The rich, purple Chambourcin grapes growing at Sharrott Winery, just over the border from Hammonton in Winslow Township, taste sweet and powerful. But they are not quite ready for harvest.
“We’re about to start. I look for dark brown seeds, that means they are ripening,” said Larry Sharrott, 39, who left his job as a software engineer to become a vintner in 2007. “The skins and seeds need to be mature, or the tannins have a rough feeling.”
He and a small crew, including assistant winemaker John Zollo, 23, hand-pick all six varieties he grows, he said. Zollo is a Cornell University graduate with a degree in viticulture and enology covering all aspects of growing grapes and making wine.
Sharrott started the vineyard with his father, also named Larry, in 2007 on 34 acres of rolling hills that seem out of character in South Jersey. Nine acres are now planted in grapes, allowing for plenty of room to grow, he said.
Sharrott (pronounced like carrot), along with about 50 other New Jersey wineries, is in the midst of harvest season. It lasts from September through early November.
That means not just picking the grapes but also immediately processing what is picked here and what is purchased from other vineyards.
“It’s crazy — you live here this time of year,” said Cape May Winery winemaker Darren Hesington, whose wines have won numerous awards. There is prep work in the morning, picking in the afternoon, and pressing into the night.
On a recent September afternoon, several huge bins of recently picked white Chardonnay grapes sat in the open air behind the main winery building, ready to be forklifted into a de-stemmer crusher, then piped into a pressing machine.
It’s best to do the work outside, because of all the bees and wasps, like yellowjackets, that are attracted to the ripe fruit, Hesington said.
In the crusher, pieces of vine, stems and leaves are removed and the grapes are broken apart.
“This is my workout,” said Betsy Sole, whose family owns the vineyard, as she helped Hesington rake 900 pounds of the white grapes out of an elevated bin over the crusher machine. Her father, Toby Craig, purchased the winery, then a small operation, in 2003, she said.
The 900 pounds was processed in just a few minutes, moving from the crusher to the presser to separate every bit of juice from the skins. There were about seven tons of Chardonnay grapes to get through the machines, then into steel vats or oak barrels. The winery already had processed about seven tons of pinot gris grapes for making pinot grigio that morning.
Reds, on the other hand, are put through the de-stemmer crusher, then put into vats to be fermented on the skin for weeks, to get every bit of color and flavor from the skins.
The schedule stays hectic through the first week in November.
“It’s put to bed by Christmastime,” Hesington said. “Everything is made and we’re cleaning up.”
Cape May Winery will bottle about 32,000 gallons of wine this year, using 180 to 190 tons of grapes, said Hesington. The bottling is done year-round.
He said the whites are bottled after about six months, and the reds after about 12 to 36 months.
“Reds get better as they age,” Hesington said. While whites get sweeter with age, they lose some of their fruitiness.
“When wines peak is a personal preference,” he said. “We tell people, ‘Drink what you like.’”
At Sharrott, October and November is also the time for selling the used 225-liter oak wine barrels, and the winery has a long list of people interested in buying them.
The winery uses them for only three years, Sharrott said; after that, the wood no longer flavors the wine with an oaky taste.
Barrels made in the United States cost about $500 each new, but French-made Taransand barrels go for $1,200 each, and Hungarian barrels for $800, Sharrott said. He sells used barrels for about $200 each to people who want to make furniture out of them — or use them for home winemaking, as long as they are not looking for an oaky flavor from them.
It took Sharrott and his father three years to find the right spot for their winery, he said. They got advice from Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agent Gary Pavlis and from U.S. Department of Agriculture soil specialist Mary Beth Sorentino.
“We did borings with a hand auger, and drilled 8 feet into the ground, looking for the right profile of soil that drains well — a nice mix of sand and clay with not too many nutrients and lots of gravel content,” he said. “We were looking for 3 to 5 feet before hitting an impervious layer like clay or rock.”
Drip irrigation goes to the roots of each plant, but is used infrequently.
“Grapes like low rain,” Sharrott said. “When my grass is dead, I’m happy. It means I’m picking good grapes.”
As he spoke on a recent weekday, some customers sat on an outdoor terrace sampling wine and looking over the fields, and more were inside at his tasting bar.
This winter’s Arctic blast hit the vineyard hard, killing all three acres of merlot grapes he had planted a year back.
“It went to negative 8 degrees. We lost it all,” Sharrott said. “We plan to replant next year. The plants alone will cost $15,000 without labor.”
He said he has applied to the USDA for help, but if a grant is approved, it will pay no more than 50 percent of the cost of replanting.
“We also lost a season of growth, and at three tons of grapes an acre, it will take an extra year now to get nine tons of fruit,” Sharrott said. Grapes can’t be harvested until the plants are 3 years old, he said. The first two years, the plants must be encouraged to develop good root systems.
So until then, he will continue to buy merlot grapes from another grower in Vineland, whose plants were older and survived the winter, he said.
Weather is only one of many challenges to a New Jersey vineyard and winery. There are also deer, who love the tender growing tips of vines, especially Chambourcin. Sharrot has to cover all his vines with deerproof webbing, and sometimes the deer still break through, he said.
But one of the toughest challenges, Sharrott said, is the New Jersey stigma. Many people still think the state only puts out poor quality sweet wines, he said.
“Our biggest battle is to get people to taste it with an open mind,” he said of Sharrott’s premium wines — many dry — that have won international, national and regional awards. It bottles 20 different wines, from 15 grape varieties, and some are blends.
Its wines are sold at the wine bar at the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, and to two restaurants in Collingswood, as well as to The Octopus’s Garden in Stafford Township and The Palm and Fin in Atlantic City. That’s where he finds his converts, he said, who become his customers.
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