Working Dog Winery – Robbinsville, NJ

Now that it is Spring and the weather is actually warming up in NJ, it is time to head outside.  I like to appreciate the end of a cold winter by soaking up the sun at a local winery.  Working Dog Winery (formerly Silver Decoy) is a great place to do just that.  They have a covered patio, an open patio, and a vast field of grass leading up to the vineyard.  Even if the place is crowded, which it often is if the weather is nice – a great outdoor space is a fabulous way to attract crowds – there is ample room for everyone, people and dogs (they are a very dog-friendly establishment).   You just might need to bring your own blanket or chair to sit on – there are not always enough of their brightly-colored Adirondack chairs to go around.

My significant other and I walked into the Working Dog winery building for a tasting.  They make dry whites and reds, a rose (which I was told will be released in May), and sweeter wines.  We were walked through the tasting by a friendly and knowledgeable staff member, who has worked there for three years.  She is an executive assistant at her (week)day job and works at the winery on the weekends.  She provided the winery’s background story…

We learned the winery was originally owned by a group of eight friends (now five) of varying professions, including a teacher, a carpenter, and an owner of liquor stores who was the wine buyer.  That latter friend became the winemaker and what was a hobby among these friends has turned into a business. We were told there is a female assistant winemaker who travels for part of each year to places such as France and Washington to further her winemaking studies.  She is currently in New Zealand.

Although I am typically more of a red wine drinker, I often go for a white when it is hot out so on this day at Working Dog I grabbed a glass of white and headed outside.  The sun was beaming in the bright blue sky.  I pulled over one of those Adirondack chairs to face the vineyards, sat down with my wine in hand, and basked in the heat.  A toast to the end of the cold weather (at least for now) and a warm experience at Working Dog Winery!

Tarpon Springs Castle Winery – Tarpon Springs, FL

I like to discover wineries in unexpected places… Florida is a good example.  I have some family in Florida and they didn’t even realize there were wineries.  Most Florida wineries import the grapes since the hot climate isn’t conducive to many varieties (although the Muscadine grape seems to handle the heat) and some make wine out of other Florida-grown fruits.  The winemaker at Tarpon Springs Castle Winery brings his Italian winemaking heritage to Florida.  

I was first struck by the appearance of the winery’s exterior, which looks like a traditional southern homestead.  Apparently the couple who owns the winery specifically constructed it to resemble an 1820 federal building through consultation with various historical societies.  I later learned their home is upstairs. It is certainly one of the most unique looking winery buildings I have visited.

My significant other and I were unfortunately short on time this day, as I was trying to squeeze in a winery visit before we had an appointment in nearby Clearwater (he was looking at yet another used boat – see the Maryland post).  When we walked in, we were instantly greeted warmly by the owner and winemaker, Joseph Marks.  He led us to the small table-for-two where he would conduct our tasting.  He called over to a woman conducting a larger group’s tasting to ask a question and his tone indicated to me that they were a couple (you know that tone – slightly exasperated in the most loving way).  She is, in fact, his wife and winery co-owner, Diana Marks.

There are apparently several Groupon packages that can be used at the winery but we just did a standard tasting, which includes samples of four wines, a glass of wine, and the glass itself.  In all my years of tastings at many wineries, I have never had a glass of wine included with the tasting.  I would have really enjoyed sitting outside on the beautiful, hot day (it was snowing and freezing in NJ at the time) with a glass of wine but we only had time for the four tastes, and of course the background story…

Mr. Marks explained that he started learning how to make wine from his uncle in Sant’Arsenio, Italy (Province of Salerno) at the age of seven.  When his parents retired to Florida, he decided to follow them from his home in upstate New York.  He wondered aloud why he didn’t make the move sooner.  He noted that he has 42 relatives in the area but he didn’t really see much of them until he opened the winery.

Mr. Marks guided us through the tasting with an expertise and familiarity with the wine that was interesting and educational.  His wines seemed like pure expressions of the grapes and we enjoyed all four.  I was also caught up in the story of him running the winery four days per week and then boating and fishing the other three days.  Sounds like a fabulous life.

I wish we had time to soak up more of the sunshine and enjoy a full glass of his wine.  We let him know we would be back to do that.  Maybe people just say that sometimes, but with great wine, an enjoyable winery experience, and a beautiful setting, we will be back.

Crow Vineyard & Winery – Kennedyville, MD

A boat brought us to the Annapolis area one recent winter weekend.  Well, a car actually brought us there but a boat was the reason.  My significant other wanted to check out a used boat and he convinced me to tag along by strategically mentioning that we could stop at nearby wineries.  On the way down from New Jersey, we only had time to stop at one winery due to an appointment at the boat dealer.  I wanted to choose carefully – a place that wasn’t too far out of the way and that was a vineyard, not just a store front.

Crow Vineyard & Winery turned out to be a great choice.  Although, as you can see from the photos, it was not a sunny day outside, there was plenty of warmth in the tasting room both from the cozy atmosphere and the friendly winery staff.  We were instantly greeted by a woman who explained the tasting options (there are two).  We made our choice but asked if we could substitute a taste of their sparkling wine instead of their sweet dessert wine, and I appreciated their flexibility when there was a yes without hesitation.  We have often bought the wine we switched to (since we are typically switching from a wine we likely won’t like and therefore won’t buy to one we think we will like and might buy), so being flexible with the tasting can, quite literally, pay off.

As we tasted the wines, which were very enjoyable, we heard the story of the winery. We were informed that Crow Farm is a third generation working farm that previously was a dairy farm.  The owners are a husband-and-wife team, Roy and Judy, and the third partner is their son, who manages the vineyard.  Their winemaker previously made wine in New York State and California before heading to Maryland. They have been making wine at Crow for seven years and have a wide variety of mostly dry wines, including whites, rosés, reds, a sparkling, and a dessert wine.

The woman pouring the wine had her own story in relation to the winery.  She moved to Delaware from Pittsburgh and started coming to Crow as a customer, and then decided to work there.  I have heard that customer-to-staff-member story before and it always sounds like such a compliment to the winery – that the person had such good winery experiences as a customer and liked the wine (since presumably there is discounted wine involved, why work somewhere you don’t like the wine?) that the person wanted to become a part of the team.

When we explained we were headed for the Annapolis area, two winery staff members provided several suggestions for restaurants and a wine bar.  Conversations with friendly, flexible, helpful people paired with good wine – the perfect combination on a gloomy winter’s day.  Then we had to see a guy about a boat…

 

 

Valenzano Family Winery – Shamong, NJ

Full disclosure – I typically write about my first experience at a winery but I have been going to Valenzano Family Winery for about ten years.  So instead of writing about my initial impression of my winery experience there, I am writing about what keeps me going back.  And I think you’ll see why writing this around the holidays is perfect timing.

When my significant other and I walk into Valenzano, we are always immediately greeted by Al, a friend of the Valenzano family who has worked at the winery for 21 years.  Even in our early days of visiting the winery, he would recognize us as return customers and we would catch up.  He recalls that we particularly like their berry red cranberry wine (more on that below) and the dry reds, and lets us know if there are any new wines to try since we had been there last.  Someone who knows the customer, takes a genuine interest in the customer, including likes and dislikes, and treats the customer like a friend or family member creates an excellent winery experience.  Walking into Valenzano reminds me of the old TV show “Cheers” (I am dating myself now), where “everybody knows your name.”

As the name indicates, the winery is family owned and operated.  In 1996, it became the first winery in Burlington County, New Jersey.  They make a wide selection of wine from dry to sweet white and red wines to “other fruit” (non-grape) wines to mead (honey wine) and more.  They have some interesting combinations as well such as blackberry syrah and I think at one point there was a wine with hops.

When we first started going to Valenzano, we were struck by the uniqueness of their berry red cranberry wine, which is actually a table wine that pairs well with food.  The cranberries, sourced from local bogs, are balanced in the wine just right to not be too tart or too sweet (they also make a berry white cranberry for sweet wine fans but that is too sweet for me).

We initially paired the red cranberry wine with a Thanksgiving dinner and it was a big hit.  I’m told it particularly paired well with the turkey.  As a vegetarian, I can’t personally attest to that but it went well with all of the sides too and it made the meal more festive.  The cranberry wine has since become a staple at our holiday meals.

We made a recent trip to Valenzano because ’tis the season and we were running low on berry red cranberry wine.  As always, we received our warm greeting from Al and also spoke with other friendly and knowledgeable winery staff who shared information on winemaking and recommendations for wines at nearby local wineries.  We stocked up on cranberry and also purchased a bottle of their cabernet merlot.

The winery experience at Valenzano is filled with warmth, good friends, and good cheer.  And their berry red cranberry wine in particular always evokes for me a sense of tradition and holiday spirit.

Happy Holidays!

Adair Vineyards – New Paltz, NY

wine tour

Located in a charming barn that is over 200 years old, Adair Vineyards offers an enjoyable and educational winery experience infused with a passion for charity. Mark, who owns Adair with his wife, is the winemaker and the person conducting the tastings. He attended UC-Davis to study viticulture and enology, and worked at wineries in Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara (including at Zaca Mesa – see separate post on this winery), in addition to other wine areas.

Mark, originally from Philadelphia, headed back to the area when his wife attended graduate school in Philadelphia. He acquired Adair, in the Hudson Valley wine region of New York, in 1997. His wines are vegan (sometimes animal products are used and then filtered out in the fining process – the process of clarifying and stabilizing the wine). He also uses fewer sulfites in his wine.

The wine tasting was an excellent lesson in grape growing and winemaking. The wines are made from grapes primarily grown on the estate and then supplemented by a local farm. This leads to some interesting local blends such as the Solitary Oak, which is 90% Seyval and 10% Vidal and the Kir Rouge, which is 90% Dechaunac and 10% blackberry wine. Mark was a knowledgeable and engaging guide, as we talked about the wines as well as our favorite west coast wineries.

The other appealing aspect of this winery experience was learning about Mark and his wife’s passion for supporting charitable organizations. They particularly support charities for animals as well as cancer research. The winery holds a fundraiser every month and has an annual charitable dog walk. Donations can also be made throughout the year. Mark and his wife’s dogs are therapy dogs; Mark’s wife started a reading program for children. Their desire to give back to others is impressive.

A great winery experience and the opportunity to support a worthy cause – an excellent combination.

Rowan Asher Winery (RAW) – Stroudsburg, PA

I didn’t know Stroudsburg, PA had an up-and-coming urban winery scene, but to my surprise it does. On the charming Main Street in this Pocono town are two winery tasting rooms with a third just off the main drag.

The moment we stepped into Rowan Asher Winery (RAW), the first urban winery and hard cidery in the Poconos, we were blanketed by the owner’s warmth and enthusiasm. Misty immediately introduced herself and walked us through the tasting options. As we tried a couple of white wines and all of their reds, we learned the story of the winery…

RAW is named after Misty and husband Matthew’s children, Jude Rowan and Zoan Asher. Misty explained that Matthew, RAW’s winemaker, had learned to make wine from his aunt, and they had started by making wine at home. This hobby turned into a vocation when Matthew left the automotive industry and fully focused on his craft. Their original tasting room, in a former industrial lumberyard, is also in Stroudsburg outside of the downtown area. Misty said Matthew grew up in the area and they wanted to bring business to and support the local community.

They source their fruit locally and globally. Global examples include a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chilean grapes and a Pinotage from South African grapes. We enjoyed the wines and the conversation.

Everything has a thoughtful sentimental touch from the name of the winery to the names of the wines (“Misty Love” Cabernet) to the décor – the tasting room chandeliers (see below) are made from their first wine barrel.

Enjoyable wine, engaging conversation, and touching sentimentality on a vintage Main Street – I’m glad I discovered RAW and the urban winery scene in Stroudsburg.

William Heritage Winery – Mullica Hill, NJ

wine tourism

I hadn’t been to William Heritage Winery in a few years but noticed the winery garnering increased attention – touted as a “winery to know” in NJ and earning high marks for their wines (home of the first 90-point rated wine from NJ). This prompted me to ensure I made the trip, and I was very glad I did.

I walked into a totally redone tasting room – sleek and modern. It used to be more of a charming, rustic farm store with a small tasting bar. The transformation was so complete, I wasn’t even sure it was the same place (it was). I was told the renovations started about a year ago and finished up a few months ago. They also changed their name and design, apparently last fall. I was pleased by all of it, particularly the winery experience.

The person conducting our tasting was very knowledgeable about wineries and wine areas, as he has a 40-year history of wine tasting across 27 states. He explained that he and his wife started wine tasting as an accident. They were on a trip and could not do their planned activity due to inclement weather, so they went to a winery instead and they were hooked (I know the feeling).

Although he hadn’t worked at William Heritage long, he was knowledgeable about the winery and their wines. He explained that the land has been farmed by the Heritage family for five generations and the sixth generation was soon to start work at the winery. Originally an orchard, the current owners cultivated grapes starting in 1999.

There were three tasting options – classic, reserve, and sweet. We selected reserve but our excellent wine guide offered us a couple of wines off the list. This proved to be very educational, and it is also a good marketing move as I have often purchased a bottle of wine I tasted off-list. The wines and the company were so enjoyable that we added a sweet wine tasting. My significant other sometimes enjoys “other fruit” (non-grape) wines and I quite honestly wanted the tasting to continue – a sure sign of a great tasting (or perhaps too much wine?).

A friendly, likeable, knowledgeable person who finds commonality with the customers and offers a few well-chosen extra pours leads to an excellent winery experience. And certainly in this case (no pun intended), a purchase of wine.

Sheldrake Point Winery – Finger Lakes, NY

winery tour

Sheldrake Point Winery is on the western shore of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes wine region. My significant other and I were immediately struck by the beautiful grounds with a nice view of the lake. An interesting tidbit is that you can visit the winery by boat – boats up to thirty-five feet in length can tie up at one of their dock spaces.

Upon entering the winery, we were impressed by the welcoming warmth and cheerfulness of the person behind the tasting bar. We enjoyed trying the various wines, which were accompanied by some education about each one. I am always a fan of learning about the wines I am tasting, and I am always open to trying something different. Although I am much more of a dry wine drinker, I found their sweet Ice Apple Wine dangerously drinkable.

The person pouring the wine also shared some entertaining stories. We learned that her husband is a chef and she is quite the foodie. When asked if she was so into food before she met her husband, she exclaimed that she absolutely was not – she mostly ate tuna fish and potato chips!

The principle of liking was in play here – the principle that people tend to say yes to or make purchases from those they like. Being knowledgeable, warm, and engaging, and finding some commonality with customers (wine is a pretty obvious commonality at a winery and often food too) leads to a great winery experience. Of course the enjoyable wine and beautiful view didn’t hurt either but the excellent customer service really made the experience.

On a side note, we tried to get ourselves invited to dinner at the house of the person pouring the wine and her chef husband but apparently great customer service only goes so far…

Auburn Road Vineyards – Pilesgrove, NJ

vineyards

A busy tasting room can certainly be a challenge. So when my significant other and I walked into Auburn Road Vineyards on a Saturday afternoon and saw a packed tasting bar, we were not sure what type of winery experience we would be getting. But there was certainly no cause for concern, as the two women running the tasting bar had it covered. They seamlessly took turns with each of the customers, ensuring that one of them was always pouring the next taste when a glass emptied. This strategy seemed to work better than the often used one in which the person who starts the tasting finishes the tasting.

In addition to their attentiveness, the staff also imparted their knowledge of the wine. This educational aspect of the winery experience can often be lost, especially in a busy tasting room. We had just come from a couple of other wineries where the staff were attentive and friendly but their pours of wine were accompanied by these descriptions: “This is the Chambourcin.” “This is the Cabernet Sauvignon.” Learning something about the grapes, the way the wine was made, or even the name chosen for the wine can enhance the winery experience.

We learned at Auburn Road that they grow most of their own grapes but use Cabernet Franc and Grenache from Lodi, CA in their Winemaker’s Blend. We also learned that their Eidolon wine (a red blend) was named for the Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass” poem; apparently the Whitman poem took seven years to perfect and so did this blend. A great story to engage the customer. They also infuse a little humor into their wine. Their peach wine (white wine blended with Jersey peaches) is called “Give Peach a Chance” named after the John Lennon song. Although I am not usually a fan of sweet wine, this one was crisp and refreshing and made me think longingly of summer.

I often find the story behind a winery interesting as well, especially in New Jersey where several of the winemakers did not start out their careers in the wine industry. Auburn Road is a good example. The staff member told us that the winery has six owners who were professionals in other fields but working long hours in their positions left limited time for their families and they wanted to make a change. She noted that some of the male owners started out making the wine but it turned out one of the female owners was better suited for the job. So they have a self-taught woman winemaker and created a successful business. An inspiring story.

Being attentive to customers in a busy tasting room without losing any of the interesting educational aspects of the tasting as well as using a little humor can lead to a truly excellent winery experience that engages customers and encourages sales and a return visit. We gave peach a chance and bought that bottle, and we will certainly be back.

Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars – Finger Lakes, NY

winery tours

Set upon beautiful, well-manicured grounds, Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars has an impressive tasting room and a lovely view of Seneca Lake. They offer a standard tasting and a specialty tasting (my significant other and I shared both).

I was impressed that the tasting room staff really took the time to offer a great learning experience to the customer. For example, we selected three different Rieslings to try and the staff member leading our tasting poured all five of their Rieslings so we could appreciate the similarities and differences. She also set up some side-by-side tastings showcasing different vintages and oak versus stainless steel aging.

The staff member’s generosity with both her knowledge and the wine was much appreciated, as she shared her expertise in a warm and friendly manner that made us want to learn as much as possible from the tasting. Further, our experience with the various wines ultimately helped us to decide on which wines to purchase. A win for the customer and the seller.

After our tasting, we found the two picnic tables on their grounds and had lunch. An amazing view, friendly and knowledgeable wine staff, and a unique learning opportunity all made this a fabulous winery experience.