By John Burton
COLTS NECK – Janet Giunco has always liked wine. “I like it to drink and to collect it,” she said.
Making wine, however, wasn’t something she ever really thought about doing. That is, until she and her husband first looked at the property that would eventually become home to their Four JG’s Orchards and Vineyard, their winery and their family home.
In 1997 Giunco and her husband John viewed the property at 127 Hillsdale Road, roughly 60 acres set back off Hillside Road and Route 34. John Giunco, a land-use lawyer, was considering the site for development. After seeing the property, his wife told him “God wouldn’t forgive him if he took this down,” she remembered.
“First of all, we wanted to raise our family on a farm,” said Giunco who had lived in the area her whole life. Her husband’s family had grown apple and peach trees in Manalapan for many years.
She couldn’t think of a better location than the property, which had been a working farm since the 1720s and still has a number of the original buildings in use. “Rumor had it, it was a dairy farm,” she said. It had been used, in part, as a summer home by the previous owner, from whom the Giuncos bought it in 1997.
While Janet favored drinking wine and took the occasional trip to Napa Valley, California, neither she nor her husband had any real knowledge about producing it. When they became interested in the process, they decided to pursue the venture and dedicated about 40 of the 60 acres to growing seven different varieties of grapes.
“We planted the first grape in 1999,” she said.
The vineyard was named Four JG’s for four immediate family members, John and Janet, and their two children, John Jr. and Jill, who are now 23 and 21, respectively.
What Four JG’s produces is what Giunco described as an estate wine – “grown, bottled and sold here … Everything in my bottle is grown on this farm.”
The grapes she raises are used to make five wines: The Cayuga White, probably Four JG’s best-seller, and similar to a pinot grigio; the Chambourcin, a fruity red variety; a chardonnay; a vignole, a semi-dry white; and cabernet franc.
Four JG’s sells about 1,000 to 3,000 cases a year, with bottles ranging in price from $11 to $22, she said.
Giunco is largely a self-taught vintner, having taken some correspondence classes and relying on some expert advice. Largely, her education was from “the school of hard knocks,” she said. “You make it wrong once and you learn what not to do.” The actual making of wine – the separating the juice from the skin and pulp to make white, the condensing of the whole grape for the reds and putting the liquid in wooden casks – really hasn’t changed in centuries, she observed.
What really makes the wine, Giunco said, are the nuances. “It’s the nuances and the details that make a good bottle of wine,” she said. That includes such things as barrel and other equipment choices. “It’s like cooking.”
Giunco enjoys what wine can do when accompanying a meal and when entertaining friends and family. Having wine with good company and good food is “like butter on the toast; it’s part of the meal,” she said. “It enhances the taste of the food and it opens up the table.”
Giunco doesn’t hold to such conventions as drinking red wine with meat and white wine with fish or poultry. People should try different types and drink what they like. “It’s a personal preference,” she said.
What wine to serve with Thanksgiving dinner is one of the most commonly asked questions she gets. “Thanksgiving is up for grabs,” she said given the assortment of foods on the table. Her only recommendation is to stay away from heavy reds – “unless it’s your favorite, then go for it.”
There are more wineries and vineyards in the Garden State than ever before with 50 now holding licenses. When the Giuncos began their enterprise, there were just 17.
Initially, Four JG had a tough time marketing its product. New Jersey wine, much like the state itself, “gets a hard rap,” she said. But the view of the state’s wines is changing. “I think we’re getting there,” she said.
Giunco spoke of a blind taste test this past summer when French and American officials judged wines from New Jersey, other places in the U.S. and from France. During the competition, called Judgment of Princeton and sponsored by the American Association of Wine Economists, “New Jersey held its own,” she said.
Four JG’s has garnered its own awards, most notably for its cabernet franc, which this year was a medal winner in the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine competition. During previous years it won other awards, including medals in Los Angeles and New York State Finger Lakes competitions.
Giunco loves what she’s doing and thinks being a vintner is “cool.”
“I think the coolest thing about the winery is our families are all involved,” she said. Both her mother and mother-in-law, who are in their 80s, and her children, when they’re home, still participate.
It’s also cool that she gets to live on a farm.
“We tell our kids this is our slice of Colts Neck,” she said. “I think they appreciate it now that they’re grown.”