I’m no wine connoisseur, but I’ve definitely made an effort to visit local wineries, whether I’m in San Gimignano or Seneca Lake for the weekend.
This has been especially true for the wineries that are in my New Jersey backyard, including Four Sisters Winery in Belvidere, Cape May Winery in Cape May and Amalthea Cellars in the Atco section of Waterford Township.
However, one thing I have noticed is that in the United States, wine isn’t for kids. I’m usually the youngest person at American wineries and one of the few more than happy to take home the $14.99 bottle.
This doesn’t come as a real shock. In America, wine isn’t a part of our daily lives. Instead, we sip it at white-tablecloth dinners under chandeliers.
However, Beneduce Vineyards in the Pittstown section of Alexandria Township is working to quash that notion with as much ferocity as they squash a barrel of grapes.
“We have a very unpretentious view of wine and we brought that down-to-earth attitude to the winery with our design,” said Mike Beneduce Jr., who owns the winery with his father, Mike Beneduce Sr., and sister, Justen Hiles.
When you enter the winery’s production, aging and tasting center, housed inside a 7,000-square-foot barn on the rolling green hills of Hunterdon County, the entirety of the once-mysterious winemaking process is before you. Through an aged door from an old English church, you are greeted by a tasting bar fashioned from a counter top that was formerly housed inside a 19th-century English storefront.
The open-kitchen concept of the winery allows visitors to interact and understand winemaking, rather than keep it shrouded in secret.
“It’s really just fermented grapes, and we wanted people to see that,” said Beneduce.
For $5, visitors can taste five current wines and take home a wine glass or they can add a meat and cheese pairing for a $10 tasting, no reservations are needed. Seating is available at the tasting bar inside the barn or outside on the heated stone patio.
On-site wine experts talk visitors through each wine, and at the end of the tasting, the winery hands over keys to a golf cart so they can cruise the vineyards either with a wine expert or by themselves. It’s no surprise that during a busy summer or fall weekend, the winery can receive 500 visitors.
There’s a reason why Beneduce has never seen wine as something reserved for first-class gatherings — he was making it long before he had set foot in a suit.
“We have been making wine in our basement since I was 2 or 3 years old,” he said. “I have photos of myself in diapers wearing purple-stained pants.”
Before Beneduce was making wine in his basement with his parents as a child, his ancestors had been doing the same since they emigrated from Italy in the 1900s, making him a fourth-generation grower. As a result, it was only natural for him to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology tailored to cool-climate grape growing and winemaking from Cornell University in 2010.
The family also owns Great Swamp Greenhouses in Gillette, and when they grew to their capacity in 2000, they purchased the 50-acre property that is now the winery, to supplement their landscape stock. Then, they decided to give winemaking a try and the facility opened in July 2012. It now houses 16 acres of grapevines, with expansions in mind.
“Since we are growers, it was natural for us to say, ‘Hey, can we grow grapes here?’ Now, our biggest problem is that we are selling the wine faster than we can make it,” said Beneduce.
Beneduce Vineyards focuses on premium wines that tend to be dry, European styles that work well with food, so no sweet or fruit wines. Beneduce said that this is because he was always taught that drinking wine should be paired with food, and he makes his wines to reflect that.
Due to the well-drained soil and south-facing slopes with sufficient sunlight exposure, the winery makes cool-climate aromatic varieties such as whites, including Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and reds, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and an Austrian red named Blaufränkisch. Bottles range from $14.99 to $48.99.
Once Beneduce realized that the growing area in Austria was identical to that of Central Jersey, he had solved the matchmaking mystery.
“Even though some of the wines we decided on were not grapes that other local wineries had been focusing on, I was convinced that they would work here,” he said.
When Beneduce makes these kinds of decisions for the winery, he does so knowing that he is in this for the long haul.
“Being that I am only 26 years old, I have a bigger picture in mind knowing that I will be farming this land for 40 or 50 years from now,” he said. “In everything we do, we think about how this is affecting the soil, water and our customers, and asking ourselves if this is economically viable.”
Beneduce said that this gives him a very different perspective than other wineries where owners are changing every few years.
Beneduce Vineyards has pulled in quite a few awards in their short time of operation, including two gold medals from the 2014 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition and four silver medals at the 2015 Finger Lakes International Competition, as well as kind words from Stuart Pigott, acclaimed British wine critic, who called Beneduce a “Riesling star in the making.”
Although Beneduce is grateful for the recognition, he said, “I would rather have my customers appreciate my wine rather than a white-coated lab judge.”
So what keeps Beneduce in the wine business? He likes the connection between the land and creating something tangible from the land.
“When people come out here and listen to live music at our farm while drinking wine made from our farm,” he said. “It really connects people to the land and goes full circle.”
Where: 1 Jeremiah Lane, Pittstown
Cost: $5 for a tasting of five current wines or can additional meat and cheese pairing for a $10 tasting. Both include a wine glass and a golf-cart trip around the vineyards. No reservations necessary.
Contact: 908-996-3823 or beneducewinery.com