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A Syrah vine, one of the best grapes for NJ soil

The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have Eating Grapes

I may be the luckiest intern in the world. Last week I left my college beers behind and swung by Unionville Vineyards on assignment by Maureen Petrosky Lifestyle [MPL]. Let’s just say I’ve never met a keg that could even compare to the flavors of Unionville’s international grape picks.

Unionville’s grapes are hand-picked by NJ farmers and their on-site winemaker creates some awesome wines with the tasting help–and playful nudging–of his bubbly staff.

Take their award-winning Pheasant Hill Chardonnay, for example: for an amateur like me it had a bright, citrus flavor. I certainly saw nothing out of place. But experts say otherwise. Stacy Brody, Operations Coordinator for Unionville, explained that Chardonnay’s are usually creamy and this wine is a perfect example of  how Unionville’s winemaker fuses NJ flavors with his quirky flair.

MPL: Why do you like wine so much?

“Wine is experiential,” said winemaker Cameron Stark, who confessed he spends most of his work day “wandering around eating grapes.” I thought, what a job that must be.

And after a tour of their vineyards I knew I could easily have done that all day, too. I tried late harvest, early harvest, and NJ-grown grapes with global origins and I even got to do a punch-down. This is where the workers push the seeds and skins down with a rake back into their fermenting juices to get a deeper flavor and fuller color.

MPL: How would you explain the grape “punch-down” you showed me to a novice wino?

“My analogy for this is dunking a tea bag: if the tea bag is floating on top of your hot water, you aren’t going to extract much from it,” says Brody.

“If you push it down or dunk it into the hot water, you’ll pull much more out and have a more flavorful tea.”

MPL: So what’s the best part for you about working with wine all day?

“It’s the adult Disneyland,” says assistant winemaker Stephen Johnsen about his blissful workplace. Johnsen brings a kitschy passion to the crew as a former collector of wines who became a winemaker by chance– he couldn’t resist Stark’s invitation to join Unionville’s makers, and I don’t blame him.

Even so, Stark says that creating each wine’s flavor “structure” is not for the faint of palate. To get the wines to fit his original taste profile Stark carefully chooses the harvest day, seasonal weather, time of fermentation, grape variety, and even the type of wood in the barrels.

MPL: What should I be thinking when drinking your wines?

“When you have a sip of wine, you should go ‘ah, that’s nice,’” Stark explains. “There should be no hiccups while you’re tasting the wine.”

The winery’s special stamp became even clearer when I walked into their warehouse. Amazingly, everything is hand-made. At Unionville there is a strict no-machinery policy in the harvesting and fermentation of grapes, says Brody.

Their 5 estates are even NJ State-Preserved Farmland, which means the government helps set up insect traps to protect the precious grape vines. Rutgers University biologists also get in on the fun by doing studies using Unionville’s weather station to track the temperature and moisture in the air–all to make perfect grape harvest.

MPL: Why is it good for the winery to be on state-preserved land?

“We get the best of the fruits this way,” Brody says.

And to showcase this splendid bounty, Unionville is hosting “Fall Festival” on Saturday, October 11. It’s an all day food and wine party with demo’s from experts across the region. Tickets can be bought here: http://unionvilleharvestfestival.bpt.me/

So if you like wine and you don’t know where to start, allow Unionville to guide you with a friendly, grape-picking hand.

Private tours and tastings at Unionville Vineyards can be arranged by calling the winery at 908 788 0400 or emailing Stacy Brody, Operations Coordinator at sbrody@unionvillevineyards.com

Unionville is open 7 days a week, from noon to 5 pm.  Select weekday evenings may be available for tours.

By Jack Meyers

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