The Avventura of a Lifetime
What happens when two accomplished biologists from NJ fall prey to the lure of owning a vineyard?
For a long time, a common retirement fantasy was to open a cozy bed-and-breakfast. These days, that dream seems to have been uprooted by another: to own a vineyard and make wine.
For most people this is only a dream, but for those who do have the will and resources to turn that dream into reality, it represents a huge risk that can lead to financial loss and a bruised ego. Double that possibility if you happen to be growing wine grapes in the humid Garden State.
Your odds greatly improve, however, if you’re Beverly Tepper and Mark Pausch of Rocky Hill. Both are accomplished, highly esteemed scientists in fields that specifically apply to the enjoyment of wine: taste sensation (her) and yeast fermentation (him). Last year the couple purchased an 82-acre former soybean farm in Allentown, Monmouth County, where this spring they planted just over four acres with wine grapes. They fittingly dubbed their enterprise Avventura—Italian for “adventure.”
Dr. Tepper, 60, is a longtime professor in the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University, where she directs the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory. She is a leading researcher in what is commonly known as the “supertaster” phenomenon. Her research program combines food sensory science with psychology and nutritional science—Tepper’s doctorate from Tufts University is in nutrition—to better understand the links between taste, diet and health. She is also the co-founder and director of the new Center for Sensory Sciences and Innovation (CSSI) at Rutgers, which works closely with related industries, and she is now interacting with another Rutgers initiative: the newly formed New Jersey Center for Wine Research and Education. Located in the Bridgeton Agricultural Experiment Station, the center’s mission is to facilitate the growth and development of New Jersey’s wine industry.
Mark Pausch, 57, retired in June 2015 after many years as a principal research scientist and director with leading pharmaceutical companies, among them Merck, Pfizer and Wyeth. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology from Northwestern University.
In terms of how their combined experience plays into their Avventura endeavor, Pausch says, “Beverly’s background of scientifically assessing the way people taste is huge! This is all about the flavor and characteristics of wine and how it resonates with people. I was trained as a yeast microbiologist and I’ve run a fermentation facility, so at least from those aspects I think we’ve got it covered.”
Dr. Dan Ward, an extension specialist with the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Service and director of the aforementioned NJ Center for Wine Research, concurs. Along with fellow extension specialists Gary Pavlis and Hemant Gohil, Ward has visited the vineyard. All three remain continually in touch with the Avventura folks. From Ward’s perspective, Pausch and Tepper have several advantages. “Mark and Beverly are interesting, thoughtful, dynamic people. As trained scientists, they have the meticulous attention to detail that’s necessary for success in both the vineyard and the winery,” he says.
Yet even with the best efforts, Ward admits, “the stars must align” for success in winemaking in the Garden State. Besides needing the right soil and site conditions (“terroir”) and a handle on the “large knowledge base and skills” required to run a vineyard and winery, New Jersey’s vintners must tackle other obstacles. “They must master complex legal issues, overcome societal prejudices and spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on marketing,” he says.
Winemakers throughout the Eastern United States, he says, must put about half their efforts into marketing in order to hold their own against established wine-growing regions. And then there are New Jersey’s particular weather quirks. “Rainfall levels, the occasional damaging cold and vintage-to-vintage variations in a humid region— these are typical challenges,” he says.
As of late June, the stars had aligned for Avventura. On a particularly balmy day, Pausch and Tepper stood at the base of the steep hill (steep, at least, by NJ standards) where the 400 robust vines Pausch had planted just weeks earlier were beginning to flower in the sandy loam. With a sapphire-blue sky dotted with bright white, puffy clouds as backdrop, the scene could have been mistaken for Provence, or at least Northern California.
Pausch, who spends most of his time on a tractor going between the carefully spaced rows, had chosen to plant six red varieties— Pinot Noir, Chambourcin, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Blaufrankisch—and four whites: Traminette, Chardonnay, Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. The weather that first month, he admitted, had been just about perfect. “We got done planting and two days later we received two and a half inches of rain,” he says, beaming. “And we’ve been getting about an inch of rain a week so far.” Which was lucky, because although a trench had been dug for an irrigation system, the equipment wasn’t expected to arrive until July. “If it hadn’t rained,” says Bev Tepper, laughing, “the alternative would have been for Mark to water them using a bucket!” Those conditions helped the vines grow from 18 inches to almost three feet in a matter of weeks.
Pausch had some local help in planting the vines, which he sourced from Double A Vineyards in Fredonia, New York. “The farming community here in Monmouth County is wonderful,” he says. “Some of our 82 acres are planted in corn because we rented a portion of the property out to a local farmer by the name of Bill Bibus. Not only has he has worked with us by adjusting his pesticide schedule to keep stuff off this part of the property, but his son, Joe Bibus, has been my go-to guy. Joe even got his former high school and college friends to come in and work four 14-hour days—plus another half-day— planting these vines.”
The hill is divided into two sections by the irrigation system, which runs up to and across its summit. “With one pipe we can water both these 2016 vineyards,” Pausch says. Off in the distance is acreage that will be planted in 2017 as a third vineyard. The plan is to eventually build all the way out over the entire site, perhaps even adding hops into the mix, to be offered to New Jersey’s rapidly growing cadre of craft-beer makers.
Until now, Mark Pausch had never before driven a tractor, despite having been raised in the small town of Saint Joseph in downstate Illinois, just east of Champaign-Urbana. “I grew up with cornfields across the street and I’ve worked on a farm before, and when you’re walking out around a field, well, there’s just something about it. My dad advised us young men when we were getting ready to go off to college, ‘Boys, get yourself a job indoors.’ I took his advice; I was a scientist for 25 years. But now, this.”
Tepper, on the other hand, is a city girl. “In my neighborhood of Boston there were no vineyards or farming,” she says. But the couple agrees that what is now Avventura was, in fact, her idea. “A number of years ago, Mark and I talked about ‘what if,’ but then laughed it off, put it in our back pocket and didn’t think about it again,” she says. “Then Mark came to a point in his career in pharma where he felt he had accomplished what he’d set out to do. Plus, he had a long, arduous commute.”
So when a farm came up for sale in Rocky Hill, the dream of owning a winery floated back into the couple’s consciousness. “I can’t believe I was the one to actually voice that crazy idea!” Tepper says.
Adds Pausch, “We had been on trips to Oregon and to Napa and Sonoma, plus I had been on my own personal Sideways.” That 2004 hit film, which elevated Pinot Noir above the wildly popular Merlot, is credited with spurring sales of Pinot Noir by 16 percent that year (and they’ve held at 9 percent every year since). “A friend and I went out to California to see a Rose Bowl game,” he explains, “and we drove up to Santa Barbara County,” just as the film’s protagonists had. “Now, nothing as exciting as Sideways happened on that trip!” he adds, referring to the protagonists’ philandering adventures. But once back home, it did get Pausch and Tepper, who have now been together for 21 years, thinking.
“We drink a fair amount of wine,” Tepper says—although no more than typical wine lovers. “We are partial to Pinot Noir. We asked ourselves if we could we grow Pinot. It’s not easy in New Jersey, but other wineries are doing it, so we’re giving it a shot.” The pair has made wine before, at Grapes N’ Barrels in Sayreville. “We used Chilean grapes and it turned out very nice,” Pausch says. “It’s a little young yet, got a little bottle shock perhaps. But in a couple of months it should be nice.”
Although the pair wasn’t successful in buying that first Rocky Hill property, they are now thankful for that. “It started the wheels turning. We said, let’s look at the finances; let’s make a plan,” Tepper recalls. “So we had lots of qualified people review and critique the plan. We asked them if we were completely crazy to try to do this,” Tepper says. “But they told us it could work.”
The first time the couple saw what is now Avventura was in the dead of winter and it was covered in snow. But they fell in love with the vista, the rolling hill and the series of interconnected ponds just on the other side. “We originally intended these ponds for irrigation water and we’ve gotten all the approvals necessary from the state,” Pausch says. “But what we didn’t recognize when we were looking at the ponds—because it was wintertime—was just how pretty they are,” says Tepper. “This spring, we’ve walked and kayaked around them. We found huge snapping turtles, fish and toads! We were happy because it means the water is really clean.” The couple is also proud that the entire site is preserved farmland.
The couple expects to harvest their first grapes in three years and to produce what Pausch terms their “first serious wine” in four. By that time, plans are for Avventura to have an on-site winery, tasting room and retail sales facility, with the aim of statewide retail sales. “We’ve spoken with potential financers and I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Pausch says. “But there’s no point in having a sales building or a production building until you have produced something.” He points to his thriving vines and says, “We’ll let these guys grow a little bit and then put a building in place.”
Avventura’s wines will be made using principles of organic and biodynamic farming, although they won’t technically be organic.
“We’ll be composting and returning organic materials to the soil to enhance it,” Pausch says. “But we’re in a climate here in New Jersey that makes it virtually impossible to grow wine grapes organically. It’s too humid. There are fungi growing very happily on these grapevines as we speak. All of that comes together in the vines over time. They reflect wet years, dry years, good years, bad years. Part of the reason for the irrigation, for the large selection of varieties and the multiple rootstocks is that we’re scientists and we’re going to see which varieties go together to give us the wines we like. Hopefully.”
The couple is not just depending upon their scientific skills.
“We’ve been going to meetings of the New Jersey Wine Growers Association and getting to know and interact with the wineries,” Beverly Tepper says. “They know we’re newbies and you’d think that maybe it’s such a small community that people maybe want to defend their turf. But we haven’t found that at all.” Pausch points out that they got a lot of advice early on from two other Garden State winemakers in particular: Mike Beneduce, whose Beneduce Vineyards is in Pittstown, in Hunterdon County, and the folks at Alba in Finesburg, Warren County.
For others who may be dreaming the same retirement dream, Tepper (who, by the way, does not plan to retire anytime soon) offers this advice: “Go into it with your eyes open. Recognize that nothing is going to be ‘typical.’ You’re going to work harder than you’ve worked ever. It’s not the kind of retirement that you’re just going to hang out and check in every once in a while. This is not like selling T-shirts.” Both she and Pausch agree that it also takes an open mind and a love of learning new skills.
Dan Ward, the Rutgers extension specialist, has seen his share of retired professionals who turn to winemaking. “We’ve seen lawyers, doctors, financial analysts and at least one retired university professor,” he says. “But science in particular is a method for learning. It reflects an inquisitive nature. That’s why I expect we’ll get more than just wine from Mark and Beverly. I expect their backgrounds and their creativity to contribute new insights and data not just to the state’s wine industry, but to the entire Eastern U.S. wine industry. But it will take time.”