wcbn-mr-61-3-beneducenj-mike-talkingby Sally Colby
Michael Beneduce Sr., a third generation grower, started his own retail garden center in Gillette, NJ when he was just 19 years old. Great Swamp Greenhouses thrived, and the senior Beneduce needed more land for growing annuals, perennials and poinsettias.
“The garden center was very successful over the last 30 years,” said Beneduce’s son Mike. “They needed more property for greenhouses to increase production for the garden center.” In 2000, the family purchased 50 acres of farmland in Pittstown that had been set aside as part of a development agreement. They erected several greenhouses and a large pole barn for equipment.
Mike says as an Italian family, it was a tradition to make several barrels of wine for themselves each year. “I can remember tasting the fresh grape juice and being amazed at how sweet it was,” said Mike. “A lot of the sensory memories connected with my childhood were based around wine and wine making.” By the time Mike was in high school and thinking about his future, he knew he wanted to work outside.
“I started to think we could combine my two passions – growing and winemaking – into a business,” said Mike. “I wanted to study growing and winemaking. At the time, Cornell didn’t have a winemaking major, but they had winemaking and viticulture classes under the plant science major.” Mike began his college career at Cornell as a plant science major and took as many winemaking classes as he could work into his schedule. When Cornell added enology as a major, he picked it up as a second major and focused on winemaking.
While he was still in college, Mike and his family finalized the idea of starting a winery on the farm. After conducting soil tests on the 50-acre property, they realized that although they hadn’t selected the property for growing grapes, it turned out to be ideally suited for that purpose.
“I looked at 100 years worth of soil and climate data for our specific vineyard site, compiled that data and then compared it to data for European wineries,” said Mike. “My thought was that they’ve had generations to figure out what works on their sites, so let’s piggyback on that knowledge.”
What Mike found is that the site was almost identical to some of the top wine-growing regions in Austria, particularly Burgenland; and also similar to the mountainous regions of northern Italy and northern France. “If it works there, it should work here,” he said, adding that he spent time in Austria and Italy meeting with growers and winemakers there, learning how they grow each variety and how they handle it in the winery. “I came back convinced that I had a handful of varieties I wanted to try out.”
The Beneduces began planting the vineyard in 2009, while Mike was still in college. He recalls that his ideas about what to plant came from having a strong ag background and experience as a grower, but differed from what other area wineries were planting. “Most people start by planting whatever they think they can sell the most of, so they plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other varieties that are very recognizable and marketable,” he said. “But those weren’t best suited to our site.”
Mike says the farm includes several soil types, from gravelly loam and silt loam to pockets of clay. “It’s been fun for me to map out the farm and decide which varieties to plant on the different soil types and slopes,” he said. “We have two major hills – one faces southeast and the other faces southwest. In a cool climate, it’s important to have sloping land, and ideally, south-facing land because the vines can absorb more sunlight, even in cooler years.”
One aspect of growing grapes in the region is the combination of sufficient natural rainfall and soils with enough water holding capacity that means irrigation isn’t necessary. “With irrigation, water is constantly going on the soil surface and the roots are trained to grow up the surface,” said Mike. “By dry-farming, we’re forcing the roots to dig deeply to find their own water source and we get a deep-rooted vine. Deep rooted vines become drought-tolerant, so when we have a dry summer, our vines aren’t stressed because they’re already down far enough. They’re also pulling minerals from many soil levels rather than just the top foot. Those minerals end up indirectly in the wine, and make it more complex.”
The Beneduces concentrate on several grape varieties, including five acres of Blaufraenkisch, an Austrian red that Mike describes as similar to Pinot Noir with a spicy black pepper nose and silky tannins. “It works well on our soils because we have pockets of soil that have very high iron content, which is unique to this area,” he said. “All of the Austrian winemakers I talked with said that’s what they look for when planting Blaufraenkisch. They felt the interaction of high iron soil brought out the best in that variety.” Other reds include Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, and whites include Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Chardonnay.
As they established vineyards, the Beneduces worked on converting the 7,000 square foot machinery building to a winery. The first harvest was in 2011, and the winery opened in the summer of 2012. “I didn’t know what the reception would be,” said Mike. “I was a young winemaker just out of college when the winery opened. I remember feeling nervous about my first professional vintage, pouring wines for people, but the feedback was tremendous.”
Mike serves as the vineyard manager and winemaker, and is charge of production from planting to bottling. “I’m very lucky, at my age, to have that much control over the wine from start to finish,” he said. “Typically, when you’re just out of school, you’re an assistant winemaker or they tell you how to make the wine. I was lucky that I could make all the decisions on my own. It’s been a very personal process for me seeing the wine evolve from year to year.”
The philosophy in the Beneduce tasting room is somewhat different than most wineries. “In college, I started to realize that there was a degree of pretentiousness associated with wine that I wasn’t familiar with,” said Mike. “We made wine in the basement and drank it out of cups. Wine doesn’t have to be snobby. We stated in our business plan that we wanted to get rid of that. We want people to come and enjoy a great glass of wine and not feel a stuffy attitude.”
The layout of the Beneduce tasting room fosters a relaxed experience for guests. “We laid out the tasting room to make it an open kitchen concept,” explained Mike. “People sit at the tasting bars and behind them are fermentation barrels, tanks and everything associated with the process. I think that helps break down the mystery of winemaking.” Guests are encouraged to taste at a leisurely pace and spend time on the outdoor patio or the spacious indoor seating area.
Mike says that the effort that he put into looking at 100 years of soil and climate profiles was well worth the time. “The wines are speaking for themselves,” he said. “Gewurztraminer can be tricky to grow – there aren’t many places outside of northern France or Italy that grow it successfully that it smells and tastes like Gewurztraminer, but I think ours does, and the wine critics I’ve poured for agree. Those flavors aren’t created in the winery – they’re created in the vineyard.”
No matter what the grape variety, wine or flavor profile, Mike says that it’s simply fermented grape juice. “There’s a lot of work and science that goes into it, and it’s an artful process, but there’s nothing to be intimidated about,” he said. “People have been doing this for 5,000 years, and when people realize that, it makes it easier for them to enjoy wine.”
Visit Beneduce Vineyards online at www.beneducevineyards.com .