Business lets customers sample wine-making from the ankles down

During the class, Linda Bunyan pours pinot noir grapes into a wine press. The Wine Room's 250 oak barrels hold 13,000 gallons of wine.
During the class, Linda Bunyan pours pinot noir grapes into a wine press. The Wine Room's 250 oak barrels hold 13,000 gallons of wine.
Posted: October 15, 2012

A million years passed, or so it seemed.

"Never in a million years would Jack do that," Linda Bunyan, 56, of Harleysville, insisted as she watched her bare-footed friends stomp grapes at the Wine Room of Cherry Hill.

It happened so quickly that Bunyan never saw her husband, Jack, 57, remove his shoes and socks and roll up his cuffs.

He stepped into the 3-foot-wide, 18-inch-high vat and waited, his arms spread wide. His wife hopped in and the two embraced.

They stomped and giggled like children.

It's festival time in New Jersey with wineries offering tours, tastings, and, at a select few places, slippery, slimy stomps.

The Wine Room, which does not grow its own grapes, focuses mostly on helping people make their own wine. The business operates out of an 8,000-square-foot cinder-block building in an industrial park on Esterbrook Lane, near Springdale Road.

Inside, however, the warehouse transforms to Tuscany. Murals, faux stone, and vine paintings decorate La Cucina, where wine is made and events are catered throughout the year. The owners, Kathy and Kenton Nice, call it an out-of-control hobby.

The Bunyans were part of a group of eight who recently attended a wine-making class, part of a series that goes over several months. Although they stomped, that exercise is for pictures and fun. Unless requested, foot-crushed grapes are discarded.

Dave Thornbury, 53, and his wife, Debbie, 52, also of Harleysville, Montgomery County, organized the group. They started making wine four years ago.

"It's good wine," Dave Thornbury said, showing off a 2009 Merlot his group made. He claims it is as good as $30 bottles he has purchased.

For this year's wine, the group chose to use pinot noir grapes, which the Wine Room ordered from California. Each person took turns dumping crates of grapes into a crushing machine. Next, they dumped buckets of crushed grape into fermenting vats about three feet high.

It was hard work, they said.

They tasted the grape juice with John Haulenbeek, a Wine Room chemist (he works full time for a pharmaceutical company). Haulenbeek tested the sugar content: 32 percent, ideal for wine. He taught the group about yeast, sulfites, and fermentation and offered a long list of wine trivia.

Next, the Wine Room's manager of six years and a chef by trade, Michael D'Auria (nicknamed "the customer who never left"), displayed a vat of fermented juice and gave the group a glimpse of its next class, when wine would be pressed and pumped into oak barrels.

In the third class, maturing wine will be separated from the sediment. During the last class, the group will bottle its wine with personalized labels. Instead of a diploma, each student leaves with a case of wine.

Before the end of the crushing class, however, groups get the chance to stomp grapes.

The Thornburys' daughter, Jessica, 23, a teacher from Baltimore, squeezed into the small vat with two friends, Brittany Santarpio, 24, and Morgan O'Brien, 23, also from Maryland.

There was, of course, a reference to the famous 1956 I Love Lucy episode when her parents took a turn.

"It's like Lucy and Ethel," Dave Thornbury said, laughing.

Another friend, Colm Grealy, 46, of Philadelphia, observed, "It's cold and slimy."

Grealy, who joined the group, in part, to do research for his brother who owns a wine shop in Ireland, said he never realized that good wine demanded so much work.

The Wine Room requires groups to commit to making a quarter, half, or full barrel. A barrel costs about $2,500, depending on the variety. With a group of 10, that breaks down to $250 per person or about $11 a bottle.

The fee pays for a wine tasting, hands-on classes to crush grapes, supplies, use of equipment, and warehouse storage with temperatures in the 60s. Groups that crush a full barrel produce 20 cases, or 240 bottles.

In the Wine Room, about 250 oak barrels, stacked 12 feet high and about 700 feet wide, hold 13,000 gallons of wine. The variations are numerous. California and Italian grapes are used in the fall for wine-making. Chilean imports arrive in May.

May, September, and October are the most intense months when grapes are crushed, and the Kentons spend most days overseeing operations, with the help of several employees.

Both, however, also have full-time jobs. Kevin Kenton is a business owner and an accountant. His wife is a school psychologist and educational consultant. They like wine and wanted to share what is now a 15-year passion. The couple also own a Franklinville winery, Coda Rossa.

The Wine Room is one of the few places in New Jersey that still offer stomping, once a staple at festivals. High sugar concentrations in grapes can attract bees, and crushed grapes are quite slippery. Bee swarms and injuries from falls can take the fun out of stomping.

Renault Winery in Egg Harbor hosts two stomping events each year because of the popularity. There, a Lucille Ball look-alike is available for photos reminiscent of the beloved I Love Lucy episode.

"I can remember doing this as a kid," said Nancy Bunyan, whose ancestors came from Italy and planted vines in New York to make wine and jelly.

Her husband, she said, enjoys a glass of wine, but he was not the stomping type.

Class day was not typical for him, however. That morning on the golf course, he had sunk his first hole-in-one.

Stomping grapes? Why not, he said, enjoying wine afterward. "It has been a memorable day."

Contact Barbara Boyer

at 856-779-3838, or @bbboyer on Twitter.

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