Beneduce carries family tradition into vineyard, winery
PITTSTOWN — Mike Beneduce may be one of a few winery operators in New Jersey who actually had the benefit of studying wine making in college.
Raised in Gillette, a town in Morris County, Beneduce’s father launched Great Swamp Greenhouses and Garden Center in the late 1970s. His family always made their own wine and he said that sparked his interest at an early age.
Now he’s the owner and manager of Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown.
“When I was in high school, we started looking at what else we could produce at this facility. When wine grapes came up as a possibility, we really didn’t have the knowledge to grow this crop so that’s why I went up to Cornell to study enology and viticulture,” Beneduce said.
“I started planting the vineyard in 2009 while I was finishing college, and we opened to the public in 2012,” Beneduce said, noting the summer of 2022 is the facility’s 10th anniversary year.
“We had this barn in place before we opened, so this is now our production facility and tasting room. We converted it and have since expanded in both directions over the last 10 years” he said.
Beneduce Vineyards opened with about 1,000 cases of wine made from grapes grown on-site and imported fruit from California as well, “but each year, we’ve been planting a few more acres in the vineyard. We now have 25 acres planted and we’re using 100 percent estate-grown grapes to make our wines since 2021.”
Beneduce is in attendance every year in March at the Grape Expectations Conference for Garden State vineyard operators at Forsgate Country Club. Does he agree with Dr. Gary Pavlis, the Atlantic County Rutgers Ag Extension Agent, that wines made in New Jersey in 40 years will be every bit as good as wines made in similar climates in France?
“Yes, I definitely think we have the potential for world-class wine here in New Jersey,” he said. “It takes a long time to figure out what are the right grapes for the soil types we have here, but once you figure that out you want to figure out what wine style works best to highlight these fruits.”
“We also have a new wave of farmers and many of them are interested in pivoting away from typical field crops like soy and corn. Many of them have smaller parcels of land to work with so they really have to find value-added products like wine or niche products like organic specialty vegetables so that they can have a higher value per acre of land.”
Beneduce was very candid in leading the small group of curious viticulturists around his property, highlighting different grape growing techniques he has learned over the years, some the hard way.
New Jersey Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ag Professionals group met on June 15 at the Pittstown farm for an extensive tour.
“We sell everything direct to consumers. We don’t sell wholesale to liquor stores or restaurants. I’d say we sell about 95 percent of it out the door and the other five percent of it we have an Internet wine club and do some shipping,” he said.
“We have a full circle model: We want to get people to the farm, so we do agritourism and have some live music on weekends and food trucks. We’re open for private events and we want to get them all out in the vineyards for a tour and have a wine tasting afterward.” Beneduce Vineyards is also a kid-friendly and dog-friendly facility.
Prompted by a question from one of the young farmer-ag professionals, Beneduce said he wished he had taken more business courses at Cornell University, “but I’ve been very lucky because my Dad has a very good business intuition.
“It’s nice to just hop on the phone and ask questions so that I don’t look like an idiot when the bankers show up here.”
As far as labor goes, Beneduce has seven full-time employees in the vineyard plus himself.
“It’s a lot like vegetable farming. Almost everything is done by hand,” he said. “We’re starting to mechanize now where we can as we scale up, but it’s a lot of hand work, and it’s year-round, it’s not seasonal it’s a 10 or 11 month crop that needs care.”
Growing grapes is one way to keep smaller farms viable and still be part of New Jersey agriculture, he added. New Jersey is home to more than 60 wineries now.
“We don’t see our neighbors so much as competition as we see them as our friends, our colleagues, because we all want to grow the industry in New Jersey together,” he said. “Another winery in our neighborhood is a good thing as long as they’re making good wine. It’s a good thing because then our area becomes a destination for wine enthusiasts.”
Grapes are one of the fastest growing sectors of agriculture in New Jersey, “because it’s doable on a small farm and that is often all we have to work with here,” he said.
These smaller farms and New Jersey climate conditions can produce a win-win situation, he argued, “as long as we are growing and picking the right varieties, it’s something that really has a lot of potential for the industry,” he added.
Was there a revelatory moment when Beneduce knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the wine business, as a grape grower?
“For years, our family would make a barrel or two of our own wine in out basement, so I was always around it; it was always part of our life. I think for me, the seed was planted at an early age.”
Once he began studying enology seriously in college at Cornell, he recalled an unquenchable thirst for more knowledge about winemaking.
“I began traveling to other wine regions around the world and learning more. It’s just an amazing industry to be in because people are so open and welcoming and happy to share the knowledge that they have gained in their lifetimes,” he said.
“I’ve been lucky: I’ve been to South America, all over Europe and I actually just returned from Slovenia last week. I was there for an international blaufrankisch conference, an Austrian grape that we grow here. They invited me over there just speak about our experiences growing the Austrian grapes here in New Jersey. It was incredible for me to connect with the other winemakers and walk many of their vineyards with them and get a real sense of what is going on outside our little corner of New Jersey,” Beneduce said.
“You come away from these conferences and you have a whole different perspective on what you are doing.”