In 1976, Louis Caracciolo planted his first rows of wine grapes on a small Camden County farm he had purchased a few years earlier just after graduating from college. The South Jersey native was beginning a career in food science, but as a kid he loved helping his Italian grandfather make wine in the basement.
Now, he wanted to try it for himself.
That same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, a Paris wine merchant organized a professional tasting that forever changed the way the world views American wine. The tasting pitted some of the most venerable French labels, including first-growth Bordeaux and grand-cru Burgundy, against some no-name wines from a place called the Napa Valley. The wines were tasted "blind." The judges were all French.
Time magazine broke the news under the headline, "Judgment of Paris." The "unthinkable" had happened: Time reported, "California defeated all Gaul."
Indeed, some of France's most esteemed sommeliers and restaurateurs picked a California chardonnay above such famous French vintages as Meursault and Puligny- Montrachet, and preferred a California cabernet sauvignon over the likes of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion.
Three decades later, long after his winemaking hobby had evolved into a full-time business called Amalthea Cellars, Caracciolo had a crazy idea: Why not recreate the Paris tasting using some of his own wines? Instead of California vs. France, Caracciolo envisioned New Jersey versus both California and France.
"At first, it sounded outrageous," said George Taber, an author of wine books who met Caracciolo through a mutual friend. "It's like putting a kid from Pop Warner into an NFL game."
But Caracciolo was determined. With the help of Anthony Fisher, a New Jersey wine merchant and educator with extensive experience organizing professional tastings, Caracciolo assembled a number of legendary wines from France and California, including Stag's Leap and Chateau Montelena from the Napa Valley and Chateau Montrose and Mouton-Rothschild from Bordeaux.
He organized them into flights based on grape blend, then added comparable blends from his own vineyard. The bottles were wrapped in foil bags and numbered, so no one but Fisher would know which wine was which.
The tasting was held in October 2007. About 100 people attended, including other New Jersey winemakers, restaurateurs, merchants and various wine enthusiasts. The guest of honor was Taber, and for good reason: In 1976, he was a young journalist covering France for Time magazine.
He was the reporter who broke the news about the Paris tasting, and 30 years later would write a book, "Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine" (Scribner). The book was turned into a film called "Bottle Shock."
The tasting Caracciolo organized, held at his winery in Atco, wasn't covered by Time. But it may one day be known as the Judgment of Jersey. That's because, much to the surprise of everyone, except perhaps Caracciolo, Amalthea wines finished ahead of many of the French and California vintages. The top-rated red was the 2002 Amalthea Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which beat out benchmark wines such as Chateau Montrose, a Bordeaux, and Stag's Leap, a Napa Valley label that, ironically, finished first in the 1976 Paris tasting.
No one was more surprised by the outcome than Taber, who is well known in New Jersey as the publisher of NJBIZ and the voice of the daily business report on 101.5 FM. Taber, who retired several years ago and moved to Block Island, noted that unlike the Paris tasting, which had an equal number of French and California bottles, Caracciolo's tasting was heavy on Amalthea wines. Still, no one denies that a majority of tasters preferred the Amalthea cabernet, which sells for about $35, over a 2004 Montrose (about $85) and 2002 Mouton-Rothschild (about $300). Taber said as far as he could see, Caracciolo and Fisher were careful to conceal the identities of all the wines until the group had a chance to taste and rate them on a 20-point scale.
Only after the ratings were tallied were the wines unveiled. "There's no question, it was impressive," Taber said. Caracciolo is "doing all the right things in terms of cutting back on yields and taking it very seriously. He's a legitimate winemaker."
But can it really be that a New Jersey wine outperformed the best of France and California?
"Why can't it be?" said Fisher, who owns the Bottle Barn, a wine shop in Gibbstown. "New Jersey is the Garden State. It was just like back in 1976, when no one thought of putting California wines against Bordeaux."
Just to prove that the results weren't a fluke, Caracciolo recreated the tasting last June. Once again, he invited about 100 tasters to participate, and once again poured his wines alongside some exorbitantly priced French and California wines. And once again, his wines showed very well.
How well? The 2001 Amalthea Reserve Cabernet Franc finished first in a flight that included Chateau Cheval-Blanc, a Bordeaux that sells for anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars per bottle, depending on the vintage.
"I think the results are very valid," said Fisher, who also officiated at the second tasting.
For Caracciolo, 59, the results were the culmination of 25 years of investment, experimentation and hard work, all driven by an early hunch: that the soils and climate of South Jersey had the potential to produce world-class wines. He had just the right combination of experience and skills to make it happen, from his Italian-American roots in rural South Jersey, to his education and research as a food scientist, to his drive and vision as an entrepreneur.
He's New Jersey's answer to the late Robert Mondavi, the father of California's modern-day wine industry.
After working on his grandfather's farm as a kid ("I grew up driving tractors"), Caracciolo enrolled at Pratt Institute in New York to study food science, which was his father's profession. Right after graduating from college in 1972, he bought a small farm in Atco and, within a few years, had planted his first wine grapes. In 1982, he obtained a state license to open a commercial winery, which he called Amalthea.
As a food scientist, Caracciolo holds a number of patents, including one for a process to clean oak barrels using ozone rather than sulfuric acid. By the 1980s, he was traveling around the world to demonstrate the process for winemakers. Among his clients was Chateau Margaux, one of only five Bordeaux estates classified as a "first growth."
While Caracciolo taught winemakers his technology, he said, they taught him about winemaking. Soon, he was applying lessons learned at Margaux and in the Napa Valley back at his winery in Camden County.
Caracciolo attributes his success as a winemaker to several techniques he has been practicing for years. First, he keeps his crop yields very low by "green pruning" in the spring. This involves lopping off tons of immature grape clusters so the vineyards produce only about 1.5 tons of mature grapes per acre. That's a fraction of the yield at many large commercial wineries. Caracciolo said lower yields translate into more concentrated grape juice and richer wine.
When the grapes are ripe, Caracciolo believes in picking by hand, which allows him to select only the healthiest clusters. And he insists on aging all of his wines in new or near new oak barrels -- an expensive commitment, considering he pays as much as $900 for a single French oak barrel.
"Most of my reds are not on the market for 2 1/2 to 3 years after they've been made," Caracciolo said.
Regardless of their quality, there's one thing about Caracciolo's wines that still makes them a tough sell beyond the winery's tasting room: They're made in New Jersey. There's no question the state's wine industry has come a long way in recent years. There are now some 35 commercial wineries in the Garden State, and Caracciolo happens to be the head of the Garden State Winegrowers Association.
But the winemakers themselves will be the first to tell you that they have a hard time getting attention, much less respect.
If anyone can change that, Caracciolo can. He plans to sponsor more comparison tastings in the near future, and next time is determined to attract the notice of the national wine media.
"I'll challenge anybody to a blind tasting," he said.