Wine scenes from the 2018 Garden State Culinary Arts Awards

The day before the Garden State Culinary Arts Awards, I got an email from Andy

Clurfeld, founder and president of the Garden State Culinary Arts Foundation. She was writing to let me know that all the wines at the awards gala would be from New Jersey this year.

"This is such a great opportunity to show the rest of the industry the quality of NJ's wines today," she wrote.

I was already looking forward to the gala. The news about the wine made me even more so. Clurfeld curated an impressive lineup of wineries whose wines did exactly what she intended - show the rest of the New Jersey culinary industry that our winemakers produce quality wines.

Guests at the gala were treated to wines from William Heritage Winery in Mullica Hill, Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown, Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, Bellview Winery in Landisville, and Tomasello Winery in Hammonton.

One thing that struck me as I nosily hovered around the bar as the wines were being taken out of their boxes - each and every wine I saw was going to be impressive. The wineries, who donated the wines for the evening, brought their best.

I also realized that I could think of at least a dozen more wines off the top of my head from other wineries in the state that could have stood side by side in quality with the bottles there. And those are just the wines I've had. There are dozens of wineries I have yet to visit who have wines others rave about.

William Heritage Winery's 2017 Pét-Nat Rosé was the highlight for me in night of great wines.

The wine highlight of the evening for me was William Heritage's 2017 Pét-Nat Rosé. I have been waiting to taste this limited release wine (which is being officially released today to wine club members) since the winery's Instagram first teased it back in March.

Pét-Nat is short for Pétillant Naturel, an ancient method of making sparkling wine. This very old method has recently come back in vogue thanks to the natural wine movement. As far as I know, William Heritage's is the first winery in New Jersey to bottle Pét-Nat and sell it.

I asked Heritage's winemaker, Sean Comninos, to give me a little insight into this wine.

"Pét-Nat is really just an ancestral way of making sparkling wine," he said. "Basically, we simply bottle the wine prior to the end of fermentation. The yeast cells that are part of that sweeter wine keep right on fermenting, often times to dryness. The CO2 generated adds a slight sparkle to the resulting cloudy, rustic wine.

"We felt it was a good time to begin offering a wine like this. The wine world is changing and wines like this that were formerly quite esoteric are becoming more widely accepted and recognized as a premium product. This is the same thinking that led us to can some premium rosé this year."

When I asked him what to pair with the Pét-Nat, he replied it pairs well with a broad range of foods.

"The fruity aspect of the wine lends well to spicier Asian and Mexican dishes which can at times be difficult to pair," he said. "It really shines on its own though or with soft cheeses. The funkier, the better."

From 2017's Garden State Culinary Arts Awards gala - here I am with my dear friends Lisa and John Howard-Fusco.

This wine did not let me down. The color is gorgeous. On the nose it was toast and red fruits. It's one of the wines that takes me a while to have my first sip because I can't stop sticking nose in it. Strawberry was prominent flavor in this dry bubbly.

The wine stood out for food and beverage writer Lisa Howard-Fusco of Eating in South Jersey, too.

"It was exquisite," she says "It had a little bit of fruitiness and this gorgeous crisp dryness. But it also had this ester-y thing you get like with beer – kind of in the way that perfume has a scent that is barely there – it’s so subtle. It’s so good. The crazy thing is you can have this with anything. It will play nicely with anything – the way champagne does."

Beneduce Vineyards Blaufränksich, Rosé and Gewurztraminer.

Lisa's partner in crime and husband John Howard-Fusco had his own favorite wine of the night, Beneduce Vineyards 2014 Blue 2, the winery's excellent 100 percent Blaufränkisch.

"The first word that came to mind was jammy," said John. "It's very fruity without being sweet. It was a very big wine and really enjoyable. You can drink it alone, but it stood up very well to the Glenmalore Farm Pork Confit and Chicaronnes."

Blue 2 is another wine I love, and last October I drove up to Beneduce Vineyards to talk Blaufränksich with winemaker Mike Beneduce. I wrote about the wine in my Courier Post column, and at the time, this is what I said about the 2014 Blue 2.

The wine is intensely aromatic. Its aroma of blueberries and leather are enticing, and its plum, mulberry and spice flavors, along with a good amount of tannins and nice acidity, make it a great food wine.

That was 6 months ago, and the the bottles that were opened this past Sunday night were even better. I have a bottle the 2014 in my cellar that I'm attempting to let sit for a few years, and I'm glad to know it's aging really well.

Bellview Winery's Outer Coastal Plain Estate Blaufrankisch and Chambourcin.

Bellview Winery also grows and bottles Blaufränkisch. When I visited Bellview early this year to research New Jersey port-style wines, the 2015 hadn't been bottled yet. This is the first year the winery has been able to bottle a 100 percent Blaufränkisch in a while because of vine loss several years ago. It's taken them a while to grow enough to bottle it as a single variety again, but this wine was worth the wait.

I'll admit that by the time I got to this during the evening, I was no longer taking the time to be mindful and note aromas and tastes, but I did note this: It's a damn good wine, and I expect it to have great aging potential.

Tomasello Winery Palmaris 2014 Outer Coastal Plain Petit Verdot Reserve

Another standout wine from the evening was Tomasello's Palmaris Petit Verdot. Palmaris is Tomasello's label of Outer Coastal Plain wines. Palmer's means "prize worthy," and it's the name they "use only on wines of substantive character made in years of exceptional quality."

This wine is a blend of 79 percent Petit Verdot, 12 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 9 percent Cabernet Franc. I was poured the wine immediately after the cork popped, and it took quite a bit of swirling in the glass to get it to open up a bit. It's definitely a wine that benefits from breathing or decanting, but even right out of a just-opened bottle, this was a wonderful wine - all violets and leathery. I imagine it would be a serious steak wine.

Although I've highlighted just a few of the dozen or so wines poured that night, I know that each New Jersey wine served at the Garden State Culinary Arts Awards gala was a wine that does the state proud. I think every single one was 100 percent New Jersey grown, and the majority of them were estate grown. The collection of wines was a true expression of fine wine in New Jersey. I was so thrilled that these wineries and winemakers that I am such a loud cheerleader for had the opportunity to shine for so many regional culinary professionals.

New Jersey wine professionals raise a toast at the 2018 Garden State Culinary Arts Awards.

Toward the end of the night, those that make wine happen in New Jersey gathered for a photo. Jen Pollard, Tasting Room Manager at Beneduce Vineyards; Scott Quaralla, Vice President of Bellview Winery; Mike Beneduce, Winemaker at Beneduce Vineyards; Sean Comninos, Winemaker at William Heritage Winery; and Tom Cosentino, Executive Directorof Garden State Wine Growers Association raised a glass in celebration of New Jersey wines.

The finalists in the Outstanding Wine Professional category were:

  • Michael Beneduce Jr., Beneduce Vineyards; Pittstown

  • Sean Comninos, Bill and Penni Heritage, Heritage Vineyards; Mullica Hill

  • Chris Cree, Pluckemin Inn; Bedminster

The Heritage Vineyards team tied with Chris Cree for the award.

The Courier Post has a list of all the Garden State Culinary Arts Awards 2018 winners.

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