How a Developer Fulfilled His Long-Held Desire to Build a Winery
Brock Vinton brought White Horse Winery to fruition last year in the flatlands of South Jersey.
Brock Vinton’s White Horse Winery, complete with a large tasting room, is a five-minute drive from exit 33 of the Atlantic City Expressway in Hammonton, N.J.//Photo by Javier Diaz
Brock Vinton sits in a booth at Buckley’s Tavern late on a Friday afternoon, just as the stop-for-a-drink-on-the-way-home crowd is being edged out by older couples coming in for an early dinner. The famous weekend partiers of Buckley’s will roll in later.
Vinton, who made his fortune as a real estate developer and is CEO of Wilmington-based Commonwealth Group, is well-known, so several people pause as they pass his table or give a nod or a wave. When Buckley’s co-owner, Tom Hannum strolls over in his chef whites, the two start discussing business. Both are colleagues on the local dining scene, though Vinton’s culinary ventures do not come up. He is the mostly silent partner with husband-and-wife restaurateurs Bryan Sikora and Andrea Loconti in Cocina Lolo in Wilmington and in the recently opened Hearth Kitchen in the Shoppes at Longwood Village in Kennett Square.
But Vinton is here to talk about wine. “What are you having?” he asks after Hannum drifts to another table. It’s a red pour from Daou, a winery in Paso Robles, Calif., whose owners made their fortune in healthcare systems before starting their impressive winery. Vinton isn’t familiar with the wine, so he orders a glass.
Though graying, Vinton is still movie-star handsome as he nears 70—the flashing eyes, the strong jaw, the swept-back coiffure—but he laments one facet of getting older: He may not be around when some of the wines he has bought reach their peak. He will probably not buy wines from Bordeaux’s much-discussed 2016 vintage, which is now being compared to the 1986, which he recalls fondly.
“I bought first-growth futures that year, and it took, in my opinion, at least 15 years for some of those wines to reopen,” he says. “Now that I’m getting older, I don’t know if I will have the taste buds necessary to enjoy the 2016, if that is the case with them.”
But if Vinton knows actuarial tables may not favor his investing in 2016 Bordeaux futures, a practice where wine is sold at a discount a couple of years before it is ready to ship, that didn’t discourage him from fulfilling one long-held dream—to build his own winery, which he opened last summer.
He expects to produce the very highest quality wines there.
The drive through the South Jersey countryside along the Atlantic City Expressway is a study in contrasts, as four lanes of heavy traffic speed in both directions past bucolic farmland stretching to either side. Unlike the South of France, it is perhaps not picturesque enough to inspire a realist painter, but it is flat and calm enough to entice exploration by packs of weekend bicyclists.
From exit 33 outside of Hammonton, it is just a five-minute drive to Vinton’s winery, a long-enough pause for one to ponder how the thought of making superior wines in this area, previously known only for its blueberries and as a pine-barrens alternative to Mafioso burials at sea, is no longer laughable, as it seemed to be only a decade ago.
At that time, New Jersey lagged behind other East Coast states in the pursuit of world-class, home-grown wines. By the turn of the century, New York and Virginia had already pioneered fine-wine production, and new wineries in Maryland and southeastern Pennsylvania were quickly making up lost ground.
Yet today, wine connoisseurs and those in the trade are no longer surprised by discovering a fantastic bottle of wine produced in New Jersey—or anywhere else from North Carolina north to Connecticut. The East Coast, long the ugly duckling of American wine-growing, has turned into a lovely swan, using classic European producers, not Californians, as their weather-related role models. Still, Vinton admits that he was at first skeptical of having this bucket on his list filled with Jersey red.
On this weekday morning, it’s easy to find White Horse Winery by following the signs or using simple GPS instructions. Vinton’s newest creation is quietly tucked away in a rural setting at the intersection of three lightly traveled farm lanes. There are fields of young, but already producing, vines on three sides of the winery and visitors’ center, a handsome collection of old and new that speaks of serious investment.
Vinton bounds down the steps from the tasting room dressed in slacks, an open-collar pink shirt, burgundy sweater and an olive-colored down jacket, followed by Macie, the winery’s resident black Lab. High atop the roof behind Vinton, a black weathervane of a horse in full gallop, the winery’s emblem, is perched atop a cupola. Vinton brought in Hugh Lofting, a Chester County builder famed for his open-beam structures, to construct a spacious tasting room.
Chester County builder Hugh Lofting constructed the winery’s spacious tasting room, which features a long bar in the center and a counter at one end for wine sales. Outside are more tables and a fire pit.//Photo by Javier Diaz
“We bought 40 acres here, and recently added 18 just across the street,” Vinton says. There are currently 15 acres in vines. Vinton and his 46-year old son and partner, B.J. Vinton, who manages daily operations, plan to plant about five acres of vines a year over the next three years. Before the Vintons turned it into White Horse Winery, the property was a training facility for sporting dogs. A realtor found it for Vinton not long after he began his search for a suitable winery and vineyard property.
“Our first wine—reds—were produced in 2013, and they spent 22 to 24 months maturing in oak,” Vinton says as he tours the property. Those first wines were made from grapes grown chiefly in the Lodi area of California’s Central Valley, then transported across the country in refrigerated trucks, a practice a few other well-financed wineries on the East Coast have employed, especially during their start-up periods. But already, the Vintons have begun harvesting grapes from their vineyards, and from them they have produced a well-received barrel-fermented Chardonnay and a rosé.
For now, they plan to continue making wines with both California and estate grapes. Early last spring, White Horse bottled 2,600 cases—just over 31,000 bottles—and Brock says he wants to soon work up to 10,000 cases a year.
Father and son came to White Horse via different paths. Brock grew up in southern Delaware, where his family had lived in the Milford area since the 1700s. After attending college at the University of South Carolina, where he was enrolled in ROTC, he entered the Navy. Friends in the service introduced him to fine wine, which he explored further on trips to Europe and California after leaving the service.
“I had only been familiar with Mateus,” he laughs, “but I fell in love with Burgundies. Then I switched to Bordeaux not long after because I found they were somewhat more affordable.” Later, he was introduced to California wines. His wife, Yvonne, is from the Lodi area, and through a network of friends he became acquainted with the Fourmeaux family, which owned Chateau Potelle in Napa Valley. The Vintons vacationed with them in France.
The Vintons were also introduced to the owner of a châteaux in Bordeaux by the Bronfman family, major investors in DuPont during the 1980s and 1990s through their ownership of Seagram, which at the time also owned Chateau & Estate wine importers. Vinton later invested in Potelle and Chalone, a pioneer California winery, and in vineyards in the Paso Robles area, but in recent years has divested these holdings.
Brock Vinton (right) and his son B.J., are partners in the winery. B.J. manages daily operations at the 58-acre property.//Photo by Javier Diaz
B.J. (Brock) J. Vinton II—got a much earlier start as a wine geek. “When I was 16, I interned in Cognac with the Camus producers,” he says. “Dad knew someone from their marketing group. I tied up vines in the vineyards and collected snails—the best I ever ate. Since I was younger and smaller, they used me to climb up and top off the barrels with what they had lost to the angels’ share [evaporation].”
B.J., relaxed and gregarious, quickly learned French and became a total Francophile. He studied winemaking in Bordeaux and Beaujolais and even worked for a year as a bank teller in Lyon. Returning to the United States, he put aside dreams of owning a winery and founded an engineering company that developed patents in wind turbine technology.
“We have some head butting,” B.J. says of working with his father, “but because we’re family, we have to work through any disagreements. And as you get older, you realize you have fewer years to spend with your family. So we’re enjoying it.”
The third crucial person at the winery, the winemaker of record, has perhaps the best story to tell. Now 32, Seferino Cotzojay left his native Guatemala at 15, was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, and lived in a youth facility until he was 18. He worked his way to the East Coast, where he began working in the vineyards at Bedell Cellars on Long Island in 2005. Cotzojay, short and solidly built with a beaming smile, close-cropped hair and a beard and mustache combo, worked his way up to assistant winemaker. He was profiled in a Wall Street Journal article before the Vintons hired him to oversee winemaking at White Horse.
Making wines at White Horse is fairly traditional. White grapes are taken straight to the press. The juice is cold-settled, then fermented in stainless steel, except for the barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Reds are cold soaked for about three days before being warmed for inoculation with yeast for fermentation. Reds are finished in new and used oak barrels for several months before being fined and filtered, then bottled.
The red wines produced at White Horse include varietal selections of Merlot, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc, as well as red blends. The whites are Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer varietals and white blends. All the grapes planted at the Jersey winery are vinifera, or classical varieties, except for Chambourcin, a French-America hybrid popular with East Coast winemakers. Hybrid grapes, which are winter hardy and prodigious producers, have their detractors, but well-made Chambourcin tastes somewhat similar to Gamay used in Beaujolais.
“Did you know that Jamie Wyeth did our label?” Brock asks as he begins opening bottles at the bar. He and Wyeth have long tasted wine together, and Vinton finally prevailed on his friend to interpret the White Horse emblem as label art. Against a starry-blue background, Jamie Wyeth’s horse runs, head held high, mane flowing.
Artist Jamie Wyeth designed the White Horse label.//Photo by Javier Diaz
As crucial as making the wine and clever packaging are, the Vintons have given equal attention to marketing. The tasting room is large, with a long bar in the center. The bar is surrounded by tables. There is a counter at one end for wine sales. Outside are more tables and a fire pit.
When the Vintons opened the White Horse tasting room last summer, they were surprised by the immediate turnout. In addition to locals and people stopping by while in transit between Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore, there is also a growing winery tourism industry in the southern part of the state. “There are 23 wineries in the Outer Coastal Plain,” Brock says, “which is our local appellation.” Several of the wineries have made prize-winning bottles, in both local and national competitions.
B.J. delights in planning and executing events to generate visitors. “I like to educate as well as entertain,” he says. “The other night, for example, we had a large group of restaurant sommeliers visit, and we had three teams of them make their own blends from the components that we use in our Vintner’s Blend red wine. They loved it.”
Other events include Food Truck Friday, musical entertainment on the weekends and—a big moneymaker for many regional wineries—weddings and other social events. Macie, the winery dog, has become so popular that a winery party held for her birthday recently drew 150 people and 20 dogs. “It was hilarious,” B.J. says. In addition, there is a White Horse wine club that offers various perks and discounts, according to the number of cases committed to annually.
Unlike West Coast wineries, with their large distribution networks, most East Coast wineries sell the largest shares of their wine production “at the cellar door,” as the continentals put it. That means higher margins, but it also puts the pressure on owners to keep consumers coming back. In many ways, East Coast tasting rooms have developed into social clubs by offering the same neighborhood drawing power local pubs once had in England.
Though the Vintons realize the importance of this aspect of sales and marketing, Brock is also developing a good distribution network. White Horse already has 15 retail outlets in South Jersey, and he plans to place White Horse on the wine lists of his two restaurants. “We hope to be self-sustaining within a year,” Brock says, which would be a major financial achievement.
But the Vintons’ urgency to get things done may put that objective on hold. In late April, they decided to green-light two capital improvement projects that had previously been on the back burner. “We are moving ahead with a seven-bedroom B&B across the road in a farmhouse we bought,” Vinton says, “and will be starting a new 6,000-square-foot fermentation and production facility across from our current crush pad.”
So now, after spending the past three decades as a consumer and investor who watched California grow into a world-class wine region, Vinton is watching White Horse and other New Jersey wineries begin the same transformation. And he is enjoying that—but this time from the pouring side of the tasting table, as young buyers lug cases of his wine home for aging in their cellars.