When most American Viticultural Areas are established, the only noticeable change is that wineries in the designated area add the AVA’s name to their wine labels. The members of the Outer Coastal Plain AVA, officially established in 2007 in southeastern New Jersey, decided they wanted to do more to raise the awareness of the region’s longstanding winemaking tradition and the high-quality wines being made there.
Launching a signature wine
Perhaps the most unique and promising undertaking by the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association (OCPVA) has been to create, establish, name and trademark a proprietary red wine blend that it hopes will be a signature wine to promote the AVA. The association’s membership had the idea to determine what red wine varieties grow best and make the best wine in the AVA and then establish parameters for the vinification of a blend of those varieties. Once made by the participating winery members, the blend—to be called Coeur d’Est—would serve as a means of promoting the regional character of the AVA. This effort was started more than two years ago, and the first wines made with the Coeur d’Est label were introduced by eight participating wineries May 7 at a reception at Tomasello Winery in Hammonton, N.J. (see page 74).
Winemaking and grapegrowing historically have been major industries in this region. As far back as colonial days, wines from grapes grown in the area made their way back to England. By the early 20th century there were numerous wineries in operation, particularly in and around the area west of Atlantic City. Grapegrowing was so favorable that Dr. Thomas Welch founded what eventually became Welch’s Grape Juice in Vineland, N.J., in the mid-19th century.
Although the region has a long history of winemaking, Prohibition made a significant dent in that tradition and resulted not only in the permanent closing of many regional wineries but also in a long period of time when little or no growth or innovation of any kind took place in the local wine industry. In spite of Prohibition, one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating wineries, Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City, N.J., did survive and continues to make wine within the boundaries of the new AVA.
With the passage of the New Jersey Farm Winery Act in the early 1980s, significant new activity was initiated, including the planting of many cultivars previously untested in the region. But this innovation also meant there was little concrete data about how these previously untested grapes performed in the growing conditions of the OCP. Since more than 80 grape varieties were being planted and grown, it was necessary to determine which ones were most suited to the terroir as well as making good wine. As a first step, the OCPVA undertook a survey of all vineyards in the AVA to determine what varieties were being grown successfully on a regular basis and, of those, which consistently made the best wines.
Once these varieties were identified, grower, winery, consumer and food and beverage industry feedback was obtained through tastings and sensory analysis in order to determine what varieties should go into the blend and in what amounts. The association did this by having participating wineries prepare examples of various blends using the chosen grape varieties—Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chambourcin—in various percentages. These samples were evaluated to determine what the blend parameters should be.
The regional blend will consist of these five varieties, but each winery participating in the effort and using the blend name will be permitted to determine its own unique combination of the five within the percentage parameters established for each variety by the OCPVA formula for the blend. The association will own the name, which is being trademarked, and will license the use of the name to each participating winery. The blend rules also require that prior to a winery’s release of a wine under the blend name, it must undergo a sensory evaluation by a neutral third-party panel to be certain that the wine meets quality standards established by the OCPVA. The blend agreement signed by participants also has other requirements that must be adhered to in order to use the name.
The naming of the blend turned out to be a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process. After a great deal of consumer and membership input that took months to complete, a name was chosen only to find out that it had already been the subject of a trademark application. Further discussion and evaluation resulted in the name “Coeur d’Est” (pronounced “Ker-Dest”), which is French in origin and loosely translates to “Heart of the East.” The name recognizes the French origin of the grape varieties in the blend, and the meaning of the term itself evokes the location of the OCP AVA in the center of the eastern Atlantic seaboard.
Background on the OCP AVA
In 2002, the owners of four New Jersey wineries or vineyards—Jim Quarella of Bellview Winery in Landisville, Larry Coia of Coia Vineyards in Vineland, Frank Salek of Sylvin Farms Winery in Egg Harbor City, and myself, owner of Panther Branch Vineyard in Vineland—started the process of drafting a petition to the TTB to recognize their region as an American Viticultural Area. Their collective decad es of grapegrowing and winemaking experience—along with the wines then being made by area winemakers—had proven to them that their area not only had a rich winemaking history, but that the future as a winegrowing region could be bright.
The boundaries of the OCP AVA follow the southern New Jersey coast, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Delaware Bay to the south, both of which heavily influence its climate. The AVA is triangular in shape with the western boundary running diagonally, starting roughly from the mouth of the Delaware River in the south then to the northeast, where it once again meets the Atlantic coastline and encompasses a total of 2.25 million acres. The AVA takes its name from the Outer Coastal Plain geologic formation adjacent to the Atlantic. It is characterized by well-drained soil of low to moderate fertility, thus making it very suitable for viticulture. Underlying it is the largest freshwater aquifer in the mid-Atlantic region.
After the AVA was recognized, these same four individuals moved to the next step by forming a regional growers’ organization, the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association (OCPVA), in 2008. They hoped the organization would become a resource for winegrowers and help establish the AVA as a quality winemaking region.
Other OCPVA projects
Since the OCPVA was founded, it has undertaken a long list of projects and accomplishments in a relatively short period of time. These have been possible through the energy and commitment of OCPVA members and the relationships they have formed with other individuals and organizations. One of the first things the group did was to establish a working partnership with the Rutgers Agricultural Research & Extension Service, which helped the association leverage its limited resources. It then applied for and obtained a number of USDA grants, from which the group received funding for viticultural research and promotion of the region.
These grants have been instrumental in allowing the OCPVA to pursue its goals. Among other things, the grants have supported grower surveys to determine where vineyards and wineries were located and the grape varieties and acreage that they grew, the identification and prioritization of viticulture research interests for the region and the funding and establishment of a GIS-based mapping system for the entire state, which displays climatological, topographical and other important parameters necessary for identifying suitable grapegrowing areas.
Through the outreach it has made to other organizations, the OCPVA has formed a relationship with an Italian viticulture research institute that has resulted in the importation of several lesser-known but traditional Italian grape varieties potentially suitable to be grown in the region. It also has become involved in initial efforts to begin establishing a New Jersey wine research institute with Rutgers University and other institutions.
The OCPVA is primarily a grower’s organization, although its membership is composed of wineries and vineyards as well as associate members from other fields. In order to be a full member, however, one must commercially grow grapes in the AVA. Currently 24 bonded wineries and nine vineyards have a full membership.
The mission of the organization is the establishment and promotion of sustainable and economically viable viticulture in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA of New Jersey. It is devoted to the study and practice of grapegrowing in recognition of the fundamental importance of quality fruit in the winemaking process. To that end it has been successful in undertaking a wide variety of efforts to further its mission
Although only five years old, OCPVA already has organized and sponsored three successful grapegrowing symposia. Each symposium has assembled international experts in the fields of viticulture, enology and economics to discuss topics that have relevance to the region’s terroir and grapegrowing sustainability. The first of these, held in 2009, centered on traditional Bordeaux varieties and the similarities and differences in growing conditions between the OCP and Bordeaux. The keynote speaker was University of Bordeaux viticulture professor Kees van Leeuven, consultant to Chateau Cheval Blanc, who spoke encouragingly about the potential of the OCP AVA and advised the organization regarding critical components of growing quality Bordeaux varieties. The second gathering in 2011 focused on lesser known but traditional Northern Italian wine grape varieties such as Teroldego, Lagrein and Casseta, as well as some newly developed varieties that hold great potential for the OCP and similar regions. It also featured talks by leading wine economists Orley Ashenfelter of Princeton University and Karl Storchman of New York University.
The most recent symposium, held in November 2013, revisited the growth characteristics and winemaking potential of some of those Italian varieties and included a keynote presentation from Dr. Marco Stefanini of the Foundation Edmund Mach in the Alto Adige region of Italy. Dr. Stefanini’s research at Edmund Mach has developed promising hybrids from crosses of Teroldego and Lagrein as well as from some regional white varieties. Several of these have been imported to the United States by the OCPVA and are currently being tested and grown in quarantine at Foundation Plant Services at the University of California, Davis. These will be released exclusively to the OCPVA for further testing.
What the future holds for the Outer Coastal Plain AVA and the OCPVA is anyone’s guess. But the organization’s success in promoting research—and its efforts to gain recognition for the region—so far have been a welcome boost to the vineyards and wineries within its borders. There is no better proof of this than the results of an event held in 2012 at the American Association of Wine Economists conference, which took place at Princeton University. Through the efforts of the OCPVA, AAWE, Rutgers and other industry participants, a blind tasting was held pitting New Jersey wines against top-quality French wines (Bordeaux blends and Chardonnay) in a loose re-creation of the famous “Judgment of Paris” between French and California wines 40 years ago. The price of the French wines averaged $300 per bottle, while the average of those from New Jersey was less than $30 per bottle.
This time the “Judgment of Princeton,” as it was dubbed, resulted in New Jersey wines from the OCP comparing very favorably to their French counterparts, such that there was no statistically significant difference between most of them in the scoring. The panel was comprised of both American and European judges, and the tasting was conducted by George Taber, the sole American journalist present at the Judgment of Paris. OCPVA co-founder Jim Quarella of Bellview Winery remarked, “Our wines were judged on merit and nothing else…so we were very happy.”
One can certainly argue what, if anything, this result means. What is not arguable is that the OCP wine industry has come a long way since its near-demise during Prohibition. The identity of the Outer Coastal Plain AVA is coming into focus. As OCPVA president and co-founder Dr. Lawrence Coia said after the Judgment of Princeton, “We have identified a number of varieties of grapes that grow extremely well here.…I think we have a tremendous future.”
Dante J. Romanini is owner of Panther Branch Vineyard in Vineland, N.J., where he has been growing wine grapes for more than 30 years. He is an attorney and one of the co-founders of the OCPVA.
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