Saturday, June 07, 2014

Tom Amabile of Cream Ridge Winery - Good Bye

So the other day I was talking with Richard Leahy and we were talking about some of our favorite wineries in the state of New Jersey, among other things. And I reminisced that one of my favorite wineries, for sentimental reasons, was Cream Ridge Winery. And it was at that time Richard told me that owner Tom Amabile had recently passed away. I paused. It was like someone had slapped me.

As I have written about on these pages before, I had ridden my bike by Cream Ridge Winery countless times while riding my bike through the countryside and from Trenton to the shore and back. This was in my youth, during my Breaking Away period, just before I had a car, and my green Schwinn ten-speed was everything. It was freedom, Independence. Separation. 
As I got older, and was old enough to go inside, I went to Cream Ridge. It was one of the first wineries I ever entered. And Tom Amabile was one of the nicest men you ever met. He told me how he made wine. He showed me his tanks and other equipment. He told me how the process works. He answered all the questions a young novice might ask. He never hesitated. He loved to talk about wine and gave of himself freely. I never told him what my plans were. He never asked, though I think he probably knew more about me than I could guess about him. Such is the disadvantage of youth and the wisdom of age.
The other thing to remember is that Tom was a pioneer. Back then there were only a dozen or so wineries in the state. And New Jersey wines were scoffed at in those days. Tom was one of a handful of people making award winning wines, and introducing a new generation of fruit wines to the public.

Raley Thomas “Tom” Amabile was born on September 3, 1931 in Irvington, NJ. He graduated from Arts High School, Newark, NJ where he acquired his love of music, especially opera. He sang in many glee clubs and choirs—one of which was the Mens Maplewood New Jersey Glee Club. He graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, NJ and served in the United States Army from 1955 to 1957.

In 1990, after 32 1/2 years, he retired from PSE&G as a network analyst specialist. While at PSE&G he established the mixed chorus which performed many concerts, including a special performance featuring Metropolitan Opera Singer Jerome Hines. The chorus lived on after he retired and continued to visit many local nursing homes, performing for their residents throughout the years.

A self-taught winemaker, Tom began making wine for friends and family as a hobby and ultimately founded Cream Ridge Winery in 1988 with his wife Joan. He was a pioneer in the making of many fruit wines and received numerous medals as well as the 2005 Governor’s Cup --the highest award in the state -- for Cherry Wine, and Cream Ridge Winery was named New Jersey’s first “Winery of the Year.” He loved teaching about the wine making process and did so at Middlesex Community College.

Along with his passion for winemaking, Tom truly loved opera and sacred music. He was a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church where he sang in the choir and led a weekly Bible study. His funeral service was at the Brenna Funeral Home, in Trenton, NJ, where dozens of friends and family have passed through. I know it's hallways an parlors. All the more reason why I felt bad I had not known.

I had not seen Tom in years. Even then I am not sure he would have remembered me if I had suddenly arrived. I had been there countless times and he had answered every question, and he did it all with a smile on his face, and a wave of his hand inviting me inside, to the back of the house. I was not the only one. He befriended dozens like me over the years, and he was just as generous with each. That was Tom. He had no luck growing grapes, but he could make other fruits shine as wine. His Cream Ridge Cherry Ciliegia Amabile was a revelation at the time.

I haven't spent as much time in New Jersey as I used to, and I am surprised how long ago my last visit was. When I visited last he was not there. But the memories of a very, very generous man are as clear as they ever were. Like it was yesterday. And I am ever grateful, humbled. And it occurs to me that the east coast winemaking community has lost a very valuable man. We could all learn something from his manner. He was one of the people whose shoulders we all stand on today.

To see my previous piece on Tom: