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Making wine a tourist attraction
[February 06, 2006]

Making wine a tourist attraction

(Asbury Park Press (NJ) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Feb. 5--In a former grain storage building, wine maker Nicolaas Opdam siphons some 2004 cabernet sauvignon from a Hungarian oak barrel into a glass, swirls the wine, takes a sip and relishes the taste.

"Wow, that's good."

A few steps away, the state-of-the-art production equipment used to make that wine is currently housed in a separate, equally modest facility, next to a long-defunct silo and some construction equipment.

The wine -- a European flavor with hints of chocolate, smoke and brandy -- speaks for itself, as good as its maker's compliments. But on a bitterly windy January day, with the rolling 40-acre vineyard robbed of its colorful beauty by the season, it takes some imagination to see what the owners of Laurita Winery envision:

A 20,000-square-foot, three-story, $2 million winery -- the only one in Ocean County -- on a hill overlooking a 250-acre Plumsted farm, old silos refurbished as lookouts, and a gazebo for patrons as they sit by a pond on warm summer evenings sampling 12 varieties of wine.

Right now, the winery building is still just a hole in the mud being moved by heavy equipment, but owners Randy Johnson and Raymond Shea expect that by the fall it will be complete. They hope to turn it into a popular tourist attraction, drawing wine connoisseurs and visitors to their Archertown Road property -- already home to the Dancer Farm Bed & Breakfast Inn, an equestrian training center and miles of hiking and horseback riding trails.

"We're creating a sense of place to draw people," said Shea, a Jackson-based attorney who lives in Farmingdale and Bay Head.

The winery building, which was recently approved by the township Planning Board, is a big part of their plans. Using wooden beams, flooring and paneling from old barns on the property, the building will house a production floor, retail center, offices and a wine club. Every step of the wine production process, from the growing of the grapes to the bottling, will be done on the property.

Visitors will be able to tour parts of the vineyard and learn about the wine-making process. There are only two other wineries in the area and they are both in Monmouth County.

To make the winery profitable though, Johnson and Shea are going to have to sell some wine. The vineyard itself cost about $1 million to establish.

"We've got to sell a lot of wine, and sell it fast," Shea said.

The vineyard has been producing wine -- stored in 48, 55-gallon French and Hungarian oak barrels -- since 2003, though the owners have not yet begun selling it.

To be profitable, volume is critical, Shea said. He said the winery hopes to sell about 12,000 cases of wine a year. And it will sell that wine in-house, not through any kind of distributors, he said.

But, of course, the winery is part of a bigger concept that has been a long time in the making. Shea and Johnson, a Jackson resident and the owner of Bil-Jim Construction there, have been friends and business associates for about 20 years. Shea is also Johnson's attorney.

They bought 180 acres of the Plumsted property in the early 1990s. Five years ago, they added 70 more acres they acquired from the Dancer family. The bed & breakfast has been in operation since 2003. And an equestrian center offers visitors something else to do.

The Walkabout at Laurita Winery, a non-profit corporation, was formed to provide access via trails to the 250 acres of land, which encompass meadows, woods and wetlands. When complete, the entire facility will be known as the Laurita Winery.

With the natural world in mind, the B&B and winery are committed to being "green," the owners said. Most importantly for the winery, that means the use of solar energy, but also, like the bed and breakfast, recycling and water conservation.

They're also trying to get all 250 acres designated a sanctuary by the Audubon Society.

The concept dovetails nicely with the "agri-tourism" industry, which includes the area's U-pick farms, said Mayor Ronald Dancer, whose family owned part of the property.

As for the actual winemaking, Shea said it has been "a labor of love." He said he realized the land he and Johnson owned had the potential for a winery after attending a lecture at Rutgers University. The property has the right kind of sandy soil, the slopes, the sunlight and the air circulation vital to a vineyard, he said.

So after testing the soil, they planted their vines in 1998 and brought on their wine maker and general manager, Nicolaas Opdam. Opdam, who has a degree in organic chemistry, has worked as a wine maker all over the world and owned the King's Road Winery in Asbury in Hunterdon County.

For the Laurita Winery's owners, "there's been a learning curve," Shea said.

"But what we have learned is that these soils at this farm can produce a very fine wine."

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