HERE'S THE acid test: If I popped open a bottle of wine from New Jersey, would you recoil in horror? Would you brace yourself for a cloyingly sweet swallow of a "wine" made from blueberry or cranberry or peach? Would you make a joke, say, about whether we were drinking Snooki's Reserve?
Or would you open your mind? Would you swirl, sniff, and sip - a cabernet franc from Blue Anchor or a merlot from Pilesgrove Township or an unoaked chardonnay from Mullica Hill?
This was the choice I faced last week as I tasted my way through the South Jersey wine trail. My guide for some of this tour was my father, who lives in Mickleton and who has become something of an advocate for the local wine. For the past year or so, he and my mother have been spending weekend afternoons tasting wines with names like Shamong Red (Valenzano Winery) or Crimson Sky (Sharrott Winery) or Battleship Red (Auburn Road).
This has been a surprise, since until recently I knew my father mainly as an unrepentant wine snob who veered more toward Brunello or Rioja or Napa Valley.
"You'd be surprised!" he said. "New Jersey wine isn't as bad as you'd think."
"Really?" I said. "How does it compare to the $100 bottle of Ribera del Duero we had the last time I was over?"
"It's all context, Jason," he said. "Your mom and I have a very pleasant time at these little wineries. The trick is to find a wine that tastes good once you take it away from the tasting room and open it at home."
"Have you found one of those yet?"
"Uh, we're still looking."
Loco or locavore?
As someone who has covered wine and spirits for a number of years, I run into a lot of advocates of the emerging "local wine movement." Wine is produced in all 50 states. A lot of people are very excited by this fact.
They extol the virtues of wine from outside the big producing states like California, Oregon and Washington. They see promise in wines from Pennsylvania, from North Carolina, from Indiana, from Arizona. They speak of grapes like Norton and Concord and Niagara.
They see themselves as evangelicals, envisioning a distant future when these regions might be mentioned in the same breath as Bordeaux or Barolo or even the Yakima Valley in Washington or New York's Finger Lakes.
I am not one of these people.
Call me an snob if you must; I don't care. When it comes to wine, I rarely root for the young upstart. I certainly seek out obscure, lesser known wines, but I prefer drinking them from places that have vineyards and a tradition that is at least older than me.
For example, Greek or Hungarian wines, with viticulture of several thousand years, seem merely undiscovered and out of the mainstream, but viable. Nebbiolo grown in Virginia seems somehow like a derivative experiment, at least for now.
Yeah, yeah, I know Thomas Jefferson made wine at Monticello in Virginia. He also shipped off to France, and once he discovered Bordeaux and Burgundy, he almost never came home.
Does this make me un-American? Perhaps. But if I offered you the choice to pay $30 for a middling wine from a mid-Atlantic state or less than $15 for a consistently good wine from Italy, Spain, Portugal or Austria, which would you choose? This is always the problem for me. I believe when it comes to wine, we should always think in terms of price versus value.
Too often small local wineries - all over the country - make a nice enough table wine that I would drink for $8 or maybe $11. But they sell it for $18 or $21 or more.
The tipping point
That said, I chose to put aside all my biases and simply visit and taste New Jersey's finest wines. I'm glad I did. I'm not yet ready to be an advocate for them, but I think it will be interesting to see what happens, particularly in the Outer Coastal Plain, South Jersey's officially recognized wine region (American Viticultural Area) that was created only a few years ago.
"I think New Jersey wines are at the tipping point," said Larry Sharrott III, 36, who started Sharrott Winery in Blue Anchor with his retired father, Larry Jr., in 2003. "You can make good wine anywhere. You just have to pick the right grape."
This, of course, is the fateful decision that every winemaker in every wine region in the world must grapple with. If you happen to be the great-great-great-grandson of a Tuscan winemaker who several centuries ago figured out that Sangiovese vines grew really well on that hill yonder, well then you're all set. You just tend the grapes your grandfather planted and don't mess it up.
In places like New Jersey, they're still learning the where and the what. Yes, there are old South Jersey wineries like Tomasello in Hammonton and Renault in Egg Harbor that have for years made a business focusing primarily on fruit wines. But it's the newer generation of New Jersey winemakers to keep your eye on.
The Sharrotts, for instance, only planted their first vines in 2005, after earning professional certificates in enology from the University of California, Davis. Their first vintage was 2007. By 2008, their cabernet franc won a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Not a bad start. It's been so good that the younger Sharrott recently quit his day job as writing software at Lockheed Martin.
Sharrott insisted that New Jersey's climate has much in common with Bordeaux, but with sandier soils. For that reason, the Sharrotts have mainly focused on Bordeaux varieties such as cabernet franc, merlot and chardonnay.
Farther south, at Heritage Winery & Vineyards in Mullica Hill, 2011's New Jersey Winery of the Year, the light-bodied, drinkable cabernet franc and the merlot were both the standouts.
At Auburn Road Vineyards in Pilesgrove, winemaker Julianne Donnini is also a believer in merlot. "Merlot does fabulously every year," she said. "Below Trenton, there are really, really nice merlots."
A Garden State grape
Donnini, like Sharrott, left her job to start the winery in the mid-2000s. She and several partners all worked in the financial sector. Donnini had been a securities litigator turned self-taught winemaker who also enrolled in the UC Davis program.
Auburn Road, like Sharrott and Heritage, is committed to a native New Jersey red grape called chambourcin. "We originally grew it to blend for its acidity and the color," Donnini said. "But chambourcin has become a star for us."
Donnini, likens chambourcin to Sangiovese in acidity, but it's much darker in color and doesn't have nearly the structure of the best expression of the Italian grape. When chambourcin is good, it's bold and rich, with notes of dark fruit and chocolate and cedar. When it's not good, it just tastes . . . purple. Right now, it's too often the latter.
However, Donnini does admit that South Jersey whites still lag behind the reds: "I don't think we've found our white yet."
I would agree.
I tasted some decent unoaked chardonnay at Heritage Winery in Richwood, and Sharrott's fine unoaked chardonnay has won awards the past two years at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. But beyond that, the pinot grigios and vidal blancs and Rieslings I tasted at a number of wineries were unremarkable.
One virtue of New Jersey wines is their relatively low alcohol content. Most are under 13 percent, which the newer generation is fashioning into a more subtle, Old World style - unlike, say, the fruit bombs one often gets from California, with alcohol levels now regularly topping 14-15 percent.
Sharrott's 2010 merlot clocks in at only 12.15 percent alcohol; its 2009 cabernet franc was only 11.4.
I appreciate this approach. But the problem of price persists for me. Some of my favorites - Sharrott's merlot ($17.99) and cabernet franc ($24.99); Heritage's cabernet franc ($19.50) and chambourcin ($25) Auburn Road's Merlot Reserve ($22.99) - all felt a little out of whack on the price/value axis.
My father has a different problem. He thinks the serious New Jersey wineries should get out of the fruit wine business. Even places Sharrott and Auburn Road still make the cheap, sweet stuff. "Why do they all feel like they have to make these terrible fruit wines?" he asked.
"We refused to do it at first," Donnini said. "Then we'd go to wine festivals, and people would ask, 'Do you have anything sweet and fruity?' If I said no, they'd walk away. And I'd think, 'That was a potential customer lost!' "
Still, she wants wine drinkers to be clear about one thing: "There's more to New Jersey wines than fruit wines."
Sharrott echoed Donnini's sentiment, adding: "We don't want to make a great New Jersey wine. We want to make a great wine that just happens to be from New Jersey."
This, in the end, may be the real acid test.
Six Flags Grape Adventure
You may see elephants, though probably not pink ones, at the Six Flags Grape Adventure from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Eleven New Jersey vineyards will be there with close to 150 locally produced wines for tasting.
There will be food, music and a craft village, too. The optional Wild Safari package includes a private tour with a stop to sample wines in the African Plains among the giraffes. (The theme park section is closed for the season.)
Six Flags Great Adventure is on Route 537 West in Jackson, N.J. Online prices are $15 for the wine event, $30 for the event and safari; at the door, $18 and $38. Details at www.sixflags.com/greatadventure.
Sharrott Cabernet Franc 2010
Perhaps the finest New Jersey wine I've tasted, suggesting the region's potential for cabernet franc. Fresh, good acidity and attractive herbal, mineral notes notes. Echoes of the fine cabernet francs from the Loire Valley - very faint, but they're there.
(12.75 percent alcohol by volume) $24.99
Auburn Road Merlot Reserve 2008
Aged 18 months in American oak and another eight months in the bottle, but the oak doesn’t overpower. This is a gentle, subtle wine with velvet tannins and flavors of cherry and baking spices.
(12 percent alcohol by volume) $22
Heritage Cabernet Franc 2008
Rustic and light bodied, with spicy green notes. Very drinkable and a versatile table companion with many different foods.
(13.6 percent alcohol by volume) $19
Click here for info on wineries mentioned in this column.
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.