Cream Ridge Winery celebrating 30 years
CREAM RIDGE, N.J. — In the month of June and indeed throughout this summer and fall, the owners, managers, vineyard workers, wine makers and merchandisers at Cream Ridge Winery will collectively celebrate — with new and old customers — three decades in a precarious business.
Nowadays, wineries may be among the fastest growing segments of Garden State agriculture, but that wasn’t always the case, explained co-owner Jerry Amabile.
Back in April, 1988, Jerry’s father, Tom Amabile, a retired PSE&G executive who worked in the utility’s Newark headquarters, founded the facility in Cream Ridge during his first year of retirement with his wife, Joan.
The Amabiles were based for many years in Edison, N.J., a city in northern Middlesex County named after the famous inventor who had labs there, but a land of precious few farms, even back in the 1960’s.
“We’re celebrating in June because the weather is nicer,” Amabile explained on a raw, slightly rainy Friday afternoon in mid-May.
With the growth of Shore-bound traffic in summer months and other daily traffic on Route 539 in Cream Ridge and surrounding towns, the Amabile’s have been presiding over a booming wine tasting / winery tour business in most of the last two decades of the winery’s existence.
Of his late father, a self-taught wine maker who spent weekends learning his craft at a winery in Lewisburg, Pa., while commuting back to his job in New Jersey during the week, Jerry said “he led a good life, he lived every moment, and worked here at the winery almost ‘til the day he died. He loved working here and sharing his passion and knowledge.”
“When the Farmland Preservation Act was passed my parents stumbled on this property on their way to Long Beach Island one day.
He launched the winery here in the spring of 1988.”
“My dad made wine in the basement for years and he was encouraged to go into the wine business by his friend in Lewisburg,” he added.
After some time away from the family business with his own health snacks company, Jerry came back two years ago. He commutes back and forth on weekends between Lewisburg, Pa. and Cream Ridge and works at the winery Wednesday through Saturday before heading back to Pennsylvania on Sunday.
Tom Amabile died four years ago in March, he said, at 81. Almost from the first few months of operations, tours and a tasting room have been part of the winery, Amabile explained.
“When the weather is nice, we encourage people to bring basket lunches and their own chairs and enjoy the open space while they’re here,” he said.
A second storage and aging barn was built in January of this year to age barrels and vats of fruit-based wines Cream Ridge Winery has become famous for, Amabile explained.
The winery hosts musicians and musical groups on weekends and on weekend days during the summer it’s not unusual for the well-located facility to draw between 300 and 500 wine tasters, he added.
The team of 20 full and part-time employees at Cream Ridge Winery includes Jerry Amabile and his mother, Joan who makes it in as time and her age permit, GM Lindsay Fenton, winemaker Mike Groch and his assistant, FFA member Susan Schmidt, and CEO Tim Schlitzer and his wife Jackie, who are caretakers / managers of the vineyard, plum orchard and bottling operations.
“We all have shared leadership responsibilities within the company,” Amabile said, noting the facility is open every day, does not sell wholesale but is involved in promoting the winery by way of several farmers’ markets.
Cream Ridge Winery also sells at farmers’ markets in Toms River on Wednesdays, in Trenton’s Mill Hill Park on Thursdays, on Fridays in Highland Park and on Saturdays in Brick Township at Windward Park.
Amabile handles most of the outings to farmers markets to spread awareness about Cream Ridge Winery.
“It’s what I can handle and we see our customers that we don’t see during the summer and many of them come out in the spring and fall,” he said.
Although very few of the wines made here are aged more than three years, that doesn’t mean they don’t have character and depth. Cream Ridge makes blueberry, cranberry, pineapple, peach, mango and plum wines, a variety of sangrias and hybrid wines like almondberry, javaberry and cocoacurrant.
“Our tag line is ‘Diverse wines for diverse living,’ so we offer a variety of different wines. One thing we are not here is wine snobs. Everybody’s got a different palette. My father taught us this: wine is food; are we critical of someone who likes Italian food over German food or French food? Why should we be critical of someone who likes a cabernet over a chardonnay over a Concord over a Niagara, as long as they’re drinking wine, we should be appreciative,” he said, “and if they’re drinking our wine, we should be ecstatic!”
In a tour of the storage barn, wine maker Mike Groch said of Amabile’s father: “The best advice he ever gave me was when I asked him, ‘When do I bottle this?’ he said, ‘When it tastes good.’ ”
Cream Ridge Winery is open every day except holidays and they promote farmland preservation via the Monmouth Conservation Foundation though the sale of their Poco Locol sangria, as a portion of proceeds from sales goes to the non-profit conservation group.
“We bottle about 300 to 500 cases of wine every week,” Amabile said while on a tour of the wine making barn that is open to short tours on weekends.
“Our wines are no more than two years old,” he explained, “and we do have a limited number of aged wines.”
An acre of plum trees are grown on the 14-acre facility and about 4.5 acres of primarily Fredonia grapes are grown here as well.
“What’s unique about us is we’re in our fourth year now of using a permaculture approach to doing things, so we’re no longer using herbicides or pesticides, so we don’t rely on ourselves to make a living off our vineyard,” he explained on a tour of the grounds, which also includes a few bee hives.
“We’re more like a hippie vineyard, so we do a lot of weed wacking and pulling,” he said, “and what we’ve found works best for us here is sandy loam that’s a little bit wet, because my father has planted all kinds of grapes here over the years.”
“My dad would plant anything to see what would work and through close monitoring, we learned what worked best.”
A group of bicycle enthusiasts meets at Cream Ridge on weekends and has some wine and food before taking off to another area winery, Laurita Winery in New Egypt, before coming back to Cream Ridge or heading on to another area winery, Working Dog Winery in West Windsor.
“It’s a nice industry partnership we have with Laurita Winery in New Egypt,” he said. “Wine consumption in this country as compared to Europe is so small, you should never look at other wineries as competition, you can only spend so much time at one place, so they’re not competition, they are industry partners.”
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