At some point, 2,000 plus grape vines planted in the yard has to signal more than a hobby. After many years of at-home grape cultivation and wine production, many bottles of wine given away to family and friends, and a whole lot of rave reviews, Paul and Debbie Ritter of Knowlton Township, NJ, finally realized they might have stumbled upon a business venture.
“We decided to test the waters and see what kind of response we would get,” to their wines, Paul Ritter said.
The couple made arrangements to lease a portion of land from a nearby orchard, plant a vineyard and transform the barn into a farm winery. They planted 3,000 vines at the orchard location, and began making Brook Hollow Winery wines. They were opened only on weekends for tasting and sales, yet the venture was so successful that after only a few years, it was again time to relocate.
The Ritters found a nearby location suitable for growing grapes and for building a winery. They purchased their current acreage, placing 10.5 acres in the Farmland Preservation Program. In 2012, they planted 4,000 new vines on the property.
The new winery was built on a 3-acre parcel of land kept outside of the Farmland Preservation program to ensure their ability to host on-site events. By having some appropriately scaled events a few times per year and offering private rentals, the success of the farm and its ongoing production of grapes is ensured, Ritter said. The winery hosts private parties and holds regular Friday evening open mic nights. By advanced registration, small groups of wine tasters can opt to have catered appetizers to enhance their wine-tasting experience.
“You can still run an agricultural business and have preserved land at the same time,” Ritter said, noting that his family’s focus is on the agriculture, and growing the best grapes for use in their wine production.
At this time, the vineyard is producing about 30 percent of the grapes the winery needs for their current production level of 7,000 gallons annually. Ritter estimates about 10,000 fully mature vines would produce enough fruit to supply this current level of production. Ritter crafts seven red, four white, and one 100 percent cranberry wine, all of which are primarily dry. The vines being cultivated for Brook Hollow Winery wines are of nine different varieties, all cold-hardy French-American hybrids. They include Cayuga White, Frotenac Gris, Diamond, Chambourchin, Frontenac, Noiret and the GR-7 “Geneva Red” variety out of Cornell.
Ritter, a friend, and one of his three daughters do most of the pruning, which begins in May and is a constant until late September, when the focus changes to harvesting. The soil here is fertile and well-drained, with eight inches of topsoil, including some sandy loam. He doesn’t worry much about amending the fertility, and is more focused on preventing mildew.
Both downy and powdery mildew are concerns in the vineyard, and working to prune the vines to increase the air flow is labor-intensive. He does use fungicide sprays, and for insect control uses Sevin, particularly when Japanese beetles become problematic in July.
The vines are separated by turf rows, which are mowed. There is no irrigation, which is normally only an issue during the first two years of establishment, Ritter said. During that time, they hauled water — in 300 gallon totes — out to the 3,000 vines and individually watered each one.
“Grapes perform better and produce better wine quality when they struggle,” Ritter said, as there is less water in the fruit. Too much fertility, or too much water, will increase canopy growth, causing problems, he emphasized.
The grapes are harvested by hand and crushed on a 40-foot by 80-foot crush pad, under the covered pavilion. They are then fermented outdoors, in large tubs. The temperatures outside during the fall is still warm enough to allow fermentation to occur. The wines are moved inside, into stainless steel tanks, to complete the fermentation process. Ritter inoculates the wines with a wild yeast strain from Australia, one for the red wines, and another one for the whites.
Ritter uses some oak barrel aging, but primarily uses oak alternatives, including oak chips or sawdust, which are placed in the stainless steel tanks along with the wine. Ritter explained that raw, young wine is cloudy, but as wine ages, it clarifies. Wines are racked from one tank to another every six months.
“By taking off the dead yeast cells, you are cleaning it without heavy filtration,” Ritter said. “We try to keep the whole process as minimal — as far as chemical additives — as possible.”
White wines do receive a very small dose of sulfites to stop oxidation. Red wines are aged between two and five years, while white wines are ready two years after harvest. The winery has 25 aging tanks, each of which will hold 2,150 liters. They are sufficient to meet his current production needs, Ritter said, but he does hope to expand again.
White wines need to be cold-stabilized, in order to prevent harmless crystals from forming. The crystals are from the tartaric acid naturally found in the grapes. Ritter cold-stabilizes his wines by putting them outside during cold weather, before bottling, to force the crystals out.
Ritter’s most sought-after wine is the 100 percent-fermented cranberry wine. Customers are constantly asking when more will be available. Ritter has to explain repeatedly that the fermentation process takes six months, so there won’t be anymore until next year.
“I try to get people to actually understand the wine-making process,” Ritter said. “I’ll talk about wine all day long. People will get a better understanding of the process.”
Adopt A Vine
Brook Hollow Winery’s recently implemented “Adopt A Vine” which aims to entice winery customers into learning about the complete wine making process, from vine to bottle. There are currently over four dozen enrollees in the program, which launched just prior to Christmas 2013. Those enrolled will be invited to participate in educational seminars and hands-on workshops, designed to help them successfully fulfill their role as adoptive vine parents.
“They can be as active a participant as they want,” Ritter said.
A newsletter will keep enrollees abreast of what is happening on the farm and in the winery, and offer insight into the grape growing and wine making processes. Several on-site programs, offered throughout the year, will demonstrate the work involved in bringing a bottle of wine to fruition. The first seminar, to be held in late spring, will cover planting and pruning basics. Other programs will include beneficial insect identification, canopy management, harvesting and crushing grapes, the secrets to making fine wines and the bottling process.
Participants are able to choose the varietal they prefer to adopt when enrolling. This is important, as they are also entitled to two bottles of wine made from that varietal. Enrollment is open year-round. But Ritter won’t enroll just anyone. In fact, he’s turned down requests from those too far to actually participate and benefit from the educational aspects of the program. He is looking for those customers who want to gain practical knowledge of the entire process. Each year, the vine can be re-adopted, and the knowledge level of return participants can grow, along with their vines. By adopting a vine, participants will be making great wine, keeping farmland productive, and seeing firsthand the benefits of a rural, agricultural economy.
The winery bottles about 1,300 bottles per day when Ritter decides a batch is ready. Tubing is run from the stainless steel tank housing the wine to the bottling machine. Each of his larger tanks holds about 3,000 bottles worth of wine. The bottle is corked, then labeled and put into case boxes and palletized for storage.
The winery does not currently ship. They do sell at one farmers’ market, and plan to add another, both in a more densely populated, adjacent county. They offer sales and tastings at the winery Tuesday through Sunday, and attract a good mix of local residents and tourists.
Ritter isn’t interested in making a wider variety of wines. He wants to focus on crafting his dry wines. The closest winery, about 10 miles away, specializes in sweet wines, so they work together in a complementary fashion.
“The wine industry is a unique industry, where we seem to help each other out, quite a bit, as far as the customer base,” Ritter said.
Brook Hollow Winery also promotes local businesses by hosting cross-promotional or fundraising events. They sell local farm products such as cheese and honey, as well as paintings and other works of art, at the winery.
“We wanted a place where people could come and relax, and at the same time, learn about wine,” Ritter said. “I think we have done that. We try to educate people as well as have a good time.”