Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 2/3/15
The Grape Escape in the Dayton section of South Brunswick is known as the place where locals find an excuse to socialize as they gather to make their own wines, but it has also become a spot for them to eat, too.
Besides offering four winemaking classes over a 10-month period to make wines from California, Amador, Napa Valley, Washington, Chile and South Africa, the Grape Escape also hosts a wide array of cuisine-based classes, including olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottling and make your own mozzarella, chocolate and Sunday gravy and pasta.
Ed Ventura, who co-manages the Grape Escape alongside his wife, Phyllis Heller, said the Grape Escape offers a wider array of food classes than most other local wineries.
“These classes really take off,” said Ventura. “Our Jan. 10 olive oil class had 40 people, which is pretty much at capacity.”
Coming in February will be the olive oil and balsamic vinegar class on Feb. 17 and the mozzarella class on Feb. 12, both from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. All of the classes run throughout the year and the dates will be released on TheGrapeEscape.net as they become available.
Growing up, many Italians can recall Sunday as the day filled with fine foods and aromas alongside family. The Grape Escape brings that tradition back to life with their Sunday pasta and gravy class for $80. Guests make their own fresh pasta dough and convert it into fettuccine before simmering red San Marzano tomatoes to create a homemade gravy, or tomato sauce.
As the pasta dough rests, guests snack on antipasto or items such as cured meats, mushrooms, anchovies, artichoke hearts and cheeses in oil or vinegar, before cooking the pasta to take home and then eating salad tossed with the house olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a traditional ending to a large Italian meal.
At the Grape Escape’s $95 olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottling event, guests learn that price can’t compensate for quality. They start by taste-testing expensive store-bought olive oils, such as that of Filippo Berio and Colavita, and compare them to the Grape Escape’s supplier, which has been producing and distributing extra virgin olive oil from Kalamata, Greece for 300 years. They also try the Grape Escape’s 12-year-aged balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy.
Then, guests bottle their two 375-milliliter bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, infusing them with fresh herbs if they choose to do so, and customize with personalized labels. Finally, they enjoy a meal that features the products, such as balsamic cream chicken over penne pasta with salad and balsamic berries over ice cream, which was made for the Jan. 10 class.
Mozzarella is another Italian favorite that many find fit to infuse into Sunday dinners. In the $85 Grape Escape class, guests go home with four to eight large mozzarella balls that they create themselves from curd, salt and hot water with hands-on instructions from staffers.
The make-your-own chocolate class is a new addition to the Grape Escape, released with David Bradley of Manalapan, who has years of experience in creating gourmet chocolate. At the $85 event, guests taste dark, white and milk chocolate, bring home a box of chocolates that they created, learn about the history of chocolate making and get an overview of chocolate types.
Although the Grape Escape currently is focusing on their food classes, the winemaking season is nearing with open houses being conducted on Feb. 25 and 27 as well as March 5 and 10. At these free open houses, which are open to anyone over 21-year-old and run from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., potential winemakers receive tours of the Grape Escape while sampling wine and snacks alongside live music.
Winemakers can also take their love of wineries and Italian cuisine to another continent by attending “Italy with the Winemaker,” an eight-day all-inclusive trip for $2,600 hosted by the Grape Escape and departing on July 26. Starting in Venice, winemakers will travel throughout Tuscany with the Grape Escape and end their journey in Rome, stopping each day at wineries and for walking tours of various Italian cities.
Winemaking quickly has become a hobby for many, where people with no previous experience in winemaking can attend classes to make their own and share with friends and family. Clearly, that interest in an age-old process has extended to Italian cuisine as well, going as far as to entice winemakers to travel back to the practice’s roots in Italy.