By Briana Vannozzi
Before you get to the sip, it takes months of prep, harvesting the grapes that will go from field to glass.
We checked in on the process at Willow Creek Winery and Farm in West Cape May, the southern-most point of the state. It’s a hidden treasure for both wine makers and tasters alike.
“We have six amazing wineries down on the cape and all of us are growing some beautiful Old World grapes, that you only really find in Italy, parts of France and parts of Spain,” said Willow Creek Winery Farm Director and Wine Maker Kevin Celli.
Not only is Willow Creek growing 13 varieties of grapes, its vintages are outshining wineries from those very countries, just several years into the process. The peninsula and the geography produce some of the longest and best growing seasons in the Northeast, with harvests that rival only the likes of Bordeaux, France — considered a European treasure.
“Our micro climate is different, it’s the sandy soil. Parts of Bordeaux 10,000 years ago were under water. We were under water so we still have that sandy soil remnants. The drainage is excellent so the plants love the drainage. They like it dry,” Celli said.
As the head wine maker and farm director for Willow Creek, Celli knows what it takes to grow a good grape. The cape’s constant cross breeze from the ocean and bay give it a distinct climate. Area growers are working to receive their own distinction through the American Viticulture Association. Like a Napa or Sonoma, this is considered the outer coastal plain.
“It doesn’t get really cold really fast in Cape May County, usually not, and it doesn’t get really hot really fast. So when the plants wake up gently from winter dormancy and they go to sleep gently at the end of the season, it allows the plants to have a little bit less stress,” Celli said.
He walks us through the final stages of fermentation for this year’s Cabernet Sauvignon. The vats in front of us? That’s the equivalent of 6,000 bottles or one heck of a hangover.
“So red grapes will come in from the field. They’re put through the crush to get them through this stage that you see right now. Then we inoculate them and get them yeasted up and they’ll start fermenting. Then after this process, tomorrow we’ll press all of this and once we press all of this it will go into a stainless steel tank. We’ll let it sit there for about five to eight days,” Celli said.
Then it’s moved to barrels and will stay there anywhere from 12 to 18 months. Those skins and seeds give it the color and flavor. And this year, thanks to the drought, is a prize-winning batch.
“What we’re looking for is when I put it in my mouth I’m looking for acid, I’m looking for tannin,” Celli said.
Can we taste it?
“Oh yeah, go right ahead. It’s delicious, it might get you a little intoxicated,” Celli said.
And at Willow Creek, even the smallest are put to work. Every vine is hand picked thanks to a slew of volunteers and an “adopt a vine” program. After all, to master the sip, you can’t waste a drop.