The scene: a beautiful day in New Jersey. Hundreds of people are here relaxing in the sun. Some sit on blankets, others on portable chairs; some are under umbrellas, others under 10×10 pop-up tents decorated with sports team logos or Greek letters. Determined toddlers toddle among the crowd, eluding their silver-haired grandparents. Over here someone is setting up a game of cornhole. Over there teens toss a frisbee back and forth.
In the shade by the bar groups of people sit around tables, bottles of wine on ice in their midsts. Some are watching and listening as The Williamsboy (Matthew-Billy Williams), a Burlington County-based musician, plays guitar and sings his original compositions. It’s 80 degrees out, but the vibe is chill as chill can be. When the clock strikes three people are still streaming in, arms full of gear, as cars continue to pull into the lot.
Is this the Jersey shore? No, it’s Working Dog Winery, straddling the border of East Windsor and Robbinsville a fraction of a mile from the New Jersey Turnpike. But on warm weather weekends, one could be forgiven for confusing it with the beach. In place of sand there is a stretch of green grass where people (and pets) are welcome to lounge; out beyond the edge of the crowd, instead of the pounding surf of the Atlantic, there are rows and rows of vines. The vines that are bare in April will be lush with fruit and leaf by the middle of summer. Beachgoers can swim in the ocean, and winery guests are welcome to walk through the vineyard.
Working Dog is a vineyard with 20 acres of grapes, a successful working business to be sure. But it has become much more than that over the years, something akin to a public park. A social space where friends and family gather to get away from it all, where strangers meet and, brought together by a common interest — wine — often become friends.
Scenes like this one unfold every weekend throughout the state as more and more wineries, breweries, and distilleries open and develop fervent followings. There are 47 wineries in the Garden State Wine Growers Association today. Around the turn of the century, there were 10.
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Working Dog Winery was started by a group of five friends as Silver Decoy Winery in 2001. Seventeen years and one name change on, all five partners are still involved. (The name change came about in 2013 because of a trademark dispute with Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Winery, which has been known to take legal aim at other duck-themed wineries.)
Todd Abrahms, Brian Carduner, Mark Carduner, Russell Forman and Jerry Watlington have literally grown the venture from a hope and a prayer into a thriving business, capable of attracting 500 people to spend a lazy afternoon buying and drinking wine.
The winery is open to the public for just 19 hours a week — on Fridays from 1 to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Yet it has proved to be so successful that it has recently pulled back from selling bottles to retail clients. Working Dog is prepared to sell its 2018 inventory entirely from the winery, by the bottle, by the glass and in tastings. There are currently 15 varieties available to taste or purchase, including reds like chambourcin and pointer, whites like traminette, and sweet wines like sunrise blush and blueberry.
Winemaker Mark Carduner and his staff have steadily added vines over the years to meet growing demand. For this year they’ve added two more acres of chardonnay and merlot vines.
“We can’t grow enough grapes for the customers we (already) have,” says Carduner, 56. “We used to have a great relationship with Wegman’s and other retailers, but until we grow more grapes we’ve had to leave the retail market entirely just to be open three days a week. That puts us exactly at that balance point where we aren’t running out, but we don’t have too much.”
Working Dog gets a yearly yield of around 60 tons of grapes from its 20 acres of vines in Robbinsville and East Windsor. That should result in around 3,500 cases of estate-grown wine for the year. They also sell between 500 to 1,000 cases of wine made with fruit grown elsewhere in the state. For instance, the blueberries used in making Working Dog’s blueberry wine come from Hammonton, as do the cayuga grapes used in their Ugly Duckling White and Sunrise Blush wines.
Carduner believes New Jersey has the best wine customers in the country. “Our customers not only spend more per bottle than in any other state, they frankly know the most about wine. They really have given us the opportunity to become a world-class winery in less than two decades.”
While the weather was one reason Working Dog was busy on the first hot day of the spring, the release of a new wine that weekend was another. Their dry rosé, called Equinox, is a major lure for Working Dog’s loyal customers. While most Working Dog wines are available year round, Carduner expects 2017 Equinox to be gone by the end of June.
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You could say that Carduner and his brother Brian knew a little bit about the wine business before becoming vintners. The Carduner family owned two liquor stores in the East Windsor area until 2000, and the brothers worked at the stores with their father Robert from the time they finished college in the early 1980s until they were sold. Both live out by the Jersey Shore today.
As Working Dog’s winemaker, Carduner calls all the shots. Chief among his responsibilities is working with field staff to ensure that the vines and their fruit get into optimum condition and stay there. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done by hand to get a grapevine to a position it needs to be to get the grapes properly ripened,” he says.
He decides what to grow and where, and when the grapes will be picked. Workers usually start picking the grapes in September and the winemaking process doesn’t end until the end of December.
As is the case for many New Jersey wine producers, Carduner and the other partners are evangelists for their products. Carduner will tell anyone who will listen that the way they make wine at Working Dog Winery is no different from the way they make it in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or Tuscany.
Which is not to say that Jersey winemakers have had it easy. Carduner says that when Working Dog was starting up, few people in New Jersey had any meaningful experience growing Vitis vinifera, the species of grape from which the most famous wine varieties are made. Renault Winery in Egg Harbor and Tomasello Winery in Hammonton have been open since Prohibition ended in 1933; most of the rest have been around for less than 30 years.
So one reason that Working Dog sells so many different types of wine is because in the early days, no one could say for sure what grapes they ought to be planting. “We just started planting things based on geology and average temperatures and frankly we guesstimated what would thrive.”
It took three years for the plants to produce wineworthy grapes. In the years since, Carduner says, they have found that chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc and pinot gris are their best bets. “Those are the varieties our customers love and they’re the things we’re making our best wine from,” he says.
Carduner says people shouldn’t be all that surprised. After all, many New Jersey wineries have sandy loam and gravel soils similar to those that Bordeaux wines are grown in. “We have the same rainfall and heat units as Bordeaux,” he says. “They’ve shown over 300 years that they can make great wine there, why can’t we do the same? It’s just that our Legislature was not supportive of the wine industry, and we were left on the sideline. We’re just starting to realize our potential in terms of grape growing.”
Carduner says he can easily imagine Working Dog having double the land under cultivation 10 years from now.
“We keep adding grapes out of necessity, because of how many people have found us,” he says.
He also believes that as New Jersey wine gains more of a foothold in the marketplace, more farmers will plant grapes to help support the industry — even those who don’t intend to open up wineries of their own.
“If we had a grape farm around us to provide grapes I could purchase, I could work with that farmer to grow better grapes,” he says. “That’s what they have California and in Washington State. That’s what we’ll need in New Jersey to help our industry grow much faster.”