Alba vineyard is perhaps one of the Garden State's best-known indigenous wine producers. While it's true that there may not be hundreds of vineyards vying for that title (at last count, NJ is home to around 40), Alba is without doubt one of the best. If you live in the tropical suburbs in or around New York City, the westerly voyage across Route 78 will quickly demolish whatever mental conjurings you've got of what New Jersey ought to look/smell like. The hour-long drive from the Holland Tunnel will set you across endlessly rolling hills, winding country lanes, and idyllic small town main streets, and boasts enough general whimsy to make an old lady in a tea shop blush. Best of all, the Alba folks allow and encourage you to bring your own nosh and picnic right on their scenic property. Enter a bottle of wine into the picture, and you've got the makings of a perfect overcast day in late October.
I've worked in two different urban winemaking environments over the last couple of years. By no means am I an industry pro (I'm more what you'd call a "cellar rat"), but I'm proud that I've learned how to operate a hydraulic grape crusher, can fully orchestrate the robotic destemming of 750 lbs of grapes on the inside of 10 minutes, and can maneuver a 59 gallon French oak barrel across a loading dock with some manner of efficiency. In the weeks leading up to the birth of my daughter, I spent many a freezing night hosing down winemaking equipment—my work boots soaked with a sickening mixture of water and fruit pulp from the day's crush, my hands numb from the leaking hose, and my muscles aching from hours spent racking or on punchdown duty. In spite of the heavy labor that winemaking involves, visiting Alba got me just a little bit nostalgic for that time and was quick to rekindle my desire to someday—somehow—make a return to it in a professional capacity.
But back to the matter at hand. If my first visit to Alba three years ago yielded wines which I thought were merely "good", I would go so far as to call the current vintage nothing short of exceptional. The ten dollar tasting fee earns you samples of close to twenty different wines (albeit at least five of which are in the dessert family, and not really of interest to me.) We began our tasting with whites, and were especially impressed with the Dry Riesling and the Mainsail White, both of which were crisp without being overly sweet. One of their Chardonnays was also nice, and a rare treat for me to sample, as my wife is a celebrated hater of that grape's strong butter and oak flavors. (Even she admitted liking the main varietal currently being offered, but neither of us cared much for the Chardonnay Barrel Reserve which was thin on any discernable flavor.)
The reds were spectacular, and covered a broad range of prices. Happily, we were most immediately impressed with the Old Mill Red, which Alba promotes as an everyday table wine and which blends Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon with a number of other grapes. This "kitchen sink" tactic yields great results, and at ten bucks a bottle, is a killer bargain. If you're willing to drop a little bit more coin, Alba's Pinot Noir and Chambourcin are good adventure picks in the 14-18 dollar price range, bearing in mind that they drink like wines that would cost twice as much in a retail environment. We threw down for the Chambourcin, but were certainly tempted by a few of the other options. However, I felt it necessary to quit at that point, having now had quite a bit of wine on an empty stomach, and with our return voyage beginning to take its place as the centerpiece of late afternoon. We lunched outside under soggy skies, and then hiked up the hill for some pictures and closer examination of the grapes, which were mostly on their way out for the season. Nevertheless, it was all quite picturesque, and a welcome changeup from the sights and sounds of the city. Alba's vineyard is a fantastic daytrip option, even if you treat it as nothing more than a long drive for a picnic and great bottle of wine. Their staff is very knowledgable, friendly, and happy to discuss their wines in as simple or advanced a manner as you're comfortable with. In the most basic terms, you could do a lot worse on a random Saturday afternoon, so what are you waiting for? Aren't spontaneous viticultural missions the real reason you got that Zipcar membership in the first place?