After the last two years we’ve had, it was time for a good surprise: and we got one when a small but mighty underdog varietal (Petit Verdot) delivered a win in New Jersey’s annual Governor’s Cup.
Earlier this month, Governor Murphy announced all of the winners of the 2021 Governor’s Cup competition. Here’s how it works: New Jersey wineries voluntarily choose and enter wines they want evaluated by the Beverage Testing Institute for the competition. This year, 18 wineries entered a total of 150+ wines, and the BTI awarded gold medals (given to wines that score between 90 and 94) to several of them.
Autumn Lake Winery’s 2019 Estate Petit Verdot scored a 94, and the judges awarded it Best of Show Overall and the Governor’s Cup for Red Wine. Mark Hernandez, owner and winemaker at Autumn Lake, planted the first vines at the Williamstown winery in 2012.
We wanted to learn more about Mark’s winning entry of course, but also what led him to make wine in New Jersey and what wine lovers will find when they visit Autumn Lake to sip the best the Garden State has to offer. Read on for our one-on-one with Mark.
Garden State Wine Growers Association: Do you have a tasting room on-site, and how important is that to your business? What kind of experience can visitors expect + any upcoming events we should be aware of?
Mark Hernandez: We have a modest tasting area indoors with a fireplace, small stage and tables and chairs. It is decorated in a rustic, comfortable manner with exposed beams, stone fireplace and lots of reclaimed wood. It makes you feel at home. The east wall is mostly glass so customers can sit and take in the view of Autumn Lake. Most folks opt for outdoor seating where they can enjoy our terrace, court, covered patio and picnic grove. Live music, fire pits and food trucks complete the outdoor scene. It is your backyard winery.
GSWGA: How did you go about deciding where to establish your vineyards, and what varieties to plant?
MH: Honestly, in the beginning we were less in tune to terroir, clones and varieties than we are today. I wish we had given those topics the energy they deserve. Varieties, however, were selected carefully with the help of the OCPVA leaders and members who have been growing wine much longer than we have.
Some varieties were planted with our head, but a few were planted with our hearts which turns out to be the wrong way to go about it. Some blocks have been replaced since the 2012 planting with more thought going into the variety and the clones. For example, we have removed some of the Cabernet Sauvignon and replaced it with Merlot or Traminette, both of which ripen more predictably in our area.
GSWGA: Did you have formal winemaking training, and either way: how do you think that impacted your success?
MH: No formal training but again, the trade groups in NJ are second to none when it comes to education, advice and assistance. We have Rutgers on our side and the county agricultural branch has a vineyard expert. We use a consultant from time to time, Denise Gardner. Also, lessons learned through failure are not forgotten, and there have been plenty of those.
GSWGA: Looking back, what do you wish you knew then that you know now?
MH: I wish I had realized there are to be three cooperating aspects to this winery project; farming and viticulture, wine production and hospitality. I have had the luxury of having a wonderful vineyard manager who looks after the grapes as if they are his own. There’s no way I could have done this project without Brendan Boyle, our vineyard manager.
It is an even greater luxury to have my wife, Donna managing paperwork, compliance (lots of that going on!) and the books. Although she works from home, I could never do what I do in the winery without her support. And she likes my wine too!
GSWGA: One of the most exciting things about New Jersey, is that it is still a young region. What varieties, regions or fellow producers are you energized and excited by right now?
MH: We should all be excited about San Marco and Trentina, two new Italian crosses that are just now becoming available to growers. The San Marco makes a dark rich red wine and the Trentina is showing promise as an aromatic style white wine. We harvested both this year for the first time. Stay tuned, you will be hearing much more regarding these varieties. Bellview is set to release the first San Marco varietal that I know of shortly.
We should be promoting the fact that there is a shortage of NJ grown grapes and I believe the demand is only going to increase. I would prefer good, ripe NJ grapes to grapes from many other outside regions.
Focus on Autumn Lake Winery’s Winning 2019 Petit Verdot
GSWGA: You won Best of Show Overall, which is an enormous honor. How did you celebrate?
MH: My daughter, Meg, who is our tasting room manager and my wife, Donna and I sat out in the picnic area with our customers and had a glass of the 2019 Petit Verdot.
It should be mentioned that congratulations are in order for several other NJ wineries who received awards in this competition. William Heritage for their Chardonnay, Sharrott for their Wicked port-style wine and several others including White Horse and Auburn Road.
GSWGA: How many acres have you planted to Petit Verdot? It’s often seen as a blending grape. Why did you initially decide to turn it into a single-variety wine?
MH: We have 1/4 acre of Petit Verdot. The vines were acquired through a west coast nursery who had put up 250 vines at a benefit auction at the Eastern Wine Expo some years ago. I won the item and selected Petit Verdot vines. They showed up in the spring of 2015 and were promptly planted. 2019 was our second harvest of that variety. It was enough to make just one barrel, or about 24 cases.
We make each variety with the intention of creating a single varietal wine. If it is up to our standards, it goes to bottle as a varietal. If it is better in a blend, we proceed in that direction.
GSWGA: Can you walk us through the picking, production and aging process of your Petit Verdot?
MH: The 2019 Petit Verdot is a very simple and straight forward story. It was an excellent year for NJ grape growing in general, and the Petit Verdot came in early and very ripe. Fermentation was quick and predictable as was secondary fermentation. It went to barrel by December into new, French oak with a medium plus toast on the inside of the barrel. It stayed there until bottling, around the spring of 2021.
GSWGA: We’d love your tasting notes — while it’s somewhat subjective, what will wine lovers find when they open your Petit Verdot?
MH: It is exactly the kind of wine I like. It has aromas of ripe, black fruit with a hint of oak and flavors to match with good mouthfeel. It is bold with a very dark color, balanced acidity and smooth tannins.
GSWGA: Will you plant more Petit Verdot, and do you think it’s a grape that works with the terroir here, and that more producers should be thinking about?
MH: We were thinking about planting more here as it is an under-achiever in the productivity department. The berries are small as are the clusters with only about 4.25 pounds per vine.
GWGA: Where can wine lovers find your winning bottle?
MH: We only sell our wines at the winery. There are no outlets or liquor stores yet. If I am lucky, I’ll always sell all my wine at the winery.