Bees. We couldn’t live without them. About one-third of our food is dependent upon pollination, and bees are the best pollinators we have. They take care of dozens of edible plant varieties, and while grapevines are not one of them—the wind takes on the task of pollinating grapevines—bees are invaluable to healthy, biodiverse vineyards.
While bees don’t fertilize the grapevines, increasingly, wineries across the world are keeping hives on their estates because a property’s overall agricultural health depends on bees. They pollinate the cover crops and many of the wild grasses that growers plant to boost soil health in vineyards. They attract beneficial vineyard predators (like beetles and lacewings), which in turn eat vineyard pests.
Other winemakers opt to support local and sustainable beekeepers by using honey in their production process.
Read on for insight into the imaginative and delicious ways vintners in the Garden State are helping all of us by boosting bee health.
Cream Ridge Winery’s Gang of Bees
The bees that inhabit the bee boxes on Cream Ridge Winery’s property in Cream Ridge is part of the vineyard’s permaculture plan. Instead of using pesticides to get rid of other species of bees that ruin grapes, they planted beneficial gardens to attract honeybees.
“Bumblebees, yellow jackets, and wasps are very aggressive when it comes to eating grapes,” says Tim Schlitzer, CEO of Cream Ridge. “They get in where the birds have picked at the grapes and ruin the grapes.”
Honeybees don’t eat grapes, and they are very territorial, ganging up on other bees to chase them off. As the honeybee population at Cream Ridge began to increase, the number of grape damaging bees began to decrease. So Schlitzer brought in a local beekeeper to add bee boxes, and now the grape-eating bees on the property are virtually nonexistent. And no one is getting stung in the vines.
In addition to keeping away the non-beneficial bees and some other harmful insects, the honeybees pollinate the plum trees and elderberry trees on the property. And, of course, they produce honey. Cream Ridge sells honey from their bees in their tasting room, and the beekeeper also gets a share of the honey to sell.
Cream Ridge doesn’t currently use any of the honey in their wines, but some New Jersey wineries incorporate the liquid gold in their offerings.
Beneduce’s Acqua Pazza
Mike Beneduce, winemaker and owner at Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown, has partnered with their neighbors at Zach and Zoe Sweet Barn Farm, sourcing the beekeeper’s raw wildflower honey as the sweetener in their popular piquette. A piquette, for the uninitiated, is a fizzy, upcycled beverage made with re-fermented grape skins.
“We love using their raw honey to carbonate our Acqua Pazza, instead of sugar,” Beneduce says. “It’s locally made, which I love, and unlike sugar, has the added benefits of vitamins and minerals. Since the Acqua Pazza is a naturally made product, it’s important that the honey also brings its own character to the drink, and reflects the same terroir that our grapes are being grown in.”
The native yeasts in the honey also boost the unfiltered wine’s ABV to around 8%, in addition to adding the pleasant fizzy character that makes it such a refreshing summer beverage.
“We also sell their jars in our little retail shop, and love promoting the work they’re doing in our community and beyond,” Beneduce says. “They are one of about a dozen local farms that we partner with to promote the wealth of artisan food and farm beverages produced here in Hunterdon County and New Jersey at large.”
Villa Milagro’s Mi Carino
The Mi Carino honey wine, also known as mead, at Villa Milagro Vineyards in Phillipsburg “is delicate and lightly sweet with a hint of spices,” according to owner and winemaker Dr. Audrey Cross.
Dr. Cross first made Mi Carino, which means my sweetheart or sweetie in Spanish for Valentine’s Day. Now the winery carries it year-round. Villa Milagro sources orange blossom honey, and during fermentation soaks whole organic cinnamon sticks, cloves and orange peel in the batch, removing it after the wine is slightly infused with flavor.
The result is a honey wine that’s a satisfying ending to dinner.
“We like a simple finish to a nice big meal,” says Dr. Cross. “An aperitif glass of Mi Carino, a small square of 70-80% cacao and a cup of expresso is perfect.”
Valenzano’s Jersey Devil Honey Wine
The Valenzano Family Winery has long embraced a casual, fun-loving approach to wine, and has studiously rejected what it calls the more “hoity-toity” elements of wine culture. The winery is also not afraid to laugh and has created a line of wines that embraces one of the Garden State’s biggest legends.
New Jersey is known for many things, including the famed, folkloric Jersey Devil. Also known as the Leeds Devil, this legendary creature is said to be a flying biped with hooves inhabiting the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. In other telling’s, it features a goat or equine head, bat-like wings, horns, clawed hands, a forked tail, the works.
The winery’s Jersey Devil Honey Wine is a perfect example of Valenzano’s fun-loving mindset, and it is created, of course, with locally sourced honey. A delicious beast, the Jersey Devil has become one of their most beloved wines, noted for the strong floral notes and flavors of orchard apples, baking spices and vanilla.
Supporting, even in small ways, the contribution of bees to our food system is increasingly important as beekeepers across the country continue to combat Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that has decimated bee populations across the world.
We can’t all keep bees. But we can all do our part. Grab a jar of honey the next time you hit the farmer’s market. And at happy hour, get buzzed on one of these delicious quaffs.