Today, we are picking the first grapes for what is Unionville's 27th harvest. Two years after the first grapes were picked and fermented, they were sold in the newly-opened tasting room- 25 years ago. Although I've been thinking about this moment for about a year, we've started our anniversary celebration and I'm still struggling to put it all in context.
In the past few years I've learned so much that could be shared with you now. I've spent hours at the township building, reading through letters written back and forth between parties involved in the winery's founding in the early 1990's. I've walked the vineyards, pausing with each "King of the Vineyard" as Conor calls them- the craggy, gnarly vines nearly as old as me. I've stared at the black and white photos in the hallway of the 1858 Farmhouse of the family and workers who tended to this property many decades ago. It's encouraged me to wonder about the people who lived, farmed, suffered, celebrated life, and died on the farm even further back, whom which there is no visual record of. The original structures on this property were erected before the first shot of the Civil War! Who was here then?
There is also the global context of wine making and viticulture to consider. I recall a documentary on German Riesling houses I watched while studying for a sommelier certification. A proprietor of one of these castles pulled out a book with written histories of vintages spanning centuries. We often say at Unionville that after 25 years we're learning what works best for our sites. We probably shouldn't say that. We can say that we've learned something, and we can say that we know what works well. But to know what is best will take generations after me to discern. Wine growing is an excruciatingly slow process. I am a late Millennial with the world's information at my fingertips. I wasn't born with a smart phone, but I've had one most of my life. I could spend the rest of my life at Unionville, and I will not be a part of knowing what is best here. Forcing myself to slow down and accept this truth has been a part of my anniversary process.
I've been careful not to succumb to this morose line of thinking. Perhaps the 25 year iteration of this property as a winery and my six years within it do not need to be viewed within the broader context 19th century New Jersey, or the nearly immeasurable wine world continuum. What I have come to realize is that given our lifespans and how much time we have to share together allows for, no, calls for celebrating the incremental successes of the great undertaking of developing a world class winery. Perhaps the decisions I take part in today- plant more Rhone varieties on the Amwell Ridge, plant Pinot Grigio at Home Vineyard, bud over the Vitis riparia, rip out the Petite Sirah- will not reveal themselves to be wise or foolish before I leave Unionville, or even before I leave this Earth.
What is worth celebrating is that today, the winery has never had a more dedicated team working to elevate the winery to higher heights than ever before. Likewise, the work done by countless- some nameless- individuals before us laid the foundation for what we are doing today to be possible. In the grand scheme, the broader historical context, it is a short tradition. Yet I would celebrate the passionate, dedicated work we do every day and the tangible successes whether the winery was one month or one thousand years old. I can't wait to come back to work again tomorrow and help Unionville make great wine. Thank you for making our passion possible. I raise my glass to you.
-John Cifelli, General Manager
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What a difference a year can make. August 2018 through July 2019 was the second rainiest 12 month stretch in the recorded history of New Jersey weather. These records stretch back into the late 19th century, which gives context just to how wet that is. It's not easy growing wine grapes when it rains every other day from August through the end of harvest. As we slogged through a wet May and June, we were making preparations to endure another difficult season. A torrential thunderstorm on July 11th dropped over three inches of rain on most of our vineyards. Todd Wuerker, winemaker at Hawk Haven Vineyard said to me on the phone "it has to stop, it always evens out" and I scoffed at that idea. The weather today doesn't know what happened the day, week, or month before.
Todd was right! An atmospheric switch flipped in mid-July, and high pressure dominated the mid-Atlantic for the rest of the season. There were isolated thunderstorms to dodge through the rest of summer, and Unionville fared particularly well in this stretch. Over the 10 weeks of harvest, less than three inches of rain fell across our vineyards. We went from a historically wet stretch to historically dry, and it came just in the nick of time.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I know that is cliché to say, but it truly is a great time at Unionville. We’ve got all of our reds pressed and in barrel. Cooler, stainless-steel fermentations are finishing up in tank, I’m finally able to breathe a little easier, and wake up a little later. With the holidays upon us, the wine making team has a lot on the mind, but one thing standing out is the blending, bottling, and release of Vat #23 – the latest rendition of our opulent Port wine.
Port has a storied history at Unionville – the fortified delight has been made at the winery since its first vintage in 1993, Before we delve into that, we have to talk a little about how Port is made and the different styles in which it can be presented. Port, named for its origin country, Portugal, is typically a sweet or medium-dry red wine, fortified with distilled grape spirit, then cellared and bottled at different times and in different ways to present specific stylizations. The two most recognizable presentations of Port wine are Ruby and Tawny Ports. Ruby styles are young wines usually aged for only a couple of years (or less). They’re released early to showcase juicy acidity and fruity characteristics of young wine with fuller mouthfeel and complexity
Since I started at Unionville 5 years ago, it has always been a goal to have our wines evaluated by top critics. In the years since, John Foy at the Star-Ledger has called our wines "Napa worthy," and Stuart Pigott, who freelances for James Suckling and Wine Business Monthly wrote that our Syrah was the best expression of the grape in the United States. T.J. Foderaro at Inside Jersey Magazine, Alan Richman (Saveur), Robin Shreeves (Cherry Hill Courier-Post), Rosie Saferstein (NJ Monthly), and the Trenton Times' Susan Yeske have all added their voices to the coalition of the willing in the last couple of years.
Having Unionville in the pages of one of the major wine magazines had remained elusive, until last summer when Mark Squires, East Coast wine critic for the Wine Advocate sat down and tasted...
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