New Jersey’s Fine Wines

Who needs Napa and France?

New Jersey residents rank fifth in the country for per capita wine consumption, but only one percent of that wine is made in New Jersey. Reminds me very much of when I taught at Rutgers: People outside the region were far more impressed. A winery 20 minutes from your house must have the same effect, “meh,” but the New Jersey Wine Growers Association is trying to change that.

In early August, NJWGA held a wine tasting, with over 20 wineries, bands, crafters and food tents, at Cooper River Park. I went with an eclectic crowd of 12: among us were a public defender, an American man who has lived and taught in Tokyo for 17 years, a union roofer, a psychology professor, three English professors, and a cop from Vineland. Only the cop declared himself any kind of sommelier and we were off, wrist-banded and bearing glasses with the growers association logo.

We had given ourselves various missions. I was after a Riesling to call my own. The environmental scientist wanted to find a syrah. The public defender didn’t know Jersey wines at all (see first sentence) and wanted to try it all. The Tokyo teacher challenged the Princeton professor to not only find a prosecco, but told her he’d buy her a bottle if she accepted a second challenge: They both had to find someone to (theoretically) sleep with.

I don’t much about wine; I only know what I like–dry wines, not fruity or sweet. I pretty much allow the season to dictate—red in winter, white in summer. My boyfriend and I have very different wine tastes, though we can always find something we both like, compromise wines. But it was hot and it felt difficult to really make a decision about the reds. A little sip of red just isn’t appetizing when your other hand is wiping off sweat.

The winery employees were friendly, and we all soon saw the trick: If you engaged any of them in conversation when they poured you their label’s first sip, they would stay with you, chat, ask what you thought of the wine you just tasted, really listen to you, then say, “Well, if you didn’t like that, try this.” And you could stay in the shade in one place for a while, sipping various varietals while plied with choices, trying to find “the one” with as much desperation as folks on eHarmony. The cold, “fruit-juicy” wines tasted better and better as the afternoon wore on.

As we made our way through the tents, many pouring more than 20 types of wine, my own preferences got blurry, as did my ability to walk on the marshy grass in platform sandals. We had brought picnic baskets and coolers: As event organizer, my caveat had been that our theme be “ Jersey Fresh,” so our choices included peach salsa, hummus with cilantro, and blueberry-encrusted goat cheese. I thought it would be fun to eat Jersey produce as well as drink it, I guess. I had gone all Martha Stewart and brought lovely floral cloth napkins and real plates. When the group went to nosh, the Princeton professor and I hung back and bought two bottles of cold wine, asking the curly-haired St. Joe’s student worker to open them so we could surprise our group and drink during our break from drinking.

We had all started off keeping very good records on the two-page, double-sided wine list we were given, scribbling with our mini-golf pencils, but by the time we left our picnic spot to attack the second row of wineries, only two of us still had our lists at all. We became more aggressive with the wine sellers, basically swaggering up to their tables and saying, “So what have you got?”

Oh, and this is important—all of the wineries were offering case discounts and festival-only specials and if you bought a whole case, they would take it to a pick-up area, so when you left you could drive to one spot and get it all. The Vineland cop was designated DD and was going to make as many trips around the river as he needed to; he very generously also said he’d do case pick-up. The environmental technician told the film student that the wineries all had pitchers of sangria (i.e. no pour caps), and things got pretty intense.

When I woke up the next morning some of our friends had slept over, and I needed to start pounding coffee and water. I maneuvered down the stairs and lo, three cases of wine sat in my living room. I may have woken up in the correct bed with the correct man, but this was disconcerting. It took me several hours to build up the courage to open up the cartons and assess what I had done. Blueberry champage. Strawberry mead. Cranberry and apple blends.

Freakin’ Jersey fresh.

Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly and an associate teaching professor at Drexel University. Don’t follow her on Twitter @kvm1303 because she hardly ever tweets. She hopes to have her own website one day, and also, no war.