Experience White Horse Winery

 
This gorgeous picture is courtesy of White Horse Winery.

This gorgeous picture is courtesy of White Horse Winery.

By Noelle Allen

How many articles on winery visits have you read where the author tries too hard to make the point that their experience was amazing, usually by relaying it in spiritually enlightened terms inspired by the culmination of blue sky, vineyards, fresh air, nice people, and … wine?

I tried to keep this article from being that, but it was difficult not to fall under the spell.

There is a reason why writers try so hard to express the appreciation that comes from moments with the winemakers in the very place where the wine grows. You’re unplugged, relaxed, and the rest of the world is far away, even when it’s not. 

They say the wine is different when you’re drinking it then, but the truth might just be that it’s you who’s different then.

***

I contacted White Horse Winery about an interview after sampling their rosé and getting really excited because it was local and it was GOOD. Owner Brock J. Vinton II (BJ)  said he was open to meet with me, so off I went down the Atlantic City Expressway to Hammonton, NJ, relieved to escape the traffic and construction and general chaos that is downtown Philadelphia.

Wide-open farmland and a general sense of peace sat immediately off the exit from the highway, and I could feel that lovey dovey state of mind begin, despite the 95 degree mid afternoon heat and my unwise choice to wear a black dress. I pulled in under a cut-out of a bright white horse trotting below a bright white star hanging at the entrance of the immaculate winery.

By immaculate, I don’t just mean ‘clean’. The winery is precise, with obvious attention to detail. Visitors enter a breezy and spacious polished wood tasting room that showcases a rectangular wraparound bar with plenty of space and comfort. Perfectly lined hanging lights glow overhead. The floor and walls are new, even, and square. The windows are large. The fans are on. 

Before I could even introduce myself, a smiling staff member welcomed me with, “Hi! Can I get you a glass of wine?” at the exact same moment that a grinning black Labrador trotted over, nudged my hand, then ran off.

I thought, ‘Man, I really like this place’. 

***

BJ  is clearly a busy guy. He came from what I guessed was a combination sophisticated wine lab/regular office to greet me and immediately launched into why he was running behind: “I’m preparing our excise taxes. Do you know - ” and was cut off by a ringing cell phone. After the call we resumed the conversation, cutting right past the chitchat of traffic and weather and straight into winery licensing. He is intelligent, and as I had already guessed based on aesthetics, very methodic.

BJ and his father Brock Vinton started White Horse Winery together after Brock had a bottle of wine from Almathea Cellars located in Atco, NJ. Brock was delighted to find that New Jersey  wine had the potential to hold up to Bordeaux and Napa Valley wines, areas where Brock spent time for business and pleasure for the past several decades.

The philosophical side of me noted how literally life changing a bottle of wine can be, a sentiment I have whether at a winery or not, and it was beyond gratifying to see this notion in practice and thriving. 

White Horse’s most recent awards, as judged by the Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI).

White Horse’s most recent awards, as judged by the Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI).

Well before Brock’s bottle though, at age 16, BJ began his own journey that, as he put it, changed the course of his life: he started an internship in Cognac, France, in what has to be one of the coolest jobs ever for an American teenager. While in the famous region, BJ worked the vineyards, the bottling line, and even got to handle the crystal corks and boxing. “Yeah, I got to…” he smiled. “I remember crawling around on barrels, tasting the eau de vie, and topping off what had disappeared as the angels’ share,” he finished and smiled again, like he could still see his younger self trawling around the cellars.  He spent that entire summer in Cognac, and for many years afterward, travelled back and forth between France and the US, learning (and relearning) French and planning more summers there. 

BJ has probably told that story a thousand times and you can see him transport back when he does; during a little pause he looked far away and half smiled, then mentioned the smell of the Cognac barrels.

Throughout college, BJ continued to return to Paris and Bordeaux during the summers, and even spent one in Beaujolais, where he worked at Crédit Agricole providing funding for farms and vineyard operations. Since his early days in Cognac, he had become interested in microbreweries, and wrote his final thesis recommending a strategy for individual operations’ longterm survival in the industry. I thought this was an interesting detail, given its specificity, and made a note to follow up on it.

BJ had hopes of starting an import company in the US after graduation, but plans were put on hold when he began working in distribution instead, then started a career in process engineering in Wilmington, DE.  Eventually, BJ started his own company and created a patent on a wind turbine. 

In 2014 Brock and BJ purchased forty acres of land in Hammonton, which since 1980 had lain fallow, and prior to that, was a farm and vegetable packing facility. “We found what we thought was a perfect location. We tested the soil and took, I think, 15 different samples to make sure grapes would grow,” BJ said. “We just knew it was right, we moved quickly.”

***

The modern incarnation of the space is designed with the goal of offering guests ‘a great experience’. BJ put it so simply. The footprint of one of the original structures still stands, evidenced by a rebuilt frame way near the main entrance. “We visited other wineries and made notes of what we liked and what we didn’t design-wise, and we took inspiration for our bathrooms from the private club bathrooms in Heathrow Airport in London,” he said in a bit of trivia. 

The wines that the father son team offers is to shine a light on New Jersey as a dry wine producer. During White Horse’s planning stages, the local market was healthily stocked with sweet wine, fruit wine, and unoaked reds. Brock and BJ wanted to offer drier and more aged wines with Bordeaux and Napa Valley influences to demonstrate the versatility of the region, and their success in having done so is particularly meaningful to BJ. “We only make one sweet wine,” he said. “A lot of people said we wouldn’t succeed with a portfolio of dry wine, but 75% of our customers are dry wine drinkers.” So Brock and BJ planted three acres of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon into the sandy loam soil for which the Outer Coastal Plain (OCP) AVA is famous.

“What about the name?” I asked. If precision was a subliminal design element indicating hospitality, large paintings of white horses were a superluminal element indicating place. They reminded me of this beautiful little white Arabian horse named Aquilla that I used to ride, and I thought back to my teenage self and the days when I was always on horseback, galloping through fields and jumping over fences and fallen trees, and the thrill and fun of it all. Aquilla was such a good horse.

See? Wineries are magical.

“The name comes from White Horse Pike,” BJ was saying. “Everything around here was White Horse something, there were so many ‘White Horse’s, so we chose White Horse Winery’. The area needed it.” 

“Well OK, not that romantic of a story, but fair enough,” I said, completely missing the point.

But the name had not been so casually chosen, and BJ pressed. “We picked ‘White Horse’ because it was ubiquitous in the region and had an age old tie here.” (He is referencing White Horse Pike’s historical significance.) “My college thesis predicted that for small microbreweries to survive in the long run they needed to have a tie to the local community. ‘White Horse Winery’ immediately connected us, making it seem like we were always here.” 

I didn’t need to ask my follow up question. He’d executed the plan he’d had all along. White Horse Winery may have started in that thesis.

***

“Let’s talk about the label, who did the artwork?” I asked, eyeing a bottle in the corner.

“The artwork was done by Jamie Wyeth, grandson of N.C. Wyeth and son of Andrew Wyeth.” I felt like I should have known this, and indeed, that information can be found on the back of the bottle. The Jamie Wyeth, of legendary Wyeth Family art world fame. I would later go down quite the rabbit hole when I began researching the significance of these artists and their contributions to the American framework.

A genuine Jamie Wyeth original.

A genuine Jamie Wyeth original.

Jamie’s grandfather, N.C. Wyeth, was a student of Howard Pyle, who is known as the ‘Father of American IIlustration’. N.C. Wyeth created the drawings for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood, while Jamie’s father Andrew is known for his realist watercolor paintings - most notably Christina’s World. In 1981, Andrew’s 1964 painting The Marsh Hawk of his Chadd’s Ford, PA, home held the title for the being the most expensive picture by an American artist ever sold at auction after going for $420,000. 

Jamie Wyeth is best known for painting portraits, rural landscapes, and animals. He was commissioned to paint President John F Kennedy’s formal portrait, and painted Andy Warhol as well - Andy Warhol returned the favor, and painted a portrait of Jamie. 

Jamie’s work is extensive, but it was the animals in which I became most interested. He paints them with a certain tenderness and often captures their individual precocity. The prancing horse on White Horse’s labels has stylistic similarities to Kleberg, Homer, and Dog Under Lilacs in a Downpour.

Jamie is from Chadd’s Ford, PA, and is a Vinton family friend. Jamie created the horse and star after a dinner party one night with Brock. “He painted three different options on canvas, and we chose the one that’s on the label now,” BJ said. “And that was it.”

The use of custom art by a local artist, who is also world renown, as the face of their products aligns the winery even further with its belief that community is the basis of greatness. The stage is set for life to imitate art.

***

Today White Horse Winery has grown from those three originally planted acres to 23, with the ability to expand to 25 onsite, and covers a total of 60 acres in its entirety.

The winery grows cabernets franc and sauvignon, merlot, malbec, syrah, chambourcin, chadonnay, albariño, vidal blanc, traminette, and cayuga, but the wines they produce each year vary by vintage.

OK, so our artwork isn’t as good as Jamie’s.

OK, so our artwork isn’t as good as Jamie’s.

The winery has won eight Governor’s Cup medals - 2 golds, 6 silver - for their Chardonnay, Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, Rosé (which was Winelala’s July Wine of the Month given its ‘easy peach and strawberry drinkability and summer day perfection’), Albariño, Chambourcin (also recently chosen as a Best Of by Philly Magazine), Traminette, and Vidal Blanc. 

The Governor’s Cup is New Jersey’s largest wine competition and it is juried by the prestigious Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI), the organization behind tastings.com that oversees local, national, and regional wine events.

Although any wine ranking system is partially subjective (only ‘partially’ because technical merit plays a role), medals, points, and awards are important quality indicators both to the industry and to consumers. Especially when, as in the case of White Horse, the tasting panels are legitimate organizations. Also notable about White Horse’s accolades is that they are spread across the portfolio, not just concentrated to one variety or style category.  BJ says that this is a testament to their winemaker, but it’s also a testament to the entirety of the operation.

***

Seferino Cotzojay, who has one of the best names of all time, is young, down to earth, and friendly. He is also the winemaker at White Horse Winery. Seferino came to the US from Guatemala and began working as a cellar hand in the North Fork of Long Island at Bedell Cellars, where he impressed the winemakers with his nose, palate, and work ethic.

Seferino speaks about wine and winemaking like someone who has truly found their passion does, with both heart and obvious talent, and he shared his excitement over different grape profiles and new blends he wants to try. His enthusiasm was palpable. He gave me the answer I’ve heard across Europe and the US when interviewing winemakers about how they know when their wine is ‘ready’. This question always causes them to pause for a second, then they all say the same thing, which is what Seferino said - “Well, you look at the analysis, but really you just taste it, and you know.” Then he continued, “You taste the grapes when they’re ripe and the wine while it’s aging.” For him, knowing is an innate ability. 

Seferino is really into wines that are coming out of Chile and Argentina right now, and has hopes to experiment with malbec and carménère. I told him it would be novel (I may have used the words ‘super cool’) to find New Jersey versions of those, and he and BJ replied with a quick story about an attempt at malbec - “It was good,” they said. It was just really hard to grow. Hopefully in the future.

“Let’s go take a look at the tanks,” Seferino said. Seferino looks at the tanks everyday. 

You could still see his excitement to show them off.

***

White Horse’s fermentation room, which can be seen through large windows at the end of the wraparound bar, is literally where the wine is made. The room was filled with spotless and gleaming massive steel tanks, some of which were already holding younger wine destined for bottles for selling or barrels for aging.

BJ, Seferino, and I began discussing fermentation temperatures, with Seferino explaining how he monitors each tank. Taking notes at this point seemed burdensome because it felt so out of the moment, and I had long since abandoned my resolve not to get too caught up. As Seferino talked through the different gauges and characteristics of each tank, it occurred to me that like BJ, he had straightforward, mechanical knowledge as well as abstract sensory skill, meaning that the wine was accounted for all the way around.

“BJ gets really good equipment,” Seferino said. “You need a good winemaker and good grapes to make good wine, but you also really need good equipment, otherwise you ruin the rest. BJ buys good equipment,” he said it again, and looked proudly at the tanks. BJ smiled. It was a definite moment of mutual appreciation between the two that extended to the constant investment into the winery and its products. 

***

Finally we headed to the the barrel room/inventory cellar, where what seemed like hundreds of barrels sat in the dark, cool space, letting the wine inside quietly age and breathe. So little and so much was happening at the same time inside and outside of those barrels.

The obligatory vineyard shot. Also the perfect background for a selfie! Courtesy of Winelala.

The obligatory vineyard shot. Also the perfect background for a selfie! Courtesy of Winelala.

BJ noticed my reaction to the almost full use of space. Careful organization seemed to supersede the physical limits of what the room could hold, and it served as a reminder of his engineering background. Looking proud and a little amused, he mentioned that another publication had also remarked on the setup. He then gestured toward the inventory room, where at the beginning of each new season, boxes of ready-to-sell wine are packed to the ceiling. “By the end of the season, the inventory level is down and that gives you plenty of room to fill it back up,” he said.

I could see how having that much inventory could cause stress for a business owner. Absolutely. But I also imagine that like myself, the rest of White Horse Winery’s customers are filled with joy at the thought of their completely stocked inventory room. Take our money. Please.

***

Seferino left to teach a class and BJ invited me to wrap up our tour by checking out the crusher in the back. It sat dormant just a few hundred feet from a vineyard, giving no indication of the activity that it was capable of performing during harvest. BJ explained how he and Seferino carefully monitor the crush pressure, or the weight that is put on the picked, sorted grapes to extract the juice that becomes the wine. 

The sweetest juice - the free run juice - comes out first, then comes the first press and each subsequent press. Each press is done gently to avoid harsh notes in the wine. This process is slow and gentle and takes time, but it yields better wine. From there, the juice runs through attached hoses to designated tanks and barrels in the fermentation room where we started.

Macie lives the life. Picture courtesy of White Horse Winery.

Macie lives the life. Picture courtesy of White Horse Winery.

Macie, the happy black Lab from earlier, and a legitimate celebrity in her own right, came galloping up at that moment to say hello. “This dog has the life,” I remarked as she nudged my hand again and I patted her on the head. 

BJ leaned over to pet her too. “She does. She spends her days doing vineyard laps —”  Macie took off as if she were purposefully demonstrating exactly what BJ was saying — “chasing animals, and in her head at least, has guests and friends coming and visiting her all day long.” 

It was time to get back to the administrative side for both of us. Excise taxes and who knows what else awaited BJ, and traffic, Philadelphia, and my laptop awaited me. I glanced back at Macie as she raced around a row of vines, then up to the parking lot to excitedly greet new guests and frolic into the tasting room alongside them, and couldn’t help but think that Macie gets caught up in those winery moments too. 

Luckily, she gets to stay in them.

***

White Horse got me. That 'deep appreciation’ I mentioned in the beginning wasn’t from drinking the wine - although that was definitely what inspired my request to visit. 

It was from getting a glimpse of how the people running the winery are beholden to their vision in both big and small ways, and experiencing the results of their ongoing effort, time, and investment. These are the factual components of quality, and you see it in the welcoming and smart design, feel it in the team’s camaraderie, and taste it in the wine. 

Go to White Horse Winery and have your moments, too.

****

White Horse Winery Quick Facts:

  • There’s a wine club! It is a membership/continuous opt-in club. There are some pretty great savings and Seferino chooses four wines for you three times per year. You also get invitations to some super fun events, and Macie will party right alongside you!

  • Tastings are offered daily! Sample five different wines, and White Horse Winery can even supply food. Larger parties should call ahead and admission is always free.

  • White Horse Winery offers more than just tastings. There are also live music and food trucks, along with other events. Check out their Events Calendar!

  • Expansion projects are in the works! The winery is working on creating its own port wine, and longer aged oaked wines. In 2020 or 2021, they hope to sell reds that have aged a minimum of four years, two of which was spent in oak (and indeed, this was some of the wine waiting in barrels in the storage area… it’s getting ready for you!)

 
Noelle Allen2 Comments