visited wineries in Bordeaux and Burgundy and even consulted with winemakers at Château Margaux on his method of cleaning old barrels. A few years ago, he also reached out to George Taber, the respected wine journalist and author of “The Judgment of Paris.” Taber, who lived in New Jersey for 25 years, knew the state had a tradition of “mass production of rotgut,” but he was impressed by the wines at Caracciolo’s Amalthea Cellars. Last year, Taber helped organize the so-called Judgment of Princeton, in which a panel of respected wine critics, including two from France, compared New Jersey wines with some of the best French ones in a blind tasting. Shockingly, the results showed a near tie. Several Garden State vineyards — Heritage, Tomasello, Silver Decoy and Caracciolo’s Amalthea — scored nearly as well as Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. In several cases, the Jersey wines were hundreds of dollars cheaper per bottle, too.
After reading about the Judgment of Princeton, I took a trip to the O.C.P., which forms a wide crescent around Atlantic City. I am not an expert, but I really enjoyed a number of the wines at Amalthea, like a 2010 red blend inspired by Château Margaux. I also visited the Tomasello Winery a few miles away. Tomasello placed fifth among reds at the Judgment of Princeton, and I especially liked its Palmaris cabernet sauvignon, which retails for $48. The vineyard owner, Charlie Tomasello, explained that his core focus these days is on the high-end market. But he also confessed that the company still makes most of its money in more traditional Jersey wines. The company has more than 40 varieties, including blueberry, cranberry, raspberry and Concord grape ($8.95 a bottle). When I arrived, the staff was preparing for a Groupon event that would bring in nearly a hundred customers the next day.
My guide on the trail, via telephone, was Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton labor economist and president of the American Association of Wine Economists, a group that sometimes seems to exist to give economists a cover to drink lots of wine. New Jersey’s quality winemakers face a classic economic conundrum known as a collective-action problem. There are about 50 wineries in the state, and 10 are making great wine. The other 40 are, well . . . the nicest phrase I heard was, “Not very good.” To make more money and earn prestige, Ashenfelter noted, the good winemakers need to shift the attitude of tastemakers (critics, sommeliers, distributors) about New Jersey wines. But every time they improve the reputation of their state, and the prices of their wines, they create the opportunity for producers of the state’s traditional sweet wines to take advantage of that improved reputation. This increases the likelihood that on-the-fence observers, unaware of which New Jersey wine to try, might sample the wrong one.
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