Honoring the Day

May 26, 2016

The Best Way to Celebrate Memorial Day is:

A. Visit your favorite winery
B. Road trip to the Shore
C. Multiple cookouts/pool parties
D. Hang the hammock under a tree
E. All of the Above

All are correct, but let’s recall the real meaning of the day, uncomfortable as it may be:

• We honor those sons, brothers and fathers, and more recently the daughters, sisters and mothers, who went to war to serve our country and were killed in action doing so.

• We extend this honor to those who served and survived, but who are not unscathed. No one returns home whole from war, wounds visible or not.

• We also honor those still in uniform today, serving our nation at war, whom we hope will return home soon.

So, which is the real way to observe Memorial Day – with gleeful intemperance or somber remembrance?

It’s both. We need to remember, even though we’d really rather not. It is the national irony we endure annually on the last weekend of May.

Consider the small portrait in our farmhouse library of a dashing infantry officer, cigarette in hand, uniform decorated with campaign ribbons, a combat infantryman’s badge, and the shiny insignia of a captain. He was just 24 years old, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, with the hardened look of a man ten years older. This black-and-white portrait was displayed in his parents’ living room in an era when nearly every household sent someone to war.

Twenty-five years later, he spent Memorial Day weekend on a tennis court in leafy Short Hills, New Jersey, with contemporaries who too went to war but now did everything possible to forget it. No parades, no ceremonies. They focused on other things, like tennis, quenched by gin, tonic & lime.

My dad survived his war, but he was not unscathed. He didn’t survive middle age.

There is another portrait in our farmhouse but it’s hidden in a drawer. It is that of a 30-something U.S. Army major, a physician with a gentle smile, whose life ended instantly in a Middle East desert. He was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) or a landmine, we still don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t matter. My wife misses her brother, Brian, intensely. She has never been the same, and can’t bear to see his portrait daily.

And so now it is we who avoid Memorial Day parades and ceremonies, well-intentioned they may be. They are just too heavy, sometimes evoking an impossibly large lump in the throat or inconsolable sobbing.

So enjoy the hammock, cookouts, the Shore or even your favorite winery. If it’s here with us, you may share a story of your own or keep it to yourself; we understand the need for both. But whatever you do, for just a moment, please consider the memory in Memorial Day.

– Peter Leitner

Frank N. Leitner (1922-1975) 275th Infantry Regiment 70th "Trailblazers" Division U.S. Army 1946

Frank N. Leitner (1922-1975)
275th Infantry Regiment
70th “Trailblazers” Division
U.S. Army

What Makes Our Grüner Veltliner Special?

March 31, 2016

Two words: Terroir and Style.

But first, some background.

Grüner Veltliner is indigenous to Austria and is the most widely planted grapevine there, most grown on soil comprising slate, schist and other decomposing rock. The grapes are typically fermented at cool temperatures in stainless steel tanks, resulting in lean, laser-like wines with notes of grapefruit or white pepper, some bottled so young they fizz when opened. Most are like this, but not all (and that includes ours), which is where terroir and house-style come in.

By terroir we mean the unique combination of soil, climate, slope, aspect and farming methods in a specific vineyard that cause wines grown there to be different – perhaps even superior – than those made from the same grape grown elsewhere. You can read more about terroir here.

Our estate vineyard sits at 700 feet above sea level, straddling the border of maritime and continental climates, with a meaningful slope, southwest aspect and 3,000 growing degree days. Our soil is deep silt/clay/loam, well-drained and studded with glacial gravel. We dry farm, adding nothing to the 40+ inches of rain we get each year (we don’t even have irrigation lines). Yes, there may be other places like this, but none exactly like this.

So, where our Grüner grows has a big impact on why it’s so good, which makes the winemaker look brilliant even though this reflects one decision he made long ago. But to be fair, he does a few other things each year that are reflected in our house style.

By style we mean the steps taken with each vintage, from uncrushed grapes through the pour into your glass, resulting in a consistent and even recognizable wine. But it is really only influence, as winemakers don’t make the wine as much as guide Mother Nature, much like a midwife does (some winemakers vigorously disagree, and that shows up in one’s house style, too).

And so, if we combine Mount Salem’s terroir and style, our Grüner Veltliner can be reduced to this haiku:

Austrian grapes
Grown in Hunterdon
Vinified as if in Burgundy
In American oak

This results not in a schizophrenic wine, but rather an elegant and cosmopolitan one with nearly pitch-perfect sense of place. Indeed, if forced to choose only one grape to grow here, it would be Grüner. And that’s not an April Fool’s Joke, either.

I Hate Chardonnay

March 17, 2016

Those three words are heard so often in our winery I now expect 8 out of 10 first-time visitors to utter them (that’s 80%, for those of you who are statistically-minded).

Granted, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement has been alive and well for 30 years, and with good reason: oceans of cheap plonk have been foisted on us all in the race to sell America’s #1 white wine. I’ll also grant that wine is a personal experience and people are entitled to drink what they like.

But this doesn’t mean all chardonnay is cheap plonk or poorly made, or that people really know what they like. Many only know what they’re supposed to like, and some can’t tell one wine from another (trust me on that).

On the other hand, we have long-time customers with fine palates (including many Europeans, and even a few Burgundians) who think our chardonnay is a fine wine offered at an attractive price. They tell us they appreciate that it is locally-grown, handcrafted, and – as one critic called it – ambitious. We focus our efforts on pleasing these people, but are regularly challenged by the chardonnay haters. It is as if we are caught in the crossfire of two very different realities:

A) 80% of our new visitors swear they “hate chardonnay” and will render this unfiltered opinion without restraint. Most won’t even try our chardonnay, and many who do grimace in the process. This hurts to watch.

B) We sell all of our chardonnay, most by the case, at more than 2x the average price for chardonnay in the U.S. Many of those buyers come back for more; most are disappointed when a vintage sells out. Some get angry.

How can we reconcile this disparity? The only rational way we can: capture some data.

To do this we removed chardonnay from our daily tasting list (so new visitors didn’t know we made it) and instead offered an extra “mystery pour” for each guest’s visit.

We wrapped bottles of our 2014 chardonnay in brown paper bags, poured a splash in the visitors’ glasses, and asked them to tell us if the liked it, disliked it, or were neutral. The results surprised even us:

Like It 81%
Don’t Like It 6%
Neutral 12%
Total 99% (due to rounding)

So, let’s sum this up:

• If people know it’s chardonnay, then 80% say they hate it without even trying it.

• If people try it without knowing it’s chardonnay, 80% say they like it.

We conclude that there is a negative bias, an urban myth really, that chardonnay is so repulsive it’s not even worth trying. And that’s too bad, because there are chardonnays grown in New Jersey that rival the best of Burgundy, as the Judgment of Princeton revealed in 2012.

By the way, we don’t believe in gimmicks to boost wine sales, but we noted an uptick in purchases of chardonnay on the days we offered mystery pours. Maybe we should invest in more brown paper bags.

– Peter Leitner

Snowed into the Slow Lane

January 23, 2016

The farmhouse kitchen is dark, due not to sunset but snow-covered windows, kindness of the Blizzard of ’16.

In the oven a turkey gently roasts Northern Italian style, while the sound of a crackling wood fire and tumblers of white and red wine, considered essential ingredients in serious cooking like this, warm us.

The turkey is an extra from November that waited patiently in deepfreeze for a day when time is abundant. And to this farmer’s eye, the week-ago weather forecast revealed a fait accompli: roast turkey on Saturday, with derivatives hence like cacciatore with polenta, pot pies, and of course turkey soup. How else does a civilized society endure January in the Northern Hemisphere?

Today’s dinner would not be a Thanksgiving redux, but rather a high mass honoring the gift of time that comes from being snowbound, forcing us to downshift to a more comfortable life speed.

To my 12 year old I gently taught the finer points of kitchen craft, prompting her to announce that she now owns making mashed potatoes Bolognese style. This is but one example in a day that feels like slow-cruising the mountain roads of Trentino near the Austrian border, where food and wine are taken seriously, and both conversations and culture are a tapestry of Italian and German (Austrian, actually), all with a stunning view.

Thus a turkey, slowly roasting under latticed-barding of wood smoked bacon, mashed potatoes infused with steamed garlic and gobs of fresh butter, offset by a comparatively healthy sauté of carrots, zucchini and olives, farmhouse style. We started with fresh mushrooms, breaded and fried. Cabernet Franc, aged in Hungarian oak, and Blaufränkisch, both vintage 2012, completed the meal.

Not bad for a snowy day in West Jersey.

We, like you perhaps, find ourselves chronically short of time, beyond the ever-increasing pace that comes with age. We are constantly moving, and never fast enough.  Yes, my road warrior days are likely behind me (unlike my wife, who returned from Europe just before the weather turned sour). And yes, we live among vine rows, rolling hills and fine Hunterdon folk. But winegrowing has its own rhythm that is harder than it looks. Not rising at 4 AM today would have been enough, but this relaxed day with a fine meal was the real gift.

I hope you found yours, too.

– Peter Leitner


In With the New

January 6, 2016

There’s a fresh sense of possibility in the air, exemplified best by the new Hunterdon Wine Trail whose kick-off event is this weekend. All four of the county’s wineries are participating (Unionville, Old York, Beneduce and Mount Salem); other regionally-specific wine trails in New Jersey have recently become active, too. This is all good, for one reason: better wine for you.

For such a small state, New Jersey has three (if not four) distinct growing regions, each capable of producing world-class wine. But that’s where the similarities end: differences in climate, soil and elevation make each region best-suited for certain grape varieties, and wise growers eschew all the rest. Indeed, it doesn’t matter what you want to grow; you plant only what your site allows.

This matters a lot because the ability to ripen grapes consistently every year, survive the occasional brutal winter, and express local characteristics in flavor, aroma and appearance (“terroir”, as the French would say) are essential for distinctive if not great wine. Varietal focus is also necessary for a region to create consumer awareness, given that wine drinkers (and cognoscenti) associate a region with just a few grape varieties, just as the Finger Lakes and Burgundy, for example, equate to Riesling and Chardonnay/Pinot Noir, respectively.

Such focus also results in better wines, because a winemaker benchmarks his wines against his neighbors’, but this applies only if those wines are made from the same varieties and are grown in the same growing conditions in a given year. Anything else is comparing an apple to an orange.

How does the Hunterdon Wine Trail, and this weekend’s inaugural event, fit into all of this?

1. It encourages consumers to view Hunterdon as a distinct place capable of making fine wines, one with varietal focus and recognizable terroir.

2. It encourages consumers, journalists, bloggers and professional wine critics to discover the common threads among the wineries that point toward quality wines.

3. The wine trail will (and this is already occurring) encourage others to establish new vineyards and wineries in the region (our founder and winemaker is fond of saying Pittstown finally has two wineries, but it needs another twenty).

4. Finally, it encourages wineries to collaborate while also making the very best wines they can for an increasingly sophisticated clientele.

We encourage you to travel the new wine trail this weekend, and see for yourself.