South Jersey-bred Doug Cooper took a glass of ruby red cabernet franc the other night, and his eyes lit with appreciation at the first sip.
"Hey, I like that quite a bit," he said.
But would he believe that it came from the upstart Sharrott Winery in Blue Anchor, Winslow Township, about 13 miles from his Blackwood roots?
"You must be kidding me," he said. "Never in a million years would I imagine that."
Of course, Cooper's no wine expert. He can be excused both his skepticism and his lack of familiarity with this rising winery in our own backyard - Sharrott is just selling its third vintage.
But imagine the surprise when a gathering of professional wine judges in California, tasting blindly through thousands of American offerings at the recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, awarded gold medals to not one, but three New Jersey wines.
Sharrott's 2008 cabernet franc and a 2008 gewürztraminer from Alba, near Milford, were winners. Alba also claimed the Best of Class gold for its chambourcin.
"We've seen a continued growth of entries from outside of California," said Bob Fraser, executive director of the Chronicle competition, the largest in America, whose 4,913 wines came from 23 states.
Granted, most of these, like 90 percent of the $30 billion American wine industry's product, came from California. But in a competition where wines are tasted blindly, identified just by a number on the crystal stem, preconceptions are obliterated. And there are bound to be some unexpected winners.
Aside from the well-established vineyards of Oregon and Washington state, this year saw a strong push in medals from New York's Finger Lakes area, which took top honors in five of the 26 white and sparkling categories.
There were only six wineries entered from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But three gold winners from New Jersey (Pennsylvania's only winner, Briar Valley Vineyard in Bedford, garnered three bronzes) emphasize the possibilities for winemaking in a region that few mainstream consumers, like Cooper, have taken seriously.
"I believe there have been some biases against East Coast wines," said Larry Sharrott Jr., who started the winery eight years ago with his son, Larry III. "But when wineries like ours win medals, it confirms the fact that we can produce excellent wines that stand up to the rest of the country. Part of the challenge is just getting people to try them."
Tom Sharko agrees. He's owned Alba Vineyard, in Finesville, about 25 minutes southeast of Easton, Pa., since 1997. He and his winemaker, John Altmaier, have been getting national notice for several years, with a Best of Class dry riesling at last year's Chronicle competition to go with this year's golds (as well as three silvers). Alba for the last two years has been the Garden State Wine Growers Association's Winery of the Year.
"Between these competitions and [wine magazines], these scores give us the credibility for people to give us a try," Sharko said.
Sharrott and Sharko are part of a growing trend toward local winemaking, with 140 Pennsylvania wineries now vs. 42 a decade ago, and New Jersey's number growing from 12 to 40 over the same period. Vineyards have become profitable centers for day-tripping agritourism, a drinkable extension of the "go local" movement. And winemaking remains one of the most viable ways to preserve small farms as agricultural open space, while suburban development continues to chew up East Coast land.
But for an industry long marred (and rightfully so) by stereotypes of cloyingly sweet fruit wines and lesser-known hybrid grapes like chambourcin that can be hard to swallow, these producers are a beacon of what is possible when quality is the main focus. Not only have these wineries made the financial investment and the commitment to self-education, they have also outfitted themselves with the best equipment, from French oak barrels at Alba to temperature-controlled fermenters at Sharrott.
"How do you make a small fortune in the wine industry?" asked Larry Sharrott Jr., citing the old winemaker's riddle. "Start with a large fortune."
The winery has been a second career for Sharrott, a longtime hospital technology executive (at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and AtlantiCare) who joined forces with his son, a software engineer at Lockheed Martin, after attending a seminar called "So You Want to Start a Small Winery."
The two earned professional certificates in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, over three years of coursework both online and in visits to California. The studies gave them the foundation to begin at a high level, trying to get the best out of the six acres planted in grapes on their 35-acre farm in the Outer Coastal Plain (OCP), an officially recognized wine region (or AVA) that covers the lower southeastern third of the state. Its mild maritime climate has been likened to Bordeaux's, but the OCP's sandy soils are markedly different from the clay-rich and gravelly earth of its French counterpart.
Larry Sharrott Jr. said, "One of the questions we have: What is the best expression of our terroir? The soils? The climates?"
So far, with a total production of 3,500 cases made from 50 percent estate fruit in 2008, Sharrott has had obvious success with its 2008 cabernet franc, an earthy ruby swirl of black cherries, red bell pepper, smooth tannins, and oak that has a live-wire acidity perfect for a roast. Its 2008 unoaked chardonnay won Best Chardonnay at the 2009 Finger Lakes International Competition, but its 2009 successor was considerably less impressive, with too much heat in the middle where fruit should have been. It points to a major disadvantage East Coast vintners must compensate for that Californians generally need not: significantly inconsistent weather from vintage to vintage. And for most, 2009 was a difficult, rainy year.
For Sharko, who worked with hand-crafted furniture before buying Alba out of bankruptcy in 1997, the key has been to plant densely, prune with abandon, and let the fruit ripen as long as possible before harvest - a challenge for winemakers on the humid East Coast, where rot is a persistent concern.
"We're asking every vine to do a little, but do its very best - and it's paid off," said Sharko, who has 45 of his 97 limestone-rich acres planted in grapes. His annual production of 15,000 cases is made from 80 percent estate-grown fruit.
Finding a good selection of the wines on retail shelves might be the biggest challenge. Some of Sharrott's wines are available at a handful of South Jersey outlets (Canal's Wines Unlimited in Medford, Hops & Grapes in Glassboro, ShopRite in West Berlin, and Canal's Bottlestop in Marlton online). But most large distributors won't carry wines made in quantities of fewer than 1,000 cases, which means that some of Alba's most interesting small-lot batches, like its barbera, a Dijon clone chardonnay, and that intensely aromatic award-winning gewürztraminer will have to be purchased at the winery, where, like Sharrott, it sells 80 percent of its stock.
"It's a nice day trip," said Sharko.
Even better news for all you local vino skeptics: The wine's good, too.
Restaurant critic Craig LaBan was a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition on the panel that awarded the New Jersey wines gold medals. It was a blind tasting. Contact him at 215-854-2593 or email@example.com.