The Next Great Wine Frontier…New Jersey

There was an interesting NPR Planet Money podcast which talked about the next great wine frontier – no, not Spain, France, or even California, the story covered the interesting tale of New Jersey wine.

People from around the country often associate New Jersey with Springsteen, Snookie, and the Sopranos – but not great wine. Louis Caracciolo, a vintner in Atco, NJ is trying to change this reputation. Caracciolo has been making wine since 1976 at his vineyard, Amalthea Cellars. He believes that Jersey can become an internationally recognized wine capital, much the same way Napa Valley and Sonoma did in the 1970’s.

Prior to 1976, California wine got no respect and fancy wine drinkers wouldn’t touch it. To celebrate the American Bicentennial, California wines out of the little-known regions of Napa and Sonoma went head-to-head with French Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting was judged by the preeminent French wine experts of the time. To everyone’s surprise, the judges chose a California wine over the French for both the red and white flights. The tasting became known as the Judgment of Paris.

The next week, the wine stores were packed with people looking for California wines. As a result, the price of California wine went up and the number of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma exploded.

JerseyIf that was possible, any region in the world with good wine-making conditions could do the same thing – even New Jersey. There’s a big issue however, New Jersey is associated with fruity wines such as the famous New Jersey blueberry wine. As a result, New Jersey has what is known as a collective action problem; the success of Jersey wines depends on how the competitors behave. People judge Jersey winemakers not only by their product, but by the product of the rival down the street. All Jersey wine is grouped together in the consumers mind.

So how do New Jersey winemakers change people’s expectations? The first thing winemakers did was ditch the name Jersey and slap on the official geological name for the area around Atlantic City, the Outer Coastal Plain (O.C.P.).

The Outer Coastal Plain is 2,250,000 acres of the best wine-making land in the country. The area has been certified by the Federal Government as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). The Americans got this trick from the French, this is how they dealt with their collective action problem back in the 19th century.

The region, which has nearly the same composition as Bordeaux, experiences a warm growing season, spring frosts are rare, and the breezes from the Atlantic are ideal for winemaking.

But changing the name is not enough; New Jersey needs a critical mass of wineries producing quality wine. So Lou Caracciolo is on a mission. He visits wineries throughout New Jersey and gives them the sales pitch – continue to sell your sweet wine and make money that way, but make your reputation and prestige on the quality stuff. While Jersey is not there yet, if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear a rumbling in the wine world…New Jersey is coming.

This past summer my daughter Nicole, my wife Julia, and I visited Cape Mary Winery, which has 150 acres of grapes, three tasting rooms, and some of the finest wine in the world. While sipping a glass of Cab Franc, overlooking the vineyard with the bay in the distance, it’s hard to believe that you’re in Jersey.

Next time you want a fine wine, screw Napa and Sonoma, think Jersey (or the O.C.P.).

 

Yo Coglione! Be Happy He Only Cut Your Hair

It was just one week ago I was taking a seat at Mario’s barbershop in Maple Glen when I noticed a calendar hanging on the wall with a familiar image on the cover. I did not envision the picture as most would perceive, but as I had remembered it; peering over lemon trees, rosemary bushes, and olive groves while engulphed in floral perfume looking down onto coral-colored buildings whose reflection subtly fluttered in the flawless blue sea.

I was brought back to reality when the guy in the chair next to me, upon pinpointing where my eyes had landed, interjected, “That’s the worst place in Italy.” Rather than telling him he was wrong I told him another truth, “Beauty is subjective”, to which the man shrugged his shoulders and returned to staring into the mirror, perhaps wondering if people viewed his beauty as highly as he himself.

I was incredibly fortunate to study abroad in Italy (upon dad’s insistence) during my Junior year of college and crossed a few items off my bucket list in the process: skiing the Swiss Alps (in my Flyers jersey); admiring the Statue of David (every time a friend came to visit); fishing the south of Spain complemented by views of northern Africa; and, drinking beer with thousands of Germans outfitted in lederhosen. As memorable as those occasions were, there is one image engraved into my memory. No, it wasn’t the jagged snow-capped mountains of Switzerland, the ancient relics from Italy’s renaissance period, priceless works of art crafted by Van Gogh, or the exotic fish (and women) of Italy and Spain, but rather a small coastal region in Italy, roughly an hour and a half from my apartment in Florence. Yes, the coastal wonder the shortsighted man in the chair next to me, on a miserable rainy day in suburban Philadelphia, decided to call the worst place in Italy. . . .CINQUE TERRE.

Vernazza - Looking down over olive groves

Vernazza – 1 of 5 towns that make up the Cinque Terre region

Cinque Terre, which translates to “Five Lands”, is exactly that, five small coastal towns comprised of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso in the Italian region of Liguria. Cinque Terre is relatively inaccessible as the only way to enter the towns is via boat or train. Cars are not permitted in Cinque Terre so visitors are forced to decide whether they wish to hike from town to town or travel by train.

Narrow Path

One of the many narrow paths on ‘Sentiero Azzuro’

There are four hiking trails that connect the five lands. My friends and I walked “Sentiero Azzuro,” the Blue Trail, a popular cliff-side path that takes roughly four hours to navigate. The Blue Trail is the most aesthetically pleasing route beginning with “Via dell’ Amore”, an Italian Lover’s Lane, where you can’t help but notice the colorful love notes scrawled on trees, cliffside rocks and even the path itself. Via dell’ Amore is also a popular location for marriage proposals and I imagine it yields a high success rate. Please do not be fooled by Lover’s Lane as the difficulty level of the Blue Trail increases as you continue south. There are points along the trail, especially going from Vernazza to Monterosso, where the path becomes so narrow it results in a traffic jam of people analogous to a narrow bridge that can only permit one car to pass at a time. Similar to a bridge, if you fall from this portion of the trail you are likely to end up in the water, it is that steep. Appropriately, signs at the trails entrance urge you to wear suitable footwear.

Each town is registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a list of 962 properties forming part of the culture and heritage the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding value. Those who call Cinque Terre home radiate an old-world Italian style of living and slow pace while the visitors see a beach resort; neither is wrong. Again, no cars are permitted in Cinque Terre and many townspeople live off the surrounding land making nearly all of their products from scratch – green and sustainable long before the terms were popular. Monterosso, the final town, offers a sizeable beach outfitted with colorful umbrellas, beach-side shops and restaurants, and the Italian equivalent of the Wildwood boardwalk.

Repping the Flyers in the Swiss Alps

Repping the Flyers in the Swiss Alps

It is the totality of these cultural marvels that made me appreciate the beauty: Cinque Terre’s chameleon-like persona, the people, the architecture, the vegetation, the sea . . . and the food; my goodness the food. While catching our breath in Vernazza I refueled on red wine and Pesto, a native Ligurian sauce, while others enjoyed spiced octopus and stewed cuttlefish, each of which was likely caught just hundreds of feet from where we were seated. Did you really expect a Stampone to tell a story about Italy and not talk about the food?

After tipping my barber I began to wonder if I would ever see the man in the chair next to me again.  As I exited the shop I received a wink and a smile from the proprietor, Mario, a native Italian and very talented barber, who coincidentally had just given the worst haircut of all time. I doubt Mario or I will ever see that coglione again.

Italy is Eataly

Made in America used to embody ruggedness, but recently has morphed into a symbol of artisanal design. Fueled by a new enthusiasm for high-quality goods sourced and produced in the USA, a new version of made in America is gaining steam. From the corner coffee shop to the craft brewery, ‘artisanal’ has invaded every aspect of our lives.

Artisanal , derived from the Italian word artigiano, is nothing new to Italy. Italians have always had an appreciation for high-quality products – the stories behind them, the people who produce them, and the places they come from.

I recently spent a weekend visiting my son Joey in New York City. A visit to New York wouldn’t be complete without an afternoon spent wandering around Eataly, Mario Batali’s Italian food temple. The 58,000 square-foot space contains seven restaurants, each organized around food groups (Il Pesce, Le Verdure, La Pizza etc.) as well as a market dedicated to the food and culinary traditions of Italy.

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While getting lost in endless aisles of olive oil, vinegar, and pastas one thing is unmistakably clear; Italian producers have an unmatched appreciation for quality. Italian food is more than great ingredients and packaging, it’s about telling a story. Above all else, Eataly is a store with stories. You won’t just discover what you love, you’ll also learn about what you love.

At Eataly they share the stories of the people and places behind all they offer. The more you know, the more you enjoy. And I know that I enjoy Neapolitan pizza fired in golden-tiled ovens , by real-live Neapolitans.

Bon Appetito!