In 2000, the Beneduces purchased a 50-acre farm in Northern New Jersey to use for greenhouses in support the family’s garden center. Options for the remaining acreage were discussed and it was decided to plant wine grapes. Since there was no familial expertise in this area, Mike Beneduce enrolled in the Viticulture and Enology program at Cornell. Before receiving his diploma in 2010, Mike worked two seasons at Sawmill Lake Vineyards in the Finger Lakes and then helped plant the family vineyard in 2009.
Upon graduation, Mike returned home and renovated an old pole barn for use as a winery in advance of Beneduce Vineyards’ first harvest the following year. Since then he has produced eight vintages and a host of highly acclaimed wines. Despite working in a region that is only just beginning to be noticed, Mike Beneduce is without doubt one of the east coast’s rising stars.
Wine Tourist Magazine recently connected with Mike to learn a bit more about him and ask a few questions about New Jersey wine.
WTM—What is the first wine you remember tasting?
Mike Beneduce—I grew up making homemade wine with my family, so the first thing I remember tasting was actually the unfermented grape juice when I was probably four or five years old. It was super sweet, and we didn't really drink soda growing up so I probably never had concentrated sugar like that before. As I got a bit older I was allowed to have a sip of our homemade wine here and there throughout the process so I'm sure that was my first real experience with wine.
WTM—What do you love most about being a winemaker?
Mike Beneduce—I love that every day is different and that I constantly have to be in tune with all my senses and make decisions based on what they're telling me. It forces you to be in the moment and that seems to be something my generation is losing with all the technology at our fingertips. And I love that I get to spend the majority of my time breathing fresh air outside in the vineyard instead of being cooped up in an office all day.
WTM—What challenges does New Jersey face as a wine-producing state?
Mike Beneduce—Making quality wine in a state with a reputation like that of New Jersey, however unfounded it may be, can sometimes be an uphill battle. Convincing people that their local wineries are making wines worth tasting is probably still our biggest hurdle as an emerging industry, but that's beginning to change and I think we've build a lot of momentum behind the quality wine movement in the last few years.
WTM—Can you make a single prediction about the future of your wine region?
Mike Beneduce—I would wager a bet that within my lifetime, New Jersey will be recognized as a world class wine producing region by all the major wine publications and the wine community at large.
WTM—What do you think will surprise someone visiting New Jersey wineries for the first time?
Mike Beneduce—I think our diversity is something that makes our region unique and might surprise a first time visitor. New Jersey's climate and soils vary drastically from where I'm growing grapes in Hunterdon County to Cape May County on the southern tip of the state, so we're all focusing on different varieties at this point. This can be a blessing and a curse, because we'll likely never have a single grape variety to rally around like the Finger Lakes have with Riesling or Oregon has with Pinot. That being said, it also means that our local consumers have a really broad range of options at their fingertips and they're bound to find something they enjoy.
WTM—What advice can you give someone thinking about becoming a winemaker?
Mike Beneduce—I would say before deciding to become a winemaker, try to get some experience at a local vineyard first. This lifestyle is not for everyone, and I think from the outside it's easy to think being a winemaker is going to be all swirling wine in a glass and great dinner parties. Those aspects of the job certainly exist, but in between them there's a whole lot of grueling physical labor, heartbreak from tough vintages, unpredictable work schedules and countless hours spent scrubbing every inch of your workplace over and over. If you do find that it suits you, you'll likely never be able to walk away from it because the pull is so strong once you realize you're meant for it. If that happens you get to be one of the lucky few who never has to work a day in their life.