Image via Warwick Winery
With hundreds of wineries and tasting rooms within a 2-1/2- hour drive, the NYC metro region abounds with opportunities for tasty tripping. The options are as diverse as they are numerous, ranging from tiny, ambitious mom-and-pops to mega operations with overflowing parking lots.
Hop into the Audi mothership, the magnificent Q7, and pack in five adults and two children, or two adults and two mountain bikes. You’ll still have room to stow your new favorite bottlings. Go seek the wine adventure of your dreams!
The Garden State has some 70 wineries spread from Montague in its northernmost corner to Cape May at its southern tip, so even a short jaunt can be fruitful. Setting out from, say, Benzel-Busch in Englewood, you’ll find it easy to fill your day with beauty and discovery without venturing outside a 60-mile radius. If you’re in the mood for a two- or three-day journey, dozens of splendid B&Bs await you.
Three things to consider. First, winery owners and winemakers (sometimes the same person) can be sources of infinite information because they truly love their work. Second, familiar varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon grown in NJ taste entirely different from the same varietals grown
in Bordeaux or Napa. A good thing, but prepare to be surprised. Third, in metro NYC wine country, there’s no such thing as taking the wrong route. That’s because the journey is half the pleasure. Routes 23, 94, 517, 519 and 521 in NJ and 9W, 17, 22 and 94 in New York (to name just a few) all reward with an eye-filling mélange of preserved farms, Revolutionary-era buildings, sprawling vistas of hills both rolling and craggy, plus meadows, ponds and streams. We’re not even mentioning the grape-friendly Delaware River and Atlantic Ocean areas. And don’t be afraid to explore unknown roads: getting lost in a throwback to simpler times will be revelatory for anyone
wanting to escape the city and suburbs.
Besides, the Q7’s big-screen nav system is your close friend and will always steer you back to civilization. On a late winter weekend we drove through NJ ski country, passing Mountain Creek’s wide slopes and crossing State 94 into New York’s expansive “black dirt” farmland to the Warwick Valley Winery/Distillery/Farm complex. When the oohing and ahhing at the scenery were over,
we squeezed the big “Q” into Warwick’s last available parking space. Crossing a large patio, we encountered a bustling10-yard-long tasting bar and went through WVW’s short list of favorites. There, they grow what grows, meaning a selection heavy on varietals more familiar in the similarly
chilly Finger Lakes region upstate. The great consumerist attraction of tasting rooms is that you
pay one price and get to try everything. Among our favorites were the Harvest Moon in the collectible blue bottle—a Cayuga/Vidal blend which tasted of cantaloupe and summertime—and for dessert, pear liqueur with the aroma of drippy ripe pears but with a dry finish, followed by Warwick’s version of a light ruby port.
The delightful surprise was the full-scale restaurant under the same roof. Headed by chef Jack Cummings, this boisterous fireplace-warmed venue is worth lingering in. Highlights were the Croquet Monsieur made with house-cured local ham, the truffle fries and pizza generously topped
with your call. There are so many selections worth salivating over.
Savoring the wine-friendly fare, we stayed far past our time budget and had to think fast to plan the next stop. Here’s where the Garden State Wine Growers Association’s guidance comes in. Not every NJ vineyard is listed, but both online and in the association’s Passport, you’ll find a map showing clusters of wineries to make your routing more efficient.
Due to time limitations, we bypassed Westfall in Montague and headed down 94 again as farmland was left behind for rugged mountains. It was a quick trip to Cava Vineyards in Hamburg, distinguished by its rustic-raftered dining room where tasting is enhanced by their bistro menu
and vice versa. Wines are arrayed in seven flights of four each, but our server cheerfully substituted a selection from flight #4 although we had ordered flight #3.
Because Cava’s acreage is small, good use is made of fruit from others’ vineyards, in the Napa fashion. We enjoyed the novel-tasting, uncharacteristic Pinot Noir and Merlot with wings and
pasta and Tuscan nachos and grilled pizza, and finished with a complex gorgonzola-and-pear spread, which paired wonderfully with blueberry wine.
Minutes from both Cava and our next winery stop is the don’t-miss shrine to fine dining, Restaurant Latour in Hamburg, on the grounds of Crystal Springs Resort. Open for dinner Thursday through Monday only, Latour is good enough to be your proverbial “last meal.” At the end of a daylong wine tour, immerse yourself in the genius of executive chef Anthony Bucco and the sublime choices possible with a wine cellar of 100,000+ bottles and 6,000 labels. Spectacular!
On to Ventimiglia Vineyard located off a road so little traveled that there’s a basketball goal on the roadside. When turning onto the property, the queen of Audi SUVs trundled downhill and over a wee bridge over a stream (we didn’t feel the bumps; merely saw them) and came upon the only structure in sight, a two-story colonial home. Only after a big double take and an explanation did we realize that we had been looking at the tasting room whose production facility is cleverly carved out of a basement. La famiglia Ventimiglia has been making wine for generations, with the current one producing a minuscule thousand 12-bottle cases per year.
The tiny farm winery relies on local volunteers to staff the tasting room and provide some of the labor. Talk about job creation! Our untiring server Diane, ever loyal to the vineyard, personably guided us through 10 wines. Gene and his workers manage to create immensely enjoyable if
unfamiliar bottles that can be enjoyed on two levels: casually without thinking too hard, and
intellectually, while reveling in serendipity such as the fruity but dry pineapple-y notes of Buon Giorno Cayuga, the sprightly, spicy, Fuji-apple flavors of the Vidal, and the Cabernet Sauvignon’s autumnal grassiness reminiscent of mixed fruit salad, wild flower pollen and peaches.
The approach of a bone-chilling dusk was nature’s way of reminding us to return to our Audi’s warm, leathery embrace and the well-realized comfort ofher heated steering wheel, saving further wine exploration for the following weekend, which brought us to......Brook Hollow Winery in Columbia, with its view of the Delaware Water Gap and its proprietor, the ever-affable oenologist Paul Ritter. Man, here is a guy who’s happy to be where he is! Listening to him enthuse about his wines is almost as satisfying as imbibing them.
With 14,000 vines on property, Ritter still has to source two thirds of his grapes from other in-state vineyards, buying well to try to ensure consistency of taste. Brook Hollow’s hallmark is sweetish wines in dry style. Witness the Vidal Blanc, Cayuga and dry Riesling, each a conversation piece in its multi-dimensionality. The blend of Chambourcin and Merlot seemed to have been pushed for a plump cherry-forward taste, one of those Garden State surprises I hinted at earlier. And the Cabernet Franc, which of-ten expresses tartness, was a total bomb of chocolate and ripe red plums on the palate. Bonus: enjoy free tastings for life simply by returning any time with your $10 embossed tasting glass.
One novelty here is two machines pumping out your choice of a refreshing cranberry-wine slushy or Merlot slushy. Brook Hollow, as with many other state wineries, makes it easy to spend an afternoon relaxing in a big chair in a cozy woody dining room listening to live music. This place also has the indoor and outdoor space for hundreds at a corporate event or wedding.
Sited on the 250-acre Matarazzo Farm in Wantage, Four Sisters Winery has been host to scores of outdoor wine/food/music events. The inventory is anchored by the mouth-watering Papa’s Red, but is comprised mostly of sweet wines and dessert bottles like Mia’s Blueberry and Robin’s Raspberry.We loved the Cherry Melissa made from sour cherries in over-the-top concentration but still showing enough restraint to keep it on the dry side. Poppa Joe was port-like with a dry cherry finish, while Captain’s Choice, vinified from Matarazzo Orchards’ granny smiths, was more apple-y than applejack and easier to like. Brandy is added, resulting in a 19% alcohol content.
When we asked Valerie, our guide, if we could take the Q7 out to play so we could test the famous Quattro all-wheel-drive system, she pointed us to a winding farm road. It certainly made driving in the snow an easy and confidence-inspiring job. Even when stomping on the gas in the muddy, snowy ruts, I hardly sensed the constant correcting of the hardware and software that kept us on track and right side up. An ordinary vehicle wouldn’t have.
Last stop: Villa Milagro Vineyards, an organic and sustainable operation perched 200 feet above the Delaware, owned by Steve and Audrey Gambino, who instantly become your brother and sister or mother and father. Audrey, a for-mer cooking-show host with a PhD in nutrition, is a hands-on winemaker, insisting on creating wines that are best with food.
The vineyard’s selections are limited but intriguing, showing the hand of someone who enjoys experimenting with extracting and balancing flavors. Try their Luz del Sol, an off-dry blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio so balanced that it tastes of neither, and the Rosita Blush, a light-colored and light-bodied Muscat/Vidal creation. Both can be year-round refreshers.
Of the Bordeaux-style blends, the Noche calls out for red meat or stout soup, while the Casi Dulce is heavy-bodied and close to sweet. We did not taste it with food, but it seemed as if it would make a great accompaniment for sweet-and-carroty brisket stew. As a novelty, try the just-out Feliz Navidad, artistically crafted with naturally sweet grapes and a whisper of Christmas-y seasonings and spices. On your way back out to the 18th-century village of Finesville, linger over a panorama of fields and nearby hills sloping down to the Delaware Valley.
For homework, enjoy the bottles that everyone takes home from winery stores and fire up the ol’ computer to plan a year of tastings and special events at dozens of local vineyards.