The Trick To Selling Fancy Wine From New Jersey: Don't Say It's From New Jersey

Mar 29, 2013
Originally published on March 29, 2013 11:14 am

Halfway between the New Jersey Turnpike and the Atlantic City casinos is a little slice of France: Amalthea Cellars. There's an old farmhouse, and a field full of grapevines.

Lou Caracciolo, who founded Amalthea, is walking through the field. "Here's something I put in the ground in 1976," he says. "You have to have a feel for it, and after 30 years I have a pretty good feel for it."

Caracciolo calls himself a hopeless romantic. And, really, you have to be a romantic to try to make a $33 bottle of cabernet sauvignon blend in New Jersey.

Amalthea Cellars has to overcome not only the jokes about Jersey, but also the reputation of other New Jersey wines.

There are dozens of winemakers in New Jersey. But many of them make a very different kind of wine — wine that's cheaper and much sweeter. Just down the road from Amalthea is the Tomasello Winery, whose sweet wine is sold all around the country. "It goes very well with cheesecake," Charlie Tomasello says.

There's nothing wrong with a $10 cheesecake wine. But it creates a challenge for winemakers who want to make the fancy, dry, French-style wine.

Caracciolo and some of the other wine growers in the state want Jersey to be the next Napa Valley. He wants wine collectors, tasting tours, destination weddings. He needs to change people's minds.

The winery's first step has been to start with the label. Even though the fancy winemakers are in New Jersey, they want to separate themselves from Jersey. They petitioned the government for a special geographic designation — like, say, Napa Valley. So now the fancy wines say they're from the "Outer Coastal Plain."

"I mean, it does sound fancier than New Jersey," Caracciolo says.

But a label only gets you so far.

"The wine business in the state has got to kick that reputation," says George Taber, a wine journalist who used to live in Jersey. "And you don't kick it by having 80 percent of the wines in the market be those sweet wines."

So Caracciolo has been on a mission. He visits the sweet winemakers and tells them to keep making the sweet stuff — but make a few fancy, dry wines on the side.

Some of them have responded. Charlie Tomasello, of sweet wine fame, is now selling a $48 bottle of cabernet. "It has nice cassis and forward fruit and a little bit of leather and chocolate in there," he says.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Alright, let's think of some of the great wine-making regions of the world. You have Bordeaux in France. You've got Napa Valley in California. And then there is the Outer Coastal Plain. That's where Lou Caracciolo makes his wine.

LOU CARACCIOLO: The Outercoastal Plain, when I'm at an international show now, people pick that up and say: That's in Australia, isn't it? That wine is fabulous, it's Australian? No, it's from New Jersey.

GREENE: New Jersey, wine. Like the state itself, it has long been the butt of jokes. But Robert Smith of our Planet Money Team shows us how Jersey winemakers are trying to change their reputation.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Halfway between the New Jersey Turnpike and the Atlantic City casinos is a little bit of France.

CARACCIOLO: Here if you walk here you'll see - let me show you something.

SMITH: Lou Caracciolo takes me past his 100-year-old farmhouse and into the rows of grapevines.

CARACCIOLO: And here's something that I put in the ground in 1976.

SMITH: Back when he started Almathea Cellars. He's nostalgic that way.

CARACCIOLO: You have to have a feel for it. And after 30 years, I have a pretty good feel for it.

SMITH: So these are your babies is what you are saying?

CARACCIOLO: Well, more or less, yeah. I am a hopeless romantic so don't start with me.

SMITH: You have to be a romantic to make a $33 a bottle Cabernet blend in a state better known for Snooki and "The Sopranos." Wine lives and dies on a region's reputation.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING WINE)

SMITH: And Caracciolo can't help but be a tad defensive about his home state when I taste it.

This is fantastic.

LOU CARACCIOLO: You like that one? Not bad for New Jersey, right?

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Caracciolo is battling not just all those New Jersey jokes, but something bigger - the reputation of the other New Jersey wines. People have been fermenting grapes here since the American Revolution. There are dozens of other winemakers. People like Charlie Tomasello, who is just down the road - a guy who is famous for a very different kind of wine.

CHARLIE TOMASELLO: Would you like a little sip?

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASSES CLINKING)

SMITH: It has been described as tasting like grape jelly.

TOMASELLO: Yes. Well, I think that's accurate because Concord is used by Welch's probably to make grape jelly. And it's very sweet, I have to tell you that.

SMITH: The Tomasello family had been very successful making these sweet wines. You can find them all over the country. So much so that anyone who knows New Jersey wine probably thinks, hmm, Smuckers. Especially the version made with local blueberries.

I know. I can picture almost like being poured over ice cream. It has that kind of like almost syrupy taste to it.

TOMASELLO: It goes very well with cheesecake.

SMITH: There's nothing wrong with a $10 cheesecake wine. And Tomasello's is delicious. But it creates a perception challenge for winemakers who want to make the dry French-style wine. They want Jersey to be the next Napa Valley. They want big money wine collectors. Tasting tours. Destination weddings. And for that they need to change minds.

The first step has been to start with the label. Some fancy New Jersey winemakers have separated themselves from New Jersey. They petitioned the government for a special geographic designation - like Napa Valley or the Rhone River. And they got it. The Outer Coastal Plain.

Lou Caracciolo says it helps.

CARACCIOLO: Well, it does sound fancier than New Jersey. I mean it does.

SMITH: But a label only gets you so far. There's still the stuff inside the bottle. And if it doesn't have a consistent taste, that can hurt.

George Taber, a wine journalist who used to live in Jersey, says the state has to make less of the cheesecake stuff.

GEORGE TABER: Basically, the wine industry, the wine business in the state, has got to kick that reputation. And you don't kick it by continuing to having 80 percent of the wines out on the market are those sweet wines.

SMITH: The high-end winemakers in New Jersey face a classic economic challenge. It's called the collective action problem. By working together, the wineries of the state could improve the reputation of New Jersey wine. But it is so much easier for most of these wineries to make a profit by growing the easy, cheaper grapes, by putting out a sweeter wine.

So Lou Caracciolo has been tackling this. He visits the sweet winemakers and he says yes, yes, I know this is how you make your money. But make your reputation, your prestige by making a few fancy dry wines - just on the side. And some of them have.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLE OPENING)

SMITH: If this sounds expensive, it is. A $48 2010 reserve Cabernet called Palmeris.

(SOUNDBITE OF POP)

SMITH: And surprise, it's from Charlie Tomasello, the blueberry wine king. No Smuckers here.

TOMASELLO: Well, it has nice cassis and forward fruit and a little bit of leather and chocolate in there and...

SMITH: They're still a long way from having a New Jersey section in every fancy wine store. But a reputation - like a good wine - only matures with time.

Robert Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.