CASE TO CASE: Alicante grapes ready for the crush.
An industrial park in Cherry Hill does not have the same visual appeal as, say, the sun-drenched hills of Napa Valley, but just off the New Jersey Turnpike, they’re making some serious juice at The Wine Room (1 Esterbrook Lane). Owned by husband and wife Kenton (“Master Wineaux”) and Kathy (“Quality Control Taster”) Nice, The Wine Room offers a chance for amateur wine enthusiasts to create custom-blended bottles from grape to cork. Head winemaker Michael D’Auria refers to himself as the customer that never left. The former chef walked into The Wine Room some 10 years ago and ended up coming on full-time, managing both The Wine Room and the Nice’s Franklinville winery, Coda Rossa. At the winery, D’Auria specializes in native Jersey grapes like chamborcin petit verdot along with more widely known varietals.
But at The Wine Room, the grapes come from a bit further away; California grapes are brought in in the fall and Chilean fruit arrives in the spring. Customer “winemakers” are offered a chance to create custom blends, ranging from a powerful meritage that brings together old-vine zinfandel, petite sirah and carignan to a simple vino da tavola with alicante and grenache. Aged in oak barrels from Missouri, wines at The Wine Room are available in full, half and quarter barrels, which come out to 20, 10 and five cases of wine, respectively.
While loading a crusher with inky-purple alicante bunches, D’Auria explains that 750 pounds of grapes go into a full barrel. Imported from Italy, the crusher uses rubberized gears to squeeze the grapes and separate the stems. “We want to crush the grape but not the seed. If you bite into the seed, it’s bitter. We want the seeds to go through fermentation since the skins and seeds are what gives the wine tannins.”
In a warehouse painted with tromp l’oeil murals of an Italian village, the wine-making process happens in five very hands-on stages — after an initial visit to taste the varietals offered for blending, the customer-vintners return for the crush; the pressing of the grapes a week later, racking (removing the sediment from the wine) and 10 months later, the bottling.
“The wines that we make here are not for aging, they’re for drinking,” D’Auria says. “They’re not as high in tannins and we don’t use a whole lot of sulfites as a preservative. You want to have it consumed within five years.”
Of course, consumption isn’t really an issue for winemakers at The Wine Room. The breakdown per bottle comes in at around $11, a damned good deal for a custom-made wine complete with your own private label. Oh, and if you harbor fantasies about crushing your grapes the old-fashioned way (aka the old foot stomp), The Wine Room is more than happy to accommodate.
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