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.

Spring, I Think

May 9, 2014

I’ve hesitated to proclaim it “spring”, even though it officially began seven weeks ago.

Maybe it’s the deep winter that just wouldn’t end, after several that just wouldn’t start.  Or perhaps it’s the creep of pessimism that dampens middle age if one doesn’t consciously avoid it.  Or, just maybe, this spring is normal.

Our vines began their rise from dormancy about a month ago, and broke buds just this week, after very early starts in recent years.  They popped several weeks early last year and in 2010 they were more than a month ahead.  This spring they’re right on schedule.  Hallelujah.

I, for one, am ready for normal, by which I mean familiar or even predictable.  That’s not to say I eschew excitement or that I’m happiest on a hamster wheel, but I’d like a break from the volatility that’s taken the weather, global economy and dare I say politics to extremes.  Permanent whitewater, as the once popular metaphor goes, gets old after a while.

The familiar offers comfort, be it the face of an old friend or, on this weekend especially, one’s mother.  It can be a sacred place from childhood, hopefully unchanged, or old music that bends time and space, taking one back to a younger and perhaps vastly different life.  We all need those comforts, anywhere and anytime we can find them.

Just this early morning I stood in the cool damp fog and told my daughter – who turns eleven tomorrow – that she was born on a morning just like this one.  And when she looked up at me and smiled as only a daddy’s girl can do, I never imagined I could love a misty morning in May greater than this.

Then a few moments later I found our cellar master sitting in his car, engine off but radio on and volume up.  Way up.  And there in our parking lot still thick with fog stood his colleague, Agnes, yelling over the music in her endearing patois of Polish/English/Bayonne, NJ, “Eh, John, you comin’ to work today or what?”

It was then I could see from his smile that his mind was elsewhere, back around 1979.  I knew the music well, and for a moment my mind wandered somewhere else, too.  Thumbs-up I signaled, “louder”.  And so he did.  Happy Spring.

The Core
Eric Clapton, Marcy Levy

Every morning when I wake, a feeling soon begins to overtake me.
Ringing in my ears resounds through my brain; it finally surrounds me.
There is fire, there is life, there is passion, fever and fury.
There is love and there is hate, there is longing, anger and worry.

Oh, I have a flame; feel it touch my heart.
And down at my core is the hottest part.
I can burn without fuel.

If it should become too cold, I know I can endure the frostbite.
Oh, a blanket then I’ll wrap around me; I keep myself so close to my side.
No one then can cause me harm, just as the river runs into the sea.
‘Cause every day, your fire alarm is deafening the silence all around me.

Oh, I have a flame; feel it touch my heart.
And down at my core is the hottest part.
I can burn without fuel.

It is burning.
It is burning.

You can trust me; we can laugh. Together we can share our sorrow.
I will give you secrets too, an attitude that you may borrow.
Gypsy woman said to me, “One thing you must bear in your mind:
You are young and you are free, but damned if you’re deceased in your own lifetime.”

Oh, you have a flame; feel it in your heart.
And down at the core is the hottest part.
We can burn without fuel.

It is burning.
It is burning.


November 28, 2013

She pulled into the parking lot just before closing Thanksgiving Eve, as snow fell in cadence with the day’s vanishing light.  The sweet smell of ash wood from the farmhouse chimney brought a smile to her face as she stepped through the Wine Barn door.

Snow falls on Mount Salem every Thanksgiving weekend, it seems.  Rarely is it serious snow, navigable on Nordic skis and such, but it requires a full wood box and surrender to the year’s darkest days.

Her name and number flashed on my ringing phone just an hour earlier, while other winery customers lingered on this grey snowy Wednesday, and I understood before answering why she was calling.

We hail from the same high school but from different years, first meeting here in Hunterdon decades later.  Yet we knew the same families and teachers, and shared the hometown culture that shaped us as young adults.

Over a glass of Riesling in the winery loft, while wind rattled the roof and rafters of this ancient place, we covered familiar ground of spouses and children; aging parents and sideways siblings; and news of friends.  Then, while we laughed about something I now can’t recall, I felt tears welling up as her eyes glistened, too.  The sad side of nostalgia, it seems, nicked us both at the same moment.

And with that, she cradled her Thanksgiving wine bottles like newborns, promised me she wouldn’t be a stranger, and stepped out into the darkness.

Standing alone now in the falling snow, while I locked the Wine Barn door, I gave thanks for the gift of returning home before making my way toward the sweet farmhouse chimney.


November 3, 2013

Autumn started here on September 21st with one-hundred of our friends seated at LongTable, which this year for some reason seemed extra-special. Maybe it was the never-to-be-repeated combination of people; or the food (see below for the complete menu of contributed dishes). Perhaps it was the voices absent for a variety of reasons, some painful and some joyous. I don’t really know.

Autumn is, of course, the season of the last: The last grape; the last Roma tomato; the last moment of vanishing light each day, as we prepare for winter. But autumn is also, if we dare, the season of The New.

Vibrant colors open our minds to what’s possible, while sky-blue cool air offers the gift of clarity in our thoughts. I can already see green shoots appearing on the vines, at least in my mind’s eye.

In autumn there are new things to learn and friendships to make, even in our own back yards, if we are open to them. And that’s the point: are the rustling leaves of November the sound of a dried-up and dying year, or of the excitement of possibilities ahead? I opt for the latter.


Dishes Contributed & the Heritage of their Makers

Deviled EggsIreland
Cheese SelectionFrance
Kielbasa in Puff PastryPoland
Liptauer, LandjägerAustria
Grilled Hussar SatéHungary
Mozzerella, Tomato & BasilItaly
Tortellini KabobsItaly
Irish Soda BreadIreland
Cheddar Cheese SconesEngland
Ciabatta Loaves, Pesto PastaItaly
Lecso with RiceHungary
Eggplant ParmesanItaly – Calabria
Onion Tart with Ementhaler CheeseGermany – Wurttemberg
Venison Shepherd’s PieIreland/Cherokee Nation
Halupki – Stuffed CabbageLithuania
Cous CousAlgeria
St. Louis Style Pork TenderloinUSA
Chicken PörkhöltHungary
Sausage & Sauerkraut CasserolePoland/Slovakia/Germany
Shepherd’s PieIreland
Eggplant ParmesanItaly – Verona (i.e., NJ)
Bean Soup Jokai StyleHungary
Pork Stew with TomatillosSpain
Chicken AdoboPhilippines
Garden SaladUSA
Braised Red Cabbage with ApplesGermany
German Potato SaladGermany
Chickpeas with CurryMelting Pot
Tirol Cole SlawAustria
Austrian Potato SaladAustria
Beet & Walnut Salad w/Blue CheeseGermany/Ireland
Fruit TartUSA
English TrifleEngland
Palacsinta with Ricotta & RaisinsHungary
Oeuf au LaitHaiti
Apple PieUSA
Peach DumplingsCzech – Bohemia
Fruit TartFrance
Beet Root Brownies/Zucchini CakeAustria
Apple GaletteFrance
Sugar-Free Fruit CobblerUSA