The Winemaker of Hunterdon County
The notion of tending a vineyard and making wine evokes deep emotions, ranging from an idyllic fantasy to memories of immigrant grandparents crushing grapes just as they learned from their own grandparents. Winemaking is part of our cultural identity and humanity, even if we’ve never made wine ourselves. Because wine is life.
Through this column I offer a glimpse into the life of an aspiring winegrower in Hunterdon County, in Central New Jersey, seen through my vineyard and winemaking journal. And because wine is a food best enjoyed with other foods, with each column I will recommend specific grapes whose wines complement meals of that particular season, and I will gladly email the recipes to those who ask for them.
I have two winegrowing years under my belt. But, at least a decade is needed to establish a productive vineyard and understand its soul. Only then, will I know which grapes suit it best before starting the second phase of this odyssey, which is discovering how best to treat them in the wine cellar.
In the meantime, there is much to learn, and wine to taste. Come, join me.
FEBRUARY 5, 2007
It’s four degrees Fahrenheit in the vineyard at 5:45 AM, where the trellises cast shadows in the moonlit snow. Winter arrived late this year, and now spring seems far off and I worry about cold-hardy grapevines that aren’t quite so, or new buds fooled by those seventy-degree days in January, which this morning could be freeze-dried and worthless.
Winter for winegrowers is quiet. Vines are dormant. The previous year’s harvest is now aging in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. My thoughts go to last year’s lessons, my plans for the next, and to topping-off the barrels every few weeks after the angels take their share of wine. Some attribute this loss to evaporation through an oak barrel’s staves. But I know a guardian angel is needed to succeed as a winegrower, so I gladly tithe.
Our first vines were planted nearly two years ago, in April 2005, in a test plot at the crest of our farm. I planted them myself over several cold and damp days, about when my son, Matthias, was baptized. I thought I might fly fish that April at nearby Ken Lockwood Gorge, but I learned then that winegrowing — especially as a weekend endeavor — allows little time for play.
I’ve since grown determined to master it in a way that “trout taken by flies” had once obsessed me long ago. I still receive the glossy catalogues each Spring from Orvis and Cabella’s, but it’s the flyers from grape vine nurseries, emails from vineyard and winemaking supply stores, and newspaper classifieds for used tractors, that get my attention now.
This season, those first sixty vines will bear a small crop — their first — and a year from now it will be wine resting in a barrel. The next two hundred vines, planted in April 2006, need another year for their roots to mature before they can handle fruit. Together they comprise our experimental plot, which should help me learn which grapes grow best here and how much time and effort they will require. Vineyards are expensive to plant and time-consuming to maintain, so I thought it best to start small and hope the vines tolerate my ignorance.
Until now, my modest winemaking has relied on grapes grown in California, upstate New York and the Atlantic Highlands of New Jersey, whose climates and soils couldn’t differ more from each other or my vineyard. But provenance matters not to those with the primal urge to make wine in autumn. People with Italian, Hungarian, French, German or Austrian heritage may feel it in their bones, like those of Irish or Scottish descent who stir at the sound of bagpipes.
An experimental vineyard reduces the innumerable variables and unknowns, at least a bit. Trial and error is the surest way to pick the best location for the grapes, rootstock and trellis system. But a decade or more may pass before the results of each trial — and each error — are known. When I started, I knew from prior business ventures only how expensive one’s naivety could be.
ROOTSTOCK AND MENTORS
I descend from farmers. One grandfather was reared by Austrian-immigrant parents on a strawberry farm in southern New Jersey, while my German-Irish grandmother haled from a farm in northern New Hampshire. But, they joined the many, a century ago, who left the farm forever. My German great-grandfather made his own dandelion wine and brewed his own beer during Prohibition, but any other winemaking traditions in my family are lost to history.
Genes don’t make a farmer and I had no idea how much there is to know about agriculture in general, though at times I sense my ancestors smiling upon me as I sit in the breeze beneath a tree at the end of a hard day, dirty, sweaty, and utterly satisfied by the sense of honest work. There is much to learn, more than a lifetime’s worth I now think. But my most important lesson has been the importance of finding mentors.
Perhaps the challenges all farmers face prompt the seasoned ones to help those in need, or to just be helpful. Maybe it’s the sense that anyone who shows an interest in agriculture deserves a hand because he or she is the future of farming, and the wild and wooly world of artisan winegrowing in particular. I know only that my progress would not be possible without the kindness of others, be it my neighbor, Frank, who chisel-plowed, disked and planted turf on the large sloping lot where I wanted to plant my vineyard; Craig, a winemaker, who offered a new oak barrel when I needed one in a pinch; and others who simply offered encouragement.
But this help did not come easily. I am by all accounts a city slicker, and a well-traveled, well-read know-it-all at that. And I follow many, who in recent decades, dreamed of planting a vineyard, unaware of the commitment of time and capital and the bitter disappointments that lie ahead. More than a few people — including the grape expert at Rutgers University Cooperative Extension — told me I shouldn’t try.
But through persistence and progress I showed my mettle, and they in turn opened their arms. I harbor no illusions, though, about making and selling world class wine from grapes grown in my vineyard. It is very hard to do, requiring the vastly different expertise of grape farmer, winemaker, and wine marketer.
The grape farmer must plant the right vines in the right place. Care for them in just the right way. And harvest them at just the right time. This is a Herculean task in an unforgiving environment like Hunterdon County where it can feel like spring one day and winter, the next.
The winemaker must start with excellent fruit, treat it tenderly and selectively so it retains its essence before and during the Crush, and then tread the fine line between artist and scientist as the must goes through primary and perhaps secondary fermentation and then, as wine, through stabilization, aging and bottling. Indeed, the less one touches the wine the better it is, if the grapes are excellent. The wine marketer must know what artisan wine consumers will buy five or even ten years hence, and how to best present and distribute it without the muscle of wholesalers and distributors. Pouring samples in a quaint tasting room loaded with T-shirts and corkscrews is not enough.
Try as I might, I’ll never master all there is to know about grape farming or wine making, so a vineyard manager and winemaker will be needed. But I do understand business, and have a sense of the growing desire among wine drinkers for handcrafted, artisan wines made in a restrained style from fruit expressing the essence of small vineyards.
Which turns my thoughts back toward the vineyard this frigid morning, and the big decisions that must be made this week.
FEBRUARY 13, 2007
I was advised to fence our vineyard against deer. The experts said this was a must, but the cost and concentration-camp-like appearance prompted me to put it off. By September I could no longer deny the problem. A family of deer can defoliate a half acre of vines in an hour. And if the deer wait until September or early October, they’ll get a ton of ripe grapes.
I should have listened to the experts, and now must decide how much of our property to fence in, and with what type of fence.
Today I met with the first of several vendors, who promised everything and nothing about protecting my vines from the four-legged devils. The only thing that’s clear is the magnitude of the investment, which will easily add a dollar or two to the price of each bottle of wine I ultimately sell. This is but one indicator of an ecosystem run amok.
And while walking the vineyard with the fence salesman this morning, I can feel in my bones that the weatherman was right: Our first real winter storm arrives tomorrow, pushing off thoughts of spring for some time.
FEBRUARY 21, 2007
What a difference a few days in February can make. After more frigid weather and a hellacious snow and sleet storm a week ago, today it’s nearly fiftyoF and the sky is brilliant blue. The stream on our farm is roaring with snowmelt, after being frozen solid since mid-January.
Driving with the windows down in the truck this noon brought a refreshingly mild road breeze and the first whiff of rotting manure in the pastures along County Road 579 coming up out of Pittstown. I’m not sure if the aroma is really that strong, or if my nose went untested in winter when the countryside smells of little at all.
Back home, a glance up to the vineyard reveals the benefit of a south-by-southwest aspect: Only traces of snow are left on the ground, the rest now melted and sheeting off toward the creeks and streams below. It pools on the uphill side of the terrace that dates back to the Great Depression when the New Deal funded soil management programs to protect our nation’s food supply.
Like all hibernating creatures, a winegrower’s pulse quickens at the first sign of spring because it promises fair weather to come. He is also reminded there will soon be much to do. And, for me anyway, unfinished winter chores.
Our plan for 2007 is now complete: We are planting two acres of grapes this spring, almost 1,700 grafted vines in total, bringing us up to three acres, which is the minimum required to make and sell wine as a New Jersey farm winery.
MARCH 16, 2007
I drove to Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania today to look at a used tractor with a $3,000 cash down payment burning a hole in my pocket. The dealer’s name was Bob, and while I don’t know if he was Amish, Mennonite or what, he was of another era to be sure.
My neighbor, Frank, a third generation farmer in Hunterdon County who is going out of his way to help me learn the ropes, rode with me. He knows I need a decent tractor at a reasonable price, that I barely know what I need, and that I might not recognize it when I see it.
To get there we drove through the worst storm so far this winter. I was ready to scrub the trip, but Frank said, “It’s not supposed to get bad till afternoon, and we can always turn around.”
When I hesitated, he finished with, “So where’s your sense of adventure?” Indeed, the whole vineyard venture is an adventure, so why draw the line at the weather?
After two hours of driving through wet snow deep into Lancaster County, we found Bob and the tractor we were looking for, but couldn’t agree on price. He wanted $12,000, I offered $9,000, and after Bob finished laughing, he thanked us for driving so far in such lousy weather.
During the ride home, which took an extra hour on spinout-littered Route 222 and I-78, I was mindful of Frank’s time — considering we left empty-handed — but he assured me that we learned some things, and so it wasn’t wasted effort. Once home, storm still raging, Frank later appeared at my front door with a handful of freshly clipped classifieds advertising the sale of used tractors.
No one in my corporate career tried this hard to help me succeed. Farming is a different world indeed.
MARCH 20, 2007
I got a whiff of the past this morning. Or was it the future?
While loading refuse from our tractor shed into a dumpster (spring cleaning, farm style), I found a dozen or so wooden crates that bore California fruit last autumn.
My locally sourced grapes were high in acid, and the most holistic way a winemaker can correct this is to blend them with low acid grapes, of which California has an ample supply. Hence the purchase of a quarter ton of Valdepena, a red wine grape of Spanish origin, grown in the hot and dusty Central Valley town of Lodi, California.
Now five months later, while our wine rests in the barrel room, I was standing in the snow outside our tractor shed, warming myself in the brilliant sunshine as I dismembered the wooden Valdenpena crates so their pieces would use less space in the dumpster.
The aroma of wine grapes rose from the damp, juice-stained wood, transporting me back five months to the joy and excitement of the Crush, which is chaos, anxiety and bliss swirled together. At the very same moment my mind flipped ahead seven months to this coming autumn, when we’ll harvest and crush our own grapes for the first time.
MARCH 21, 2007
The first day of spring. But snow still blankets the fields and its melt swells streams and rivers nearby.
My urbane side used to deride those who talk about the weather, labeling them as boring, uninteresting or even dull. But with one foot now planted firmly backward in the agrarian age, before steam engines, electricity, air travel and the Internet, I now understand why the weather matters. It only bores those who think they’re immune, though none of us really are.
I now pay attention to rain and temperature, shifting winds, cloud formations and the jet stream, and other things that were mere backdrop in my prior life. Today they are center stage even when I am doing my corporate job that supports my vineyard. And I feel more centered because of it.
APRIL 7, 2007
Early to mid-April marks the beginning of the winegrower’s year, when everything learned before is reflected in the scribbles, diagrams and spreadsheets that comprise this year’s plan.
This is Easter weekend — Holy Saturday, to be exact — and I spent the day laying out the expanded vineyard and using a Ditch Witch to dig long trenches in the soil. I was helped by my father-in-law, a Hungarian stone mason now retired to Vermont, who is physically imposing and a very tough bird. Charlie is a non-drinker who readily volunteered to run the trencher in the vineyard, but his first words up there this morning caught me off-guard, when wives and children were beyond earshot:
“What the hell’s wrong with you? Don’t you have two college degrees, and you’re out here digging ditches on a freezing Saturday morning? I’m seventy-two Goddamn years old, started my life digging ditches as a Hungarian sweat hog, and here I am all over again.”
Then he saw how poorly cut my trenches were, so he diplomatically took over and then blissfully ran the machine in the cold wind for the next six hours, slitting a four-inch trench while I measured and marked Mother Earth, where she would soon cradle my new vines.
An hour or so into it, Frank slid off of his tractor nearby and strode across the field to admire our work, and to talk about Topic #1, buying tractors.
I’ve given up on buying a used tractor and instead have been leaning toward a new one made in China that’s sold through a reputable American tool company. Knowing that Frank is an International Harvester guy (“I drive Red”, he says, instead of John Deere green), I wasn’t sure how he’d react to me buying a Chinese-made tractor. But his message this morning was clear.
“Got the Northern Tools catalogue, and they make one big enough for me to do my spraying, and you can’t beat the price. Maybe we should buy our tractors together and see if we can get a package deal.”
Hearing his words lifted the guilt of treason from my shoulders, and when Charlie, my father-in-law, repeated his Peter has two college degrees-digging trenches-Hungarian sweat hog rant, Frank said simply, “That’s OK, Pete’s a farmer-in-training, and this is how he’s learning.”
APRIL 8, 2007
Easter Sunday. I thought I might work a little more outdoors this afternoon, but persistent cold and dampness are no match for a seat in front of a roaring fireplace. Our dinner was a marvelous spring lamb, pan-roasted in a traditional style of northern Italy, which we served with asparagus and carrots sautéed with garlic. The wine we served came from a small villa outside Siena, where we dined on the 12th of September 2001.
Stranded in Italy that awful week, this was among our most memorable meals in Tuscany, with the chef emerging from the kitchen to offer his condolences to us personally. He was one of only two people in Italy to do so over the entire week it took us to get back home (he was British; the other was a woman, in another restaurant, who fled the killing fields of Serbia seven years before).
And so today my wife and I savored this wine with a heavenly lamb, sharing it with unsuspecting relatives, thinking to ourselves about the past fourty days, wandering in the desert, and the prospect of new life.
Tonight I wonder if Henry, a nearby farmer with a bulldozer, will ever materialize. The terrace must be flattened before the new fence goes in. And the new fence should have been in a month ago so I can lay out the entire vineyard.
APRIL 9, 2007
I made a round-trip flight to Milwaukee today for my day job and, after returning about midnight, found a bulldozer parked at the base of our vineyard. This is a good sign — Henry must be ready to start.
I was once oblivious to terraces, but now I see them anywhere there’s hilly farmland. Like a berm snaking its way along the contours of a sloping field, a terrace stems erosion by preventing rainwater and snow melt from washing precious topsoil away. Since we planted our field with Timothy hay, erosion is no longer a problem, but the terrace is. Rainwater pools on the uphill side, keeping the ground soggy. Considering that grapevines don’t like wet feet, the terrace must go.
I’d hoped Henry would do this a month ago, but with late winter snow and cool weather, the turf hadn’t dried out until now. And, I suspect, the beginning of fishing season might have been a distraction for Henry as well.
In the meantime, I’m jazzed by completing our final orders for vineyard and winery equipment. This is what spring is for me now. Instead of casting for trout on swollen streams, though I’m sure, once my son Matthias is a little older, I’ll throw flies and even baseballs again. Until then, spring is about preparing soil, planting vines, and celebrating bud break as the first delicate leaves emerge, followed by shoots, tendrils and fruit.
APRIL 13, 2007
Mike, our vineyard crew chief, and I will continue trenching tomorrow, racing against the calendar to finish preparing for the upcoming planting. With 1,700 new vines arriving in the middle of next week, they will need moist open earth ready to receive them like a mass incubator.
But I’m full of doubt right now. Much can go awry, and something always does. We’re already behind schedule, and rain is forecast for Sunday, maybe a real soaker.
APRIL 15, 2007
Yesterday brought one human or equipment failure after another, and only our sense of humor kept us going. We are still woefully behind. And today we’re getting a Nor’easter — the real deal — dumping inches of windswept rain on the fields and under the eves of our farmhouse.
Not only is the soil already swollen with moisture, but those carefully dug trenches, each eighteen inches deep by four inches wide, running 325 feet long, are now brimming with rainwater and surely backfilling with soil. And the ground around our farmhouse is like a saturated sponge
I do not exaggerate this: There’s a spot near our mudroom door where the ground is bubbling with air being squeezed out of the waterlogged soil by the weight of our home. I now I hear we’ll get snow and sleet before this Nor’easter blows out tomorrow morning.
This is enough to make a man drink. Come on, Spring!
WINES FOR THE SEASON — WINTER INTO SPRING
This time of year challenges the cook and therefore the sommelier. Only the earliest vegetables and herbs are found in the garden, and their flavors are delicate though deeply satisfying. This calls for wines of substance that won’t overwhelm the food.
For fish and light chicken dishes, or as an aperitif, I recommend that you try a wine whose principal grape is Pinot Gris.
This is the same grape the Italians call Pinot Grigio, and it goes by more than a few other names in Europe. Those labeled Pinot Gris are usually made in an Alsatian style. They are full, but avoid the overpowering flavors of new oak, and offer a balance of fruitiness, acidity and alcohol. You can find excellent examples from Oregon and Washington State.
A wonderful meal to spotlight Pinot Gris includes fresh prawns sautéed with shallots and tarragon, served with steamed white rice and carrots sautéed with whole garlic. If you’d like the recipes for this meal, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org)
For pasta and meats like roast chicken, pork and lamb, I recommend that you try a wine whose principal grape is Dolcetto.
This grape originates from northwestern Italy’s Piedmont and Lombardy regions, and its wines complement meals without being pretentious. Some connoisseurs think Dolcettos are too simple and are useful only in blended wines, but I disagree. If drunk while young, they exemplify spring.
Try a Dolcetto with lamb in the style of Northern Italy, pan-roasted with rosemary, sage, white wine and potatoes, served with fresh asparagus and sliced carrots sautéed with olive oil, butter and garlic. If you’d like the recipes for this meal, email me:email@example.com)
Peter Leitner grows Vinifera and makes wine at his Hunterdon County farm, near Pittstown, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, two children, and a Dachshund named Liesl. He planted his first vines in 2005, more than two decades after minoring in vineyard exploration as an undergraduate in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. A recovering investment banker and itinerant entrepreneur, Peter — in his day job — acquires companies on behalf of a global healthcare IT firm. En vino veritas.