Kegs & Corks: Cape May Winery & Vineyard

Toby Craig knows a thing or two about wine and customer satisfaction. A transplanted former educator from Delaware, he and his family launched two wildly successful restaurants in Cape May, New Jersey, the beach resort famed for its Victorian elegance. First came the upscale Washington Inn and, more recently, Lucky Bones with its bring-the-family, kicked back demeanor.

Not content with simply serving wine, Craig finally succumbed to a nagging passion to till the soil, grow the grapes, then bottle and sell a premium yield of fine wines. Early in 2003, Cape May Winery and Vineyard debuted. Craig’s dream became a reality. He and his master winemaker, Darren Hesington, bottled 2,800 gallons of wine in that inaugural year. Two years later, 8,000 gallons flowed. Buoyed by their success, the pair targeted 20,000 gallons by the end of ten years. Three short years into the ten-year plan, the 20,000 output was already surpassed.

Cape May Winery & Vineyard’s popularity, size, and renown continue to skyrocket. Today, the winery sells its award-winning wines and related products out of its home location at the southern tip of the Garden State, five minutes from Exit Zero of the New Jersey State Parkway and downtown Cape May. Six outlets are authorized sellers. “We do not wholesale,” says Hesington, suggesting a certain degree of exclusivity and intimacy awaiting visitors and customers.

The 2012 Cape May Pinot Grigio is a star performer in the current collection of off-dry white wines. It made an exceptional showing at the prestigious 2013 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition where it garnered a coveted gold medal. Not to be outdone, the 2012 Cape May Riesling was awarded a silver medal at Finger Lakes and a bronze medal at the 2013 NJ Wine Growers’ Competition.

Bronze honors went to the 2012 Cape May Chardonnay at the Finger Lakes Competition. A fruit lover’s ideal, this stainless-steel fermented, delectable white demonstrates an explosion of tropical flavors, including nectarine and apricot, and features a crisp acidity. A standout among the many Cape May Winery’s dry reds, the Pinot Noir earned a silver medal at the BTI 88, a bronze medal at the Finger Lakes International, and a bronze at the NJ Wine Growers’ Competition. Best described as silky and crisp, it evokes flavors of cherry cola with a surprise peppery finish.

At Cape May Winery, “It’s all about the wine experience,” according to Craig. “Our winery tours are not only educational, but interactive. We show guests every aspect of the winemaking process, from the vines to the wines,” says winemaker Hesington. “I’ve been told we give the best winery tour guests have ever experienced. And that includes Napa Valley experiences,” adds Craig.

The $6 price of the introductory full tasting includes a keepsake glass.

The $20 deluxe tour includes eight tastings, a barrel tasting, a tank tasting, and full behind-the-scenes access to the winery’s facilities. Darren guided recent visitors through the “cellar” where he explained the crucial process of barrel rotation. Next, they were introduced to the winery’s massive grape crusher and destemmer used to pick the grapes from the stems.
Grapes for reds are of a decidedly more modest nature. They must wear their skins through fermentation to produce tannin. Once destemmed and crushed, the resulting juices enter French oak barrels of the highest quality to laze through fermentation.

Toby Craig emphasizes that while production continues to grow, his focus remains eternally on quality as opposed to quantity. “If you want to be considered good in the New Jersey winery scene, you have to be consistent,” explains winemaker Hesington. “We feel that we attract rather sophisticated wine drinkers,” added Craig. “We have to have excellent wine. If you don’t have good wine, you are not going to be a destination.”

Scattered throughout a ten-acre expanse, indoors and out, Cape May Winery & Vineyard offers enticing spots to unwind, relax, linger and enjoy. From the multiple seating areas in the spacious tasting room and port cellar, to the scenic deck overlooking the vineyard, guests are guaranteed to enjoy the ideal tasting treat. “We’re a prime vacationers’ alternative when the beach isn’t an option. The parking lot can be packed with cars, but the winery will never seem crowded,” explains Craig.

Tempted? Sample the Cape May Winery originals with a tasting or learn the wine business on a tour every day from noon to 6 pm and Fridays and Saturdays noon to 7 pm. clientele may either sip their favorites on the premises or take home their purchases.

By Megan Kummer