In 1976, Louis Caracciolo
first rows of wine grapes on a small Camden County farm he
had purchased a few years earlier just after graduating from college.
The South Jersey native was beginning a career in food science, but as a kid he
loved helping his
Italian grandfather make wine in the basement.
wanted to try it for himself.
Three decades later, long after his winemaking hobby had evolved into a full-time business called Amalthea Cellars
had a crazy idea: Why not recreate the Paris tasting using some of his own wines?
envisioned New Jersey versus both California and France.
"At first, it sounded outrageous," said George Taber, an author of wine books who met Caracciolo
through a mutual friend.
With the help of Anthony Fisher, a New Jersey wine merchant and educator with extensive experience organizing professional tastings, Caracciolo
assembled a number of legendary wines from France and California, including Stag's Leap and Chateau Montelena from the Napa Valley and Chateau Montrose and Mouton-Rothschild from Bordeaux.
is "doing all the right things in terms of cutting back on yields and taking it very seriously.
He's a legitimate winemaker."
Just to prove that the results weren't a fluke, Caracciolo
recreated the tasting last June.
Once again, he
invited about 100 tasters to participate, and once again poured his
wines alongside some exorbitantly priced French and California wines.
And once again, his
wines showed very well.
, 59, the results were the culmination of 25 years of investment, experimentation and hard work, all driven by an early hunch: that the soils and climate of South Jersey had the potential to produce world-class wines.
had just the right combination of experience and skills to make it happen, from his
Italian-American roots in rural South Jersey, to his
education and research as a food scientist, to his
drive and vision as an entrepreneur.
New Jersey's answer to the late Robert Mondavi, the father of California's modern-day wine industry.
After working on his grandfather's farm as a kid ("I grew up driving tractors"), Caracciolo enrolled at Pratt Institute in New York to study food science, which was his father's profession.
Right after graduating from college in 1972, he
bought a small farm in Atco and, within a few years, had planted his
first wine grapes.
In 1982, he
obtained a state license to open a commercial winery, which he
As a food scientist, Caracciolo holds a number of patents, including one for a process to clean oak barrels using ozone rather than sulfuric acid.
By the 1980s, he
was traveling around the world to demonstrate the process for winemakers.
clients was Chateau Margaux, one of only five Bordeaux estates classified as a "first growth."
taught winemakers his
said, they taught him about winemaking.
was applying lessons learned at Margaux and in the Napa Valley back at his
winery in Camden County.
success as a winemaker to several techniques he
has been practicing for years.
crop yields very low by "green pruning" in the spring.
This involves lopping off tons of immature grape clusters so the vineyards produce only about 1.5 tons of mature grapes per acre.
That's a fraction of the yield at many large commercial wineries.
said lower yields translate into more concentrated grape juice and richer wine.
When the grapes are ripe, Caracciolo
believes in picking by hand, which allows him to select only the healthiest clusters.
insists on aging all of his
wines in new or near new oak barrels -- an expensive commitment, considering he
pays as much as $900 for a single French oak barrel.
"Most of my reds are not on the market for 2 1/2 to 3 years after they've been made," Caracciolo
Regardless of their quality, there's one thing about Caracciolo's wines that still makes them a tough sell beyond the winery's tasting room: They're made in New Jersey.
There's no question the state's wine industry has come a long way in recent years.
There are now some 35 commercial wineries in the Garden State, and Caracciolo happens to be the head of the Garden State Winegrowers Association.
But the winemakers themselves will be the first to tell you that they have a hard time getting attention, much less respect.
If anyone can change that, Caracciolo
plans to sponsor more comparison tastings in the near future, and next time is determined to attract the notice of the national wine media.
"I'll challenge anybody to a blind tasting," he