It wasn’t a fluke. This past October 11, New Jersey wines challenged the best vintages of California and France in a blind tasting, and triumphed. Responses ranged from utter surprise to gratification. Now once again, on June 9, 2008, over 100 wine lovers and specialists gathered at the same venue - Amalthea Cellars in Atco, New Jersey - with the same results. Oenophiles are getting the message and beginning to view the products from Garden State vineyards with a much loftier respect.
The June 9th Challenge placed bottle to bottle offerings from France, Napa Valley, California, and Garden State wineries, including Amalthea, Auburn Road, Bellview, Heritage Station, Silver Decoy, and Tomasello. Tasters included certified wine judges, wine buyers, certified wine educators, professional sommeliers, and members of the press. Biz4NJ had been invited to help celebrate and record the event. Creating an onsite live video, the staff was able to capture the event’s action, results, and the participants’ many reactions.
From totally covered bottles, guests tasted varieties of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Meritage vintages and rated their preferences. Amid sampling a sumptuous array of entrees and hors d’oeuvres prepared by chef Joe Palombo, owner of Cherry Hill’s Mirabella Cafe, guests made their way among the pouring stations. They tasted and rated each wine on its merits using the Dionysian 20-point system. As with the October 11, 2007 challenge, the blind tasting was conducted by certified wine judge, Anthony Fisher, a member of the Dionysian Society, International, and regional vice president of the American Wine Society. He alone knew what lay beneath the covered bottles.
By evening’s end, the ratings were tabulated and when the the labels were revealed, Amalthea had again crushed the myth of French and Californian superiority. The palates had spoken.
Amalthea Cellars’ 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve overtook such formidable competitors as 2001 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 2003 Silver Oak Napa, and 2005 Far Niente. Amalthea Cellars 2001 Cab Franc beat out 2004 Chateau Cheval Blanc St. Emilion Grand Cru and the Amalthea Cellars 2004 Merlot Reserve outscored the likes of 2005 Duckhorn and 2003 Chateau LaFleur-Petrus.
In the Chardonnays, Amalthea Cellars 2005 Reserve won over Louis LaTour Puligny-Montrachet and 2006 Cakebread Cellars.
In the Meritage category, 2004 Opus One nosed out Amalthea Cellars 2003 Europa I by a mere 9 points, but what is noteworthy is that all of the Amalthea Cellars Meritages beat the 2003 Chateau Lascombe.
In addition to Amalthea’s several victories, the evening’s oenophiles noted how well the other competing Garden State wines fared. Dr. Gary Pavlis, wine expert and Atlantic County agricultural agent, stated “From a price point of view, New Jersey vineyards are producing many wines competitive with France and California. It is just that typically these tastings set a $40-dollar New Jersey wine against a $200 French.” Previously, Pavlis conducted a blind tasting of comparably priced Garden State, French, and California wines, and several New Jersey took top honors. Editor Rob Taylor, attending representative from the “Wine Spectator,” while not commenting on any specific wine, noted that New Jersey vintages recently had been seen to take a giant stride forward in popularity and quality.
Wine expert and author George Taber samples and rates a vintage
For wine expert and author George Taber, this challenge brought back special memories. Back in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, Taber had been the only journalist on hand to witness the Judgment of Paris blind tasting in which California wines for the first time in history defeated the French. Up until that time, world opinion held that anyone could squeeze grapes, but only the French could make real wine. Taber’s subsequent article of the Parisian Judgment in “Time Magazine” changed all that.
“1976 became a defining moment in the world of wine,” Taber explains. “Vintners from everywhere began saying, ‘well, if California can do it, we can do it.’” Today, he points to the globalization of wine that brings vintages from Africa, South America, and Australia to our tables as regularly as European. Taber also had participated in the previous October 11, 2007 blind tasting in Atco. On this June 9th Challenge, Taber was present to sign copies of his books “Judgment of Paris” and “To Cork or not to Cork.” In addition to discussing his upcoming wine volume, he was asked this opinion on the meaning of these latest tastings results. While he chose not to prophecy the ushering in of a grand New Jersey viniculture dominance, he did note that he was very impressed with the Garden State’s quality.
Amalthea's owner Louis Caracciolo (left) and tasting coordinator Anthony Fisher discuss details of the June 9th Challenge
Amidst an onslaught of handshakes and congratulations, Louis Caracciolo, witnessed the results with a quiet, nodding approval. “No, I cannot say I was totally surprised at the outcome. I have tried most of these wines in our home and I have a feel for their level of quality,” says Caracciolo. A sweet silver anniversary gift, the June 9 victory came as Amalthea celebrates it 25th year of wine production.
For Amalthea’s owner, the finest wines are made in nature’s own vineyard. Caracciolo’s education is a simmering of his grandfather Emilio who, brought to Brooklyn the Old World wine art, with techniques from Pratt Institute’s food science studies, blended with the experiential knowledge learned from Bordeaux region masters. It produced Caracciolo’s reverence for what he terms the Archaic Winemaking Method. In this procedure, the winemaker sees himself as merely the custodian of a naturally occurring process, which he aids, employing the minimum of chemical and mechanical adjustments to the final product.
This scarcely means that the men and women of Amalthea sit back and let nature take its course. Wine grape growing is an immensely labor intense series of chores, made more so by the archaic method. In addition to the pruning and row-by-row leaf pulling, a very assiduous thinning of the vines continues all season. “You can get up to eight tons of fruit per acre of vines - and some wineries do,” says Caracciolo. “But we select and pinch that off to one ton per acre and that is the real difference in the quality of the berries.” At harvest time, the grapes are crushed, yeast alone is added to spark fermentation, and the juice goes into new oak casks. From that point on, it is merely a matter of time and and occasional testing.
New Jersey’s assistant secretary of agriculture Alfred Murray, also participating in the June 9 Challenge, summed up the state’s burgeoning wine pride. “We have a state here that can grow grapes - quality wine grapes - throughout its entire length and breadth. It is good to see so many new vintners coming along to take advantage of the soils which Nature has gifted us.” B4