In February 2023, I traveled to New Jersey to visit a few of their top wineries. One wasBeneduce Vineyards, where I met owner/farmer/winemaker Mike Beneduce for a comprehensive – and impressive – portfolio tasting – plus an engaging conversation about winegrowing and winemaking.
Beneduce began with three acres of Chardonnay in 2009. Today Mike, his family, and his team grow and make around 4000-5000 cases of all-estate, cool-climate varietal wines like Blaufränkisch and Gewürztraminer – as Mike said, “Fear not the umlaut!” – plus Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and much more.
As a testament to the breadth and depth of Beneduce’s portfolio, Mike doesn’t just make Gewürztraminer – he makes it three ways! – a traditional still white wine, a Pétillant Naturel (Pét-Nat) whose label design is an Italian hand gesture (Ma che stai a dì/ma che vuoi? – What the heck are you saying? Spit it out!), and an orange-hued, skin-contact version named Intermezzo that he describes as “Gewürztraminer turned up to 12.”
Add to the list Beneduce’s Chambrusco (a dry, frizzante-style Chambourcin), Tuxedo (a still Blanc de Noirs – white wine made from Pinot Noir), Rosé Pét-Nat (made from Blaufränkisch) and Acqua Pazza (described as “a low-alcohol, Italian countryside-style aperitivo made from twice pressed Blaufränkisch skins and Zach and Zoëlocal, raw wildflower honey”) – and you realize this is both serious and fun winemaking also turned up to 12!
I left Beneduce thinking, “Wow! I’d put these wines in a blind tasting with wines from anywhere and they’d show well!” They were all fabulous – super creative, cool, and yummy – and an example of cutting-edge, world-class winemaking that defies any preconceived notions one might have of New Jersey wines. I knew I had to tell Beneduce’s story, but I also wanted Mike to share it in his own words. Below is our 10-question interview.
1. Every winery has a story? What’s yours?
In short, we are fourth-generation farmers who were looking to diversify the crops that we grew on a farm originally purchased for our garden center. We were also home winemakers growing up, so when the opportunity arose to plant our own grapes, we jumped into it with both feet!
2. Did you have a wine moment (or moments) when you fell in love with wine that made you want to pursue this path?
I grew up around wine, so I’ve been lucky to have plenty of moments where the seed was planted, so to speak. I did have a magical moment in Italy once where I drank a simple bottle of their local white wine on the Ligurian coastline and sort of immediately understood the concept of terroir, which has stuck with me ever since.
3. What has been most challenging about being a start-up – planting a vineyard, building a winery, and creating a business from scratch? What has been the most rewarding?
Farming any crop comes with a long list of challenges and it’s been a steep learning curve for me across a wide range of categories from business management to commercial construction to continually learning new ways to push the boundaries of sustainable farming in our region. I think the most rewarding thing is just spending time in the vineyard surrounded by a healthy, vibrant ecosystem. I love the cyclical element of farming a perennial crop like grapes, because there’s a tangible aspect to it as you bring in the harvest after spending the previous year caring for the vines.
4. Are your most challenging days in the wine industry better than what you did in your previous life? How and why?
Well, I started in this business at the age of 19, so I’m not sure anything I did before then qualifies as a previous life! I’ve always been someone who enjoys being outdoors in nature, and I’ve always loved food and flavors, so this has seemed like a good fit for me since day one.
5. What is your winery’s primary focus – signature or flagship grape varieties, wines, etc.
We focus on estate-grown, aromatic varieties from northern Europe – particularly Blaufränkisch, Riesling, Gewürz, and Pinot Noir – made in a classically dry, food-friendly style.
6. Anything new on the horizon that you can share?
We recently purchased the farm next door, so we’ll be adding another 20+ acres to our vineyard over the next decade or so, including some new varieties for us like Dolcetto and Barbera.
7. What do the next 10 years look like?
I hope they look a lot like the past ten years. We’re going to keep learning more from our land and how to work with nature to bring out the best fruit we can in each vintage. I hope we can keep honing our winemaking skills to preserve that fruit for people to enjoy in delicious and interesting ways. And we’re going to continue shaping our hospitality to include experiences that are unique and present our wines to new and returning customers in ways that make them memorable.
8. What do you think makes your winery/wines different from others in New Jersey?
We’re focused on some more obscure varieties like Blaufränkisch and Gewürz that aren’t as widely grown here (although Blaufränkisch is gaining momentum!) and we’re committed to using 100% estate grown grapes, which I think is extremely rare in any wine region, and especially so here in NJ.
9. What do you want everyone to know about New Jersey wine?
It exists! It still amazes me that even NJ residents don’t know about the wine industry in their own backyard, which is experiencing exponential growth right now. We have such a diversity of styles and varieties that if people take the time to explore the scene a bit, they’re likely to find some wines they love.
10. Is there anything you are willing to share that I won’t find anywhere else?
The secret to the fluffiest scrambled eggs is adding a splash of soda water 🙂
Dr. Elizabeth Smith is a former college professor and wine club manager turned award-winning wine writer and wine and writing competition judge. Her day job is wine and winemaker copywriter at Naked Wines USA. Elizabeth is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento and Sonoma Chapters, the Circle of Wine Writers and the Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. Connect with Elizabeth at easmith.net/contact.
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