Monday, June 8, 2009

Chapter 14 - Hey! You made it to Chapter 14!

Chapter 14 – Hey! You made it to Chapter 14!

Captain America: Well I guess that brings you pretty much up to date. Sorry to put you through all of that but it was you who clicked on this part of the website after all. Then again, if you made it this far, you have shown true dedication, a relatively high tolerance for pain, and maybe just a little tendency toward the obsessive.

Hmmmm. Wanna start a winery?

Chapter 13 - Epilogue

Chapter 13 - Epilogue

Captain America: I helped sell the Philadelphia Stock Exchange to Nasdaq and I ultimately left for good on September 30, 2008. No more day job. No more commuting. Now we have to keep working hard so I never have to go back. We are still working on trying to liberate Dave. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer. He’d be great as a full time farmer. Then we are going after Jen and Joe.

And we are real live winemakers now. Our first vintage of the Pinot Grigio we planted and grew won a gold medal for the best Pinot Grigio in the Garden State. Our very first Merlot Reserve won a bronze. It shocked us all. We hadn’t even paid the entry fee to get into the competition thinking we had no prayer of winning anything and $25 is a lot of money to a small winery. Then our Classico 07 won a silver medal at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. And in spring of 2009, we won eight…that’s right eight….. medals for our wines in the annual New Jersey Wine Competition. Classico got a gold. Silvers for Merlot Reserve 07, Sole , Chardonnay Reserve 08, The White Bottle 08, and Pinot Grigio 08. Rosalita and Rustica took home a bronze a piece.

It is really pretty hard to believe I let myself think about it….

Chapter 12 - The Enoteca

Chapter 12 – The Enoteca

Captain America: We finally got the approvals to open The Enoteca in November 2007. Our initial visit to the township planning board had been May 19, 2004, right in the middle of our first planting. I remember it because it was my dad’s birthday. We showed up thinking that they would kiss us on both cheeks, thank us for coming to their township and starting a winery and give us everything we asked for. It did not quite work out that way. I’m guessing they saw a city guy and his friends who had been farmers for all of 5 days coming to their township to make intoxicating beverages. And I was woefully unprepared for their questions. They roughed us up pretty bad. I could almost hear my dad’s voice in my head as I walked out telling me I had that schooling coming to me for being cocky and unprepared. He was right, we deserved it - well most of it at least. But the day finally came when we were finally able to open our doors to the public.

The Enoteca is a wine bar in the Italian style of wine bars. We have wine of course. But we also have cheese, gelato, biscotti, chocolates – all things that make a glass of wine better. It is a place where you can have a glass of wine with a friend and look out the windows at the vines. It is a place you can bring Grandma and the kids and hang out together as a family. You can even sit in the courtyard by yourself and listen to the rustling of the leaves in the vineyard and soak in the sun. We really just created a place that we would want to come and hang out which is a darn good thing because we are almost always there….

Part IV - We Might Just be Getting Good at This...Chapter 11 - Good Karma

Part IV – We Might Just be Getting Good at This…
Chapter 11 – Good Karma

Captain America: In May of 2006, we planted the 1 1/2 acres just outside the doors of The Enoteca. We also made our first wines using our own grapes which had finally matured to the point that we could harvest. 2006 was our first harvest. In the Fall of 2006, we bottled our first three wines. The first was our stand alone Merlot. The next was an Italian style blend that Dave coined "Classico". Finally, we had a light dry red that tasted like nothing we had ever had before.

I was afraid it was so unusual it wouldn’t sell. As I tried to think of a name, I thought about everything we had been through, the breaks we had gotten when we needed them – Ross’s plow, Don, the Professor and his transit, Everett, even my dad in a weird sort of way - and that we had listened to our inner voices, did what they told us to and how when we did that, the sympathetic universe (call it what you want) helped us along. There was truly a good vibe, a good karma, surrounding this endeavor, one that I had never experienced in anything else I had ever done. And so it seemed appropriate to call our weird, wonderful misfit of a wine "Good Karma".

Joey did a masterful job of designing our logo and labels. They were fun and colorful and classy. Amazing guy, Joey. He’s the man’s man Dave and I wish we could be. He can do electrical work. He can fix a tractor. He lifts all the heavy stuff for us. He helped work the transit (in fact the Professor wouldn’t let either Dave or me near it). Yet he has an eye for color and the subtle differences in shade and hues. He is an artist – a truly creative guy. And he’s a pretty good bass player too, which is still cool.

We spent the next year completing the build out of the pole barn, the expansion of the road, the installation of lighting and parking, tearing out fences, planting bushes in front of trees, planting trees in front of bushes, landscaping and planting trees in forests because I guess there weren’t enough.

And Dave and Shannon continued to have children – little Hallie came along in the summer of 2007.

Chapter 10 - Pole Barn becomes a Winery

Chapter 10 – Pole Barn becomes a Winery

Captain America: Also in 2005, we began the task of converting the pole barn into a winery, storage rooms and, on the south side where the horse stalls were, a wine bar that we decided to call The Enoteca (which is Italian for wine bar). The Professor undertook the oversight, and a lot of the actual work, of construction, particularly of the extension we built onto The Enoteca. He spent day after day – and even some evenings – building small fires out of scrap wood to keep warm, designing and constructing the edifice. It was an amazing piece of work, no doubt with a healthy dose of belly-scratching. But the Professor would say that belly-scratching is important so as to work smarter not harder. An amazing guy, our Professor.

As we continued the build out of the winery, we ordered a few barrels to store what was to become our first vintage. We had grapes delivered from Lodi, California. We ordered the same varietals that we had planted that first year – Sangiovese (the grape in Chianti), Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. We crushed the grapes and fermented them in food grade plastic barrels that we built a makeshift tent around to help control the temperature.

Dave and Shannon continued having children - Stone showed up in the summer of 2005. We lost Jules’ dad, John, who had been the honorary foreman over the first two plantings, right before our third planting in the Spring of 2006. Before long, Jules’ mom bought a house near the farm.

Chapter 9 - Planting the right way - May 2005

Chapter 9 – Planting the right way – May 2005

Captain America: In 2005, we planted the back 3 ½ acres of the property, this time using a planting machine we borrowed from Ross. This machine had been made by the Amish and is a true marvel of engineering. We planted all 3 ½ acres in 2 ½ days. We then put the metal trellis posts in, this time with a mechanical post driver that we named Eddie after the mascot for the heavy metal band Iron Maiden because Eddie the Pole Driver was the angriest piece of farm machinery we had ever seen. To work with Eddie was to take your life in your hands. But Eddie did the job and the posts were all in within a day.

Part III - The Barn, the Farm and New Jersey Cowboys

Part III – The Barn, the Farm and New Jersey Cowboys

Chapter 8: New Jersey Cowboys

Captain America: We also set our sights on the old pole barn in the middle of the property. In 2004, it was still just a barn – dirt floor, holes in the roof, big sliding doors on either side, and the south side completely open to serve as horse stalls and on the far side, a huge bull pen. At that time we rented out the horse stalls and the pasture behind it to a New Jersey Cowboy named Clay. Up to that point I had not known that there was such a thing as a New Jersey Cowboy. But, sure enough, there was. He had a big white cowboy hat, chewed tobacco at 7 am, wore boots and spurs and the whole deal. Clay was in the business of buying wild horses, breaking them and making them safe to ride and then selling them. He asked if he could rent the pasture and the stalls for a while and, loving the idea of having horses on the farm and being fascinated with the idea of the very existence of New Jersey Cowboys, I readily agreed. Plus there was an added benefit – Clay was a rodeo cowboy. He performed with all sorts of other cowboys, the New Jersey variety and otherwise, at Cowtown Rodeo every Saturday evening in the summer. If you have never been, you MUST go to Cowtown. It is truly an amazing place. It was especially so for a city boy like me. But what was great was that we took the boys to the rodeo one Saturday and there was Clay standing inside the ring along the fence, waiting his turn. We walked through the crowd down to the fence and said hello and talked to him for a few minutes. We were at the rodeo and we knew one of the cowboys! Not only did we go to the rodeo, but we got to be cool at the rodeo!

Clay kept horses at the farm throughout the summer and I don’t remember actually collecting any rent, but that didn’t matter. It was still cool. And besides, he did leave me a goat tied to a tree for a present once. I wasn’t sure it was a goat at the time. But I called Ross and described this thing tied to the tree and Ross assured me that it was in fact a goat and that, no, goats were not dangerous but were actually very smart animals and good for cleaning up weedy places.

Well, we had a lot of those so I put Goaty (which is the name Luca gave him) to work. After a week or so, I told Clay, thanks but no thanks. We had way too much on our hands without becoming goat herders as well. Clay seemed disappointed. So was Luca.

Chapter 7: Our First Planting - May 2004

Chapter 7: Our First Planting - May 2004

Captain America: We planted the first two acres in May of 2004 with the help of family and friends. It took two solid weeks. We planted 2 rows a day, everyone on their knees with yardsticks to make sure the plants were exactly 6 feet apart. We covered over the dirt by hand. We felt like farmers. Dave’s dad Tod, affectionately known around the farm as the Professor, using what is quite possibly the first transit ever made, laid out the path for our rows. Together with his young protégée, Joe, the Professor made vineyard rows so straight, so perfect, so symmetrical that when aliens do finally invade the earth, they will have navigated their landing based on the great pyramids, and these two acres of vineyard rows. We put the trellis posts and end posts in by hand, first augering holes in the mud, banging the metal post in by hand and then filling the hole in with rocks. All the while keeping a level next to the pole to make sure it was straight. Hundreds of them. It was as painful as it sounds. We spent the summer in the vineyard, all six of us, under Dave’s direction, building trellises, stringing trellis wire, trying, mostly in vain, to control weeds and protect against disease. That fall, we made wine on the porch of the farm house with grapes that we got from our good friend and mentor Frank Salek of Sylvan Farms Winery in Atlantic County. Jules was now fully in charge of the wine making process and the wine was considerably better. Not great, yet. But considerably better.

Chapter 6: How do you drive a tractor?

Chapter 6: How do you drive a tractor?

Captain America: Now all of our farming experience to this point had amounted to 18 grape vines in Dave’s yard and 2 in my little city yard. In what we now call “true Auburn Road fashion”, without any idea of how to plow a field and with no tools with which to do so, we had Shannon order 1800 grape vines to plant on the first two acres. The vines were due to arrive in May of 2004. Shannon also ordered trellis equipment, end posts – the works.

The next problem was that we had a field that had been pasture for 15 years. We needed to plow that field but we had never plowed a field nor did we know how. Nor, for that matter, did we have anything to plow it with. We needed a tractor. So, Dave and I drove to the John Deere dealer in Hammonton and walked into the Everett the Salesman’s office, pronounced ourselves vineyard growers and winemakers and asked the Everett to tell us what we needed. It is very much to Everett’s credit that he did not laugh us out of there, though it maybe had something to do with the prospect that we might be spending the equivalent of the price of a nice Porsche. He was good to us and has been a good friend to us ever since. He found us a tractor and sprayers but there was one small problem. They would not be delivered in time to prepare the fields for planting. Wonderful.

It was late March 2004, 1800 vines were on their way and we had no way to plow our field. God bless Ross Field. Ross and Trish run Woodfield Vineyards up the road from us and have been great friends and kindred spirits to us. I’ll never forget the morning I looked out the kitchen window of the farmhouse and saw Ross, on his old blue tractor, dragging a chisel plow through our field. I ran out and leaned against the fence and watched, amazed. Before too long, Ross jumped off the tractor walked over to me, pointed at me and then at the tractor and said, “There comes a time when a man’s gotta plow his own field.” So true. Up I went.

Part II- Jumping in with Both Feet

Part II – Jumping in with Both Feet.

Chapter 5: We Find the Farm…

Captain America: As we looked all over South Jersey for properties, Dave and Shannon kept taking us by this property for sale near their house. It was a beautiful 16 acre property with a small farm house, a pole barn and pasture land that had been used for cattle and horses. In fact this property was surrounded by farms and pastures. There were horses and cows, corn fields and soy fields. There was even a rodeo around the corner. Where in the world WERE we?

A lovely fellow by the name of Don Kohler was the real estate agent for the seller. The negotiation lasted for most of 2003 as we continued to look for properties. I kept in touch with Don who promised that I would never hear from him that the property had been sold – he would always give me one last bite at the apple. I knew Don as a tall skinny fella. He was actually a large barrel- chested fella who was dying of a very painful form of cancer. Thanks to Don, we were finally able to reach a deal to buy the property. Don was going from bad to worse but still managed to help my mom buy a house in Woodstown to be close to the farm. Mom, a hospice worker at the time, helped him die. I was a pall bearer at his funeral. He said that helping us buy the farm to start a winery is one of the achievements of his life he was most proud of. I poured him his last glass of wine under a tree in front of what would be the first field we would plant.

So like I said, with the money my dad left and with a little help from mom, Jules and I bought the farm in October of 2003. We quickly realized that we could not maintain the farm while living in Queen Village so, over the winter, we left the city for good and moved to the farm. I was still working in Philly, by this time for the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. So rather than a 15 minute Vespa ride to work I was now doing an hour and fifteen minutes through country lanes and major highways, over rivers and through several states. Dave was at J.P. Morgan in Wilmington doing his own miserable commute. He and Shannon still were living only six minutes away from the farm. By this time, Jules had, mercifully, taken over the winemaking and Shannon had begun to oversee the administration of the farm, the first task of which, was to plant.

Jen and Joe join the Band and we begin to get serious

Chapter 4: Jen and Joe join the Band and we begin to get serious…

Captain America: Little by little, our wives were coming around. I guess they figured that if Dave and I had to have an obsession, this at least appeared to be a healthy one. As we had lost one partner in crime, Dave suggested that he saw in Jen’s boyfriend, Joe, a little of the same mania that we possessed. Before long, Jen and Joe joined us. It was about this time that Dave suggested that Aquila Verde sounds like an aftershave and that, since our little vineyard in Dave’s yard was on Auburn Road, we should change the name to Auburn Road Vineyards. I thought it sounded cool and so we went with it.

Then, in the winter of 2002, my dad, Luigi, passed away suddenly. It was pretty awful as I guess it always is when you lose a parent. He came from immigrant parents and became a CPA and made himself out of pretty much nothing. He worked hard, long hours in a corporate world more or less the same as the one Dave and I were now in. He died too young and there is not too much dispute that the work, the stress and the lifestyle that it created pretty much killed him. I think about him a lot when I’m on the farm. He had been living in the city the last few years of his life, but he always talked about buying a house with a few acres of land in Jersey. I told him he was nuts, why would he want that headache? His response was that he wanted to be able to pee on the grass. I tried to get the words “voglio piciare nel erba” (Italian for “I want to pee in the grass”) placed on our first wine label but the TTB wouldn’t let us. I’m not sure my dad would have ever done what we have done here. But I know he’d love this place.

Anyhow, it turned out that my dad left me a little money. I remember talking with Dave about whether we could really make a go of this, because if we thought we could, we could take what my dad left me and start looking for land to grow grapes on. Next thing we knew we were looking for land.

Chapter 3: Planting the Test Vineyard

Chapter 3: Planting the Test Vineyard…

Captain America: So in went the vines – 10 cabernet sauvignon and 10 merlot plants. I took two of them home to Queen Village and planted them on our postage stamp of a back patio and grew them over the trellis we had just built. As far as I know, the vines are still there.

Dave and I then started making wine in my basement in Queen Village with one of those wine kits that come in a box: cabernet sauvignon juice, a carboy, several color coded packets of stuff ( I assume one of which was yeast) and some oak chips. The instructions told you which colored packet to add when.

I should add at this point that our respective wives thought we were crazy. It turns out our pal Rob did too. He ultimately decided he could not match the obsessive, and frequently misguided, zeal that Dave and I had for this adventure. Dave and I were undeterred. The wine we made was absolute crap. The vines grew but were getting chomped by bugs and corroded by fungus. Dave dedicated himself to figuring out how to get these vines to grow. I began to write a business plan. We all had more kids. Dave and Shannon had Montana and Jules and I had Jake.

Chapter 2: The Beginnings of an Idea

Chapter 2: The Beginnings of an Idea…

Captain America: I eventually left Fiserv only to return a few years later, in 2000, this time as General Counsel. Dave had long since left to join J.P. Morgan. Shannon and Jen were still there. Dave and Shannon got married and Jules and I had our first son, Luca. We were all making that transition from young, struggling graduates to somewhat established thirty-something professionals with families. We were all office workers of various varieties. Jules, by this time, had set aside the practice of law for a time to focus on our young son. In April of 2000, you might remember the tech bubble bursting and the problems that caused in the stock market . It was not a fun time to be in the securities business. The hours were long. Paper multi-millionaires were suddenly millions of dollars in debt to our firm (thanks to borrowing on margin) and their debt was our risk to manage. Before long, I started to realize that the stresses of the work I was doing and the responsibilities of a young family were beginning to get to me.

One afternoon, Jules and I went to visit our buddy Rob and his wife who had just had a daughter. Dave and Shannon were going to be there too. We were all going to visit and “see the baby”. Jules and Shannon were in the living room with Rob’s wife “seeing the baby”. All babies look the same to me, so Dave, Rob and I were sitting in the dining room, drinking a bottle of wine like it was the last one remaining on earth and talking about our respective jobs. We quickly agreed that we needed a change in our lives. We also, almost as quickly, realized that we were not qualified, at this stage of our lives, to really do anything other than what we were presently doing. That, however, actually proved to be a pretty liberating realization. If we are qualified to do nothing else, then there are no limits – we would have the whole wide world of things we are not qualified to do to choose from. Once we choose something, all that would remain would be to become qualified to do it. Drinking wine truly does inspire genius...

I believe I was the one that held up the bottle we were drinking and suggested we start a winery. We decided on the spot that it was a great idea. We spent the rest of the afternoon planning. We even gave it a name - “Aquila Verde” - which is Italian for “Green Eagle”, all of us being devout fans of the Philadelphia pro football team. Being as Dave and Shannon had just bought a house in Woolwich Twp., New Jersey, Dave volunteered to turn under part of his two acre lawn so that we could plant a test plot of grape vines. He was tired of cutting so much lawn anyway. Do grapes grow in New Jersey? Beats us. It is the Garden State right? So why not?

Auburn Road Part I: The Beginning...Chapter 1

Part I: The Beginning…
Chapter 1: How We Met

Captain America: I guess I’ll start the story as far back as I can remember. Back in the late 90’s, Jules and I were living in the Queen Village section of Philadelphia. I was a young lawyer working as in-house counsel for a securities brokerage firm called Fiserv Securities in Philly. Jules was a litigator with a small law firm in the city. I managed several departments at Fiserv and I was hiring for a position in one of them. To fill the spot, I stole from a neighboring department a young, tall skinny fella who I found to be one of the hardest working dogs I had ever seen in my life. This guy obviously turned out to be Dave. He had just recently graduated from Penn State and was commuting each day from Allentown, PA. He and I beat our brains out working for Fiserv and saw in each other both a common work ethic and a profound dislike for what we were doing for a living. Working in the HR department for Fiserv was Jen, sweet and cheerful as always. Jen had a sister, Shannon, who, after years of bartending, was looking for a steadier job. Jen brought her to Fiserv and Shannon took up shop as a project manager in our IT area. It was while working there that she and Dave met. I can still remember Dave coming into my office to get my opinion on dating a co-worker. I am reasonably certain I told him to knock himself out. Jen was also dating a guy named Joe. I remember meeting Joe at the company picnic one summer at the Philadelphia Zoo. Joey seemed like a pretty nice guy - didn’t say a whole lot. But I had heard he was a bass player like me, so that was pretty cool.

The Continuing Tale of Auburn Road Vineyards

The Continuing Tale of Auburn Road Vineyards

We’ll assume since you clicked on this section of the website, that you are at least curious about how we got here and how Auburn Road Vineyards came to be. It is kind of a rambling and difficult story to tell, as most stories worth telling are, especially since we didn’t really keep any kind of journal as it was happening. So we figured we’d just tell it from memory, the whole bunch of us, and leave it to you to make it through as much of it as you can stand. It will always be here, at this spot on the website, so you can always come back later and pick up where you left off. If this gets into some really ridiculous detail, feel free to skip ahead. We are actually doing this as much for ourselves as for you. As this was all happening, we didn’t really have very much time to stop and look back so this is really a way for us to step back and take stock of what has happened to us and what we’ve done….

By the way, the names in front of each paragraph indicate who is writing and remembering. For the time being, you have only me (Captain America) to tell the story. Hopefully, soon we will have input, recollections, corrections and more stories that I probably forgot from the rest of the crew. But for now, let me give you the basics: