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Interview with Conor Quilty, Winemaker at Unionville Vineyards

Interview with Conor Quilty, Winemaker at Unionville Vineyards

Photo Credit: Unionville Vineyards

Approaching Unionville Vineyards, in central New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, it was impossible to miss the brand new 80 panel solar array planted in a large field adjacent to the winery buildings.  I was on my way there to sit down with Winemaker Conor Quilty to discuss his approach to winemaking and the challenges of growing grapes and making wine in New Jersey, but the new view made me start thinking about sustainability.

Sustainability is a frequently used, but ill-defined term in agriculture.  There are no specific requirements and no certifying organizations to clearly set the boundaries of what it means to be sustainable.  So I asked Conor what he thought.  Read our full interview below.

Know your winemaker, know your wine

Conor Quilty | Photo Credit: Unionville Vineyards

Patrick Moran (PM): Aside from the solar project, what other things are you doing, or planning to do, from a sustainability standpoint?

Conor Quilty (CQ): We’re always trying to do things more sustainably.  I actually wrote my thesis in college on sustainability in viticulture, arguing that it wants more to be a naturally sustainable form of agriculture. You’re not worrying about massive land use because the vines are perennial, and, at least on the east coast, we’re mostly dry farmed, so there are fewer questions of water use. 

I think a lot of what drives wineries away from sustainability is the cost. I think it difficult, because people want to connect sustainability to organic growing practices. And although being organic can be a part of being sustainable, sustainability is a much broader concept.  There is economic sustainability, social sustainability, as well as environmental sustainability. And I think Unionville strives to find different ways to be sustainable, looking at all three of those dimensions. People will look to buy organic, but what does organic really mean if the product is shipping from Chile? What kind of carbon footprint does that have, as opposed to walking down the street and buying conventional products from a farm stand? There is a growing movement of Think Local, Drink Local, and there is a sustainability aspect to that.

On the environmental side, the renewable energy initiative is a big part of what we are doing.  Beyond that, everything we do, every farming decision we make, is based on what is best for the vines.  We don’t just go by a set schedule and say, “Well, it’s time to spray pesticides today.”  It is always about understanding the environment and the vines.  Grapes are sensitive, they’re fickle, they need to be taken care of. You can’t hammer them with copper and sulfur and expect to get a high quality product out of them. I think farming sustainably is not just for the health of the environment but also for the health of our business, and that makes it easy to do the work and make the investments.

Another thing we’ve started to do is working with cover cropping.  We’ve almost completely eliminated our herbicide program at this point, changing the way this property has been farmed for 20 years. We are trying to create more living soil, encouraging local grasses, encouraging different micro-organisms. Ultimately this contributes to the health of the vines and the environment.

PM: Are you cultivating cover crops or just allowing what’s meant to grow there to come back?

CQ: We’ve done done both, actually.  The new site at the top of Amwell Ridge Vineyard was seeded with a fescue mix that is supposed to be “no mow”. It grows up to 8” and then lays itself down, creating cover.  And we will have to see how that works, because that can potentially create other problems with excess moisture and unwanted insects, but it is something we’re trying.  And everywhere else at this point has just sort of grown in, whatever is growing around it.

PM: Does that help to trap beneficial nutrients in the soil, or it is mostly about eliminating herbicide?

CQ: We’re still figuring it out. The most immediate benefits are water mitigation and erosion mitigation.  Yes, we are eliminating herbicide, and that’s great, but this also allows us to hold our valuable soil in place and prevent excess water from reaching the vines.  When we have one of those snap 1” rainfalls, anywhere there is bare soil, that rain goes straight down, and the vine sucks it straight up. But that is not happening when you have two inches of microroots from those grasses to absorb the water. And that is really important for us, because rainfall is one of the things that impacts us the most.  And not just from a rot and mold perspective, but also from a water absorption perspective. Too much water absorbed by the vines, especially at the wrong time, can dilute the grapes, and you can end up with watery, flavorless wines.

And the issue of erosion is mitigated as well.  Without the cover crops we are at risk of seeing soil washed away, especially on the hillsides, leaving roots exposed, which makes them more susceptible to pest damage or cold damage.

Harvest 2019 | Photo Credit: Unionville Vineyards

PM: When you are talking to other growers from the area, how much of the conversation is around issues of sustainability?

CQ: There are several of us who talk regularly about these issues and bring up lots of new ideas.  There are at least a couple of NJ wineries experimenting with organic plots.  They’re pushing boundaries.  We talk all the time, including conversations about sustainability in the vineyards and in the cellar.

PM: How much are you involved with farming decisions at Unionville?

CQ: I oversee technical farming here.  Alvaro is our Vineyard Manager, and he is great.  He started in that role at the same time I came on board, and we kind of grew into our roles together. He is in the vineyard day to day and oversees our crew, and this place wouldn’t function without him. He always wants everything to be perfect, so sometimes I have to convince him to take a risk or try something new.

PM: How much does the selection of the varieties that you plant come from a sustainability direction as opposed to a winemaking direction – what kind of wines you want to make as opposed to what grapes are going to grow best in this environment?

CQ: It’s a lame answer, but it’s a balance, and it always is going to be. So much of what we want to plant and what we want to try is stuff that we think will be cool. But there is a lot that we wish we could grow, but we don’t because we know it probably wouldn’t be successful here. I would love to grow Grenache up here, and I would love to grow Cinsault up here. But we know that they would likely not do well in our vineyards.  

I really believe in the Rhone varieties we do grow, and I believe that you can make a beautiful Syrah in the North East.  Even though you don’t see it all that much, because people get hung up on it not coming out like they expect it to, and they think they won’t get it ripe enough. But the thing about Syrah is that as long as it reaches phenolic ripeness, you can pick it a lower sugar levels, and it still makes a beautiful wine. It takes on totally different characteristics – instead of being big, jammy, and fruity, it starts to get gamey, and peppery, and herbal. And if you have a tougher year, and you have to pick it a little young, it doesn’t taste green. The same cannot be said for Cabernet Sauvignon or even Cabernet Franc at its worst.

But we have a sense of what does work, and we look closely at clonal variations, cold sensitivity.  A lot of people weren’t planting Syrah because they were having issues with Syrah decline, this virus-like blight that takes over a vineyard. I did a ton of research looking for what plants have shown the lowest symptoms of Syrah decline in order to identify the best clone to plant.

Photo Credit: Unionville Vineyards

PM: What do you think needs to happen to establish New Jersey as a more widely known wine region?

CQ: There are a lot of wineries making good wines in New Jersey right now – we are up to 60 producers.  I think there is a lot of talent in a lot of New Jersey wineries –a lot of new winemakers, young winemakers, people taking advantage of extension programs, and now have this capability to make really good wine, but they lose sight of the quest for quality in the quest for prosperity. And I understand that, because you do have to run a business, and if you don’t have the initial capital it can be really hard to ignore that.

But I have always said that to be respected as a wine making region, New Jersey has to be recognized as a wine growing region.  Because wine is so unique in its connection to sense of place, and there is still a stigma attached to New Jersey in some people’s minds. But there are some good things happening now to increase the amount of quality vineyard property in New Jersey.  There is a company, VineTech, helping land owners or investors identify sites, plan layouts, then build, plant, and manage their vineyards.  Now all of a sudden there is a grower community developing in New Jersey, which means there are also developing markets for new growers to sell their fruit to established wineries and for skilled vineyard labor to make a living.  

PM:  Do you think that Unionville and other nearby vineyards suffer from not being in a recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area)?

CQ: We have been in recent talks trying to get a coalition together to put some time and effort into that process.  John (Cifelli, General Manager) and I would love to take this on ourselves, but we have a lot on our plates already, so finding other interested wineries will help to spread out some of the necessary workload to successfully petition for AVA recognition. It would be awesome. I don’t think we’re necessarily at a disadvantage, but I think that it would be nice to be recognized as an area that can grow grapes and has been doing it successfully for 30 years at this point.   

PM: What do you drink to avoid developing a cellar palate?

CQ: I am such an acid freak.  I drink a lot of Txakolina, from the Basque region. I like to drink a lot of Petit Chablis and Village White Burgundy, I really like those expressions of Chardonnay. I am drinking a lot of Sicilian wine, which is a new jump for me, a lot of Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco from many different producers.  I also have a true appreciation for other types of alcohol – sake, spirits, beer, I’m in it all the way. 

Wine Recommendations

2015 Hunterdon Mistral Blanc (Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne). Bright sunshine in the glass and a blast of fruit and flowers on the nose.  On the palate there are flavors of white peaches, apricots, and a hint of apple blossom, with a medium body spicy, rich mouthfeel. This is a great white wine for winter.  Pair it with roasted chicken or richer fish like halibut or sea bass.

2014 Pheasant Hill Syrah (Syrah, co-fermented with a small amount of Viognier, northern Rhône-style). Beautiful, dense, and impenetrable in the glass, with black fruits and dusky floral notes on the nose.  Blackberries and plums with violets with a smoky meatiness on the palate.  Full, with voluptuous tannins, and plenty of acidity to pair well with a variety of foods – a burger, a steak, duck confit, roasted turkey, literally anything with bacon on it, or even game meats like venison or (dare it say) pheasant.