Episode 444: New Jersey Wine

Mar 17, 2013
Originally published on March 15, 2013 7:43 pm

Sometimes your success depends on how your competitors behave. People judge you not just by your product, but by the product that your rival down the street makes.

This is a problem for Lou Caracciolo. He's trying to make high-quality wine, from grapes he grows in New Jersey. But Jersey wine already has a reputation — and fancy isn't it. On today's show: Can New Jersey become the next Napa?

For more, see Adam Davidson's latest NYT Magazine column, Bottle Bing.

Music: Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer" Find us: Twitter/ Facebook/ Spotify. Download the Planet Money iPhone App.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Earlier this week, Zoe and I hit the road for a tour of wine country. And we drove most of the day. We got to the vineyards right around sunset. Our first stop was the Amalthea Cellars.

ZOE CHACE, HOST:

It was pretty gorgeous.

LOUIS CARACCIOLO: If you walk here, you'll see - let me say something.

SMITH: The owner, Lou Caracciolo, takes us past his 100-year old farmhouse. And we trump out into the rows of old vines.

CARACCIOLO: But here is something that I put in the ground in 1976.

CHACE: Lou's got this old-world charm about him. He both kind of looks and sounds like Marlon Brando.

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're saying?

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

SMITH: You know, I was thinking about it. The whole scene there looks like one of those etchings that you'll see on the front of an old bottle of French wine, you know, with the vineyard and the farmhouse. But we are not in France. We are not even on the West Coast.

CHACE: Inside, Lou pulls out one of his bottles.

SMITH: The bottle says this winery - the location we're standing in - is in something called the outer coastal plain.

CHACE: Yum. (Laughter) this is so good.

SMITH: This is fantastic.

CHACE: So good, it's easy to forget where we really are.

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

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: New Jersey.

CHACE: New Jersey.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON JOVI'S "LIVIN ON A PRAYER")

SMITH: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

CHACE: And I'm Zoe Chace. And today, we traveled to the land of Tony Soprano, Jon Bon Jovi, the New Jersey Turnpike, and we tell a quintessential New Jersey story - how the scrappy underdog tries to show the snobs that he's just as good as they are.

SMITH: Lou Caracciolo and his fellow New Jersey winemakers suffer from a classic problem - you aren't always judged by who you really are but by your reputation, where you come from. So how do you get the haters to change their mind?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' ON A PRAYER")

BON JOVI: (Singing) We'll give it a shot. Woah, we're halfway there. Woah, living on a prayer. Take my hand. We'll make it, I swear. Woah, living on a prayer.

CHACE: The dream that New Jersey could be like France, like Bordeaux - this is not crazy. This has happened before. There was once another scrappy underdog - a state that was reviled, the butt of jokes, widely mocked, horrible reputation. Their wine got no respect. And fancy wine drinkers wouldn't touch it.

GEORGE TABER: In 1976, the reputation of California wines was that it was only slightly better than rotgut.

SMITH: That's George Taber. He's a wine journalist.

SMITH: There were sweet, high alcohol wines, such as Ripple. And its slogan was it has that ring-a-ding flavor.

CHACE: And this guy George Taber was on the scene when California had its coming-out party, its debutante ball. In the 1970s, Taber was a writer for Time magazine in Paris. And he got this weird little press release one day inviting him to cover an event called the Judgment of Paris in honor of the American bicentennial. California wines, out of the little-known regions of Napa and Sonoma, would go head to head with French Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

SMITH: So Taber shows up May 24, 1976. He's the only journalist in the room among a bunch of preeminent French wine experts. And he looks around. And he could immediately see something happening. The judges were becoming confused. They could not tell the difference between a California wine and a French wine.

TABER: Well, there was one kind of freakish moment when Raymond Oliver, who was the Julia Child of France at the time, and he held a glass of wine up. And he looked at it. And he swirled it around. And he tasted it. And then he looked at it again. He said (speaking French), back to France. And I looked down at my scorecard - and I was the only one of the room who had a scorecard, so I knew what they were drinking - and he had just tasted a Freemark Abbey wine from California.

CHACE: (Speaking French). The winning wine was American. The French were humiliated. California was triumphant. The Judgment of Paris put California on the map.

TABER: Overnight, the next Monday morning when the Time magazine story came out, I found a wine shop in Manhattan. They were swamped with people coming in with their copies of Time magazine saying, do you have any of these wines? If you do, can I buy them? (Laughter).

SMITH: You probably know what happened next. The price for California wine went up. The number of wineries in Napa and Sonoma exploded. A star was born. And all around the world, people who dreamed of making great wine said hmm (ph), people like Lou Caracciolo in New Jersey.

CARACCIOLO: If the French had been taken down by anybody, that meant that a new world was going to open. And if that was possible, then it means any region in the world with similar climate and committed winemakers could do that.

SMITH: Even New Jersey. And so Lou planted his first vines in an old potato field that his family owned just off the old highway, halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

CHACE: If 1976 was when the California wine industry arrived, the New Jersey fine wine industry was just beginning. And the thing about wine is that everything takes a long, long time.

CARACCIOLO: OK. So you want to taste the wine?

SMITH: Lou takes us through his old farmhouse. He's a food scientist by training. And he did not cut any corners in this operation. It took him six years to get the grapes - the grapes alone - ripe, then 10 years after that

SMITH: to produce a bottle that he was proud enough to share. And eventually - eventually, the wine started to taste the way he imagined it. It started to taste French.

Lou opens the door to the wine cellar.

CHACE: So this is - this looks like, basically, a cliche of a European wine cellar.

SMITH: It could be 1682 here.

CHACE: Exactly. There's little candles around and these beautiful barrels.

CARACCIOLO: It's actually another cliche. This is identical to the way it was done in 1750. Nothing's different.

CHACE: Making the wine is hard. But that's the fun, romantic part. Lou's got a way bigger challenge - getting other people to notice that his wine is great.

SMITH: And that's an especially big challenge in New Jersey, not just because of all the things you think of when you think of New Jersey, but because New Jersey wine already has made a name for itself. But it's just not the name that Lou wants for his New Jersey wine.

CHACE: People have been making wine in New Jersey for 200 years - there are dozens of wineries - people like Charlie Tomasello. He is just down the road from Lou. But he is worlds away in his wine-making style. And we tasted it.

CHARLIE TOMASELLO: Would you like a little sip?

CHACE: It has been described to me as a little bit like grape jelly.

TOMASELLO: Yes, well, I think that's accurate because Concord is used by Welch's probably to make grape jelly. So very...

CHACE: Smucker's.

TOMASELLO: Smucker's.

TOMASELLO: And it's very sweet. I have to tell you that, yeah.

SMITH: Sweet, Smucker's, Concord grapes - these are not the words that anyone would use about Lou's fancy French-style wine down the road.

CHACE: But Charlie Tomasello has been here way longer than Lou. For decades, they've made this traditional grapey wine. It retails for about 10 bucks. His grandfather started the place after Prohibition.

TOMASELLO: The story is that a couple of weeks after Prohibition ended, he ran to Washington in a snowstorm and got his license. Grandfather was pretty much not quite the first in line but almost the first in line, yeah.

SMITH: And the Tomasello family has been very successful making these sweet wines. You can find them all over the country. And the Tomasello Winery and others, they stamp the world with what New Jersey-style wine is. It's fruity. Sometimes it's even made from raspberry, cranberry. Oh, especially, people always talk about the New Jersey blueberry wine.

CHACE: I like it.

SMITH: I know. I could picture it 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.

CHACE: Nothing wrong with cheesecake wine. This is a very good example of the form. And even at $11 a bottle, Charlie hates it when people assume fruit wines are low quality.

TOMASELLO: There are 12 pounds of raspberries in a gallon of Tomasello raspberry wine. So it's a premium raspberry wine.

SMITH: It's just not the kind of wine you can charge $100 a bottle for. It's not the kind of wine that wine collectors around the world will fight to own. And, you know, frankly, it's not the kind of wine that inspires people to travel a long way to spend gobs of money, you know, taking bicycle tours through the wine country of Southern New Jersey.

CHACE: Right now, the New Jersey wine industry generates around $35 million a year. And California wine, it's hundreds of times bigger, $20 billion a year. Lou Caracciolo, and even some of the fruit winemakers, dream of stealing away some of that money. They think the Jersey land and the Jersey grapes are good enough.

SMITH: The problem is how to change people's expectations. Lou wants to sell classic, European-style dry wines from a place where people expect cheesecake.

CHACE: Now, let's be really clear for a second here. I am not a sophisticated wine drinker.

SMITH: I'm not either.

CHACE: And we both thought that both wines were delicious, the sweet and the dry. But the point we're making here is that in order to sell the dry, you can't be saddled with a reputation that all the wines that come out of your area are sweet.

SMITH: George Taber, that wine journalist we spoke to, he actually wrote a book about the Judgment of Paris - says serious wine buyers will not look twice at a bottle with the name New Jersey on it.

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 have 80 percent of the wines out on the market are those sweet wines. You can buy Tomasello blueberry wine in most liquor stores. You know, so it's out there. They're making it. They're obviously making a profit on it. They're just not making a reputation on it.

CHACE: This is known as a collective action problem. And it basically means this. Sometimes your success depends on how your competitors behave. People are judging you not just by your products but by the product that your rival down the street makes. You are all grouped together in their minds.

SMITH: Louis Caracciolo and his French-inspired wines wants to change the reputation of New Jersey. He wants to make it a place where you can go for Cabernets and cab francs. But he can't do it alone. He needs his competitors to up their game too so that when someone takes their very first New Jersey wine, that experience - the thing they are going to form their opinions on - that experience has to be a good one.

CHACE: Lou is taking this on, this collective action problem. He has a plan. The first thing, ditch the name New Jersey - much better to slap on the official geological name for the area around Atlantic City, the outer coastal plain.

CARACCIOLO: The outer coastal plain went on an international show now. People pick that up and say, that's in Australia, isn't it? That wine's fabulous. That's Australians that do that? No. It's from New Jersey.

CHACE: It sounds fancier.

CARACCIOLO: It's marketing.

SMITH: When you hear the words outer coastal plain, you can almost just, like, smell the salt air, the breeze coming off the water. You picture these rolling hills. Yeah, I mean, it's a little bit like that in South Jersey. But the name is actually legit.

Lou and some of the other winemakers, they got South Jersey officially certified by the federal government as a wine region, an American viticultural area like Sonoma, like the Russian River Valley, like the Antelope Valley of the California high desert.

CHACE: That's Los Angeles County. It's just north of LA.

SMITH: OK. Well, the Americans got this trick from the French. It's how they dealt with their collective action problem back in the 19th century. Back then, some French wine was good. Other French wine was lousy. The fancy winemakers forced the government to come up with a formal classification system. The premier wineries then, they didn't have to worry about what their neighbors were doing to destroy their reputation.

CHACE: Wine regions in the U.S. accomplished some of the same thing. Napa wines taste a certain way. And the hope in New Jersey is the outer coastal plain will acquire, slowly, the same sort of cachet. Let the cheaper stuff call itself New Jersey.

SMITH: But a name is not enough. You also need a critical mass of wineries. Lou uses a classic Jersey example.

CARACCIOLO: It's very, very similar to gambling. You're not a gambling region unless there's 10, you know, casinos. So here, the joy for wine drinkers, if they're going to come down the region and spend a day or two, they've got to be able to taste the diversity of the different wines. And then that rising tide lifts all ships.

CHACE: And so Lou is on a mission. He visits the other wineries in New Jersey and gives them the sales pitch. Sure, still sell the sweet wine. Make your money that way but make your reputation, your prestige on the fancy stuff.

SMITH: It's not the most easy pitch in the world. Making French or California-style wine is an expensive proposition. You need finicky grape vines that require constant tending. And you can't release your wine right away. You can't make your money back. You have to age it properly in Oak barrels. It'll be seven to 10 years before you can make any money selling the wine from those new European vines you planted.

CHACE: Some people are into it though. Charlie Tomasello, he still makes the traditional New Jersey sweet wine. But he's also bottling a 2010 Reserve Cabernet.

SMITH: And I'll tell you. It tastes nothing like grape jelly.

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

SMITH: Even the cork sounds fancy.

CHACE: And it is delicious, called Palle Maris. It sells for $48 a bottle. And the name New Jersey does not appear on the front of the bottle. It's all outer coastal plain. If you want to know the name of the winery or where it's from, you have to check the fine print on the back.

SMITH: Lou and Charlie Tomasello and the other New Jersey winemakers are still waiting for their big California moment. But it's a lot tougher than it was in 1976. Back then there were not too many states that were making great wine. But Lou's trying to recreate the magic of that time.

Last year, Lou and his neighbors in southern New Jersey, they're going to have their own blind tasting just like the one that happened in Paris, the Judgment of Paris. But this time, the snobs would have to pick out the Jersey wines from a field of French heavyweights.

CHACE: George Taber, the guy who was in Paris in 1976, he came to Princeton. And they tried to replicate it exactly.

TABER: There were six French Cabernet Sauvignon's in the competition and four from the United States, again, just as it had been at Paris.

SMITH: So picture it - quiet room, everyone taking tiny little sips of wine. The experts have their pencils and their slips of paper. They're writing everything down. The scores are being tallied.

CHACE: And then, the moment.

SMITH: Yes.

CHACE: This was the time for New Jersey to show the world what they were made of.

CHACE: And somewhere out on Highway 9, Bruce Springsteen holds his breath.

SMITH: And the winner among the whites is...

TABER: A French wine.

SMITH: Aw, a French wine?

TABER: But the second place was a New Jersey wine, the state of New Jersey, the Garden State they call it. That wine would be made at exit 8.

SMITH: (Laughter). I get it, exit 8 on the turnpike.

But we should say that overall New Jersey wines did really well. Three of the top four white wines were from New Jersey. A garden state red placed third. Charlie Tomasello's Cabernet took fifth place.

CHACE: But so far, no mad rush to the wine shops looking for Jersey wine.

SMITH: Yeah. It was not quite the earthquake of the Judgment of Paris. But, you know, if you listen, if you put your ear to the ground, you can hear a rumble way out on the turnpike.

CHACE: Jersey is coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' ON A PRAYER")

BON JOVI: (Singing) Woah, we're halfway there. Woah - living on a prayer. Take my hand. We'll make it, I swear. Woah - living on a prayer.

SMITH: A special New Jersey tip of the hat to our colleague and collaborator, Adam Davidson. His article about the New Jersey wine scene is in the New York Times magazine. You should read it. It's great. And we want to think Orley Ashenfelter. He is an economist at Princeton University. He helped explain wine and collective action to us.

CHACE: As always, let us know what you thought of the show today. Email us - planetmoney@npr.org. Find us on the blog - npr.org/money.

I'm Zoe Chace.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVIN' ON A PRAYER")

BON JOVI: (Singing) Woah, we're halfway there. Woah - living on a prayer. Take my hand. And we'll make it, I swear. Woah - living on a prayer. Woah, we're halfway there. Woah - living on a prayer. Take my hand. And we'll make it, I swear. Woah - living on a prayer. Woah, we're halfway. Woah - living on a prayer. Take my hand. And we'll make it, I swear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.