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Bubbling Forth: Why Chester County's J. Maki Winery and Its Champagne Caused an International Stir

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J. Maki Winery owners Jim Haldy and Janet Maki in their vineyard. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)It’s late March, and on a morning left sugar-frosted by a predawn dusting of snow, the vines at J. Maki Winery are bare. Mother Nature’s little late-season joke has some shaking their heads over when spring might actually arrive. But around here, thoughts turn to optimism for the bounty to come.

The namesake of the award-winning winery is already out among the vines, bracing herself against the chill that lingers in the naturally terraced valley near Elverson in northern Chester County.

After a winter spent digging through inches of snow to prune the delicate and persnickety vines, the frosty ground comes as almost a respite countryside for Janet Maki. Now, she’s free to roam the 18,000 vines—from the chardonnay high on the hill to the rows of pinot noir, cabernet franc, merlot, viognier, petit verdot and sirah elsewhere on the property—with only mud and the cold as her obstacles.

These hills, gently descending from one of the highest elevations in the surrounding countryside, have provided the optimum conditions for growing the chardonnay grapes that render what’s regarded as some of the best champagne produced anywhere.
 

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Maki points with obvious pride to the ridge that runs along the highest point on the property and for about 10 miles around. Up there grows the vineyard’s prized chardonnay grapes, born of the intense sun on the south-facing slope, the deep Chester County schist, and the well-drained limestone beneath. It’s this ridge—and indeed the entire property—that in many ways mimics the finest wine-growing regions of France and Italy, while still providing the distinctive terroir—a hint of the tastes and smells of where the wine was born.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of a remarkable event, when Maki summoned her resolve and entered her pride and joy—a 1997 blanc de blancs that had yielded stunning results—into the prestigious Vinalies Internationales, one of the most highly regarded wine competitions in Europe.

That, of course, was no easy task. Say “champagne” in the European Union, and you’d better be talking about sparkling white wine produced in the Champagne region of France. The U.S. honors the country’s request that “champagne” be reserved only for French products.

As a result, most American producers of champagne label it “sparkling wine” made via méthode Champenoise. It’s essentially the same process put forth in 1638 by Benedictine brother Dom Pierre Pérignon. It requires the mind of a chemist, the soul of an artist, and the patience of, well, a monk.
 

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Maki had already been making champagne since the early 1990s, with many of those vintages winning or taking silver in regional or national competitions. But it wasn’t until a trip to France that she realized her champagne was very much like those made by small producers that most Americans never got to taste.

“Pennsylvania is not known for international-class medium-dry wines, so we knew we had to have a breadth of product and style that could compete at an international level—or no one would take us seriously,” says Maki.

In 2001, after someone encouraged her to enter the Vinalies Internationales, the idea seemed less and less crazy—particularly when the 1997 blanc de blancs made its debut. “This vintage was a cut above anything we’d ever produced,” she says. “The day we released it, we sold half of it. The response was incredible.”

Winning against the best France had to offer, however, was a long shot by anyone’s reckoning. But Maki had a few things working in her favor.

Rather than shipping her entry to the West Coast to be carried to Europe by container ship with all of the California entries, she chose to lug those six bottles with her on a plane to France. There, she hired a translator to assist her. He not only helped with the language barrier, but also introduced them at local wineries and experimental stations for the next few days. “It was really a wonderful insider’s trip that you’d otherwise never get the opportunity to have,” Maki says. “They treated us just like family.”
 

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On the final day with the translator, Maki asked if he could assist her with navigating the post office bureaucracy to mail their entry. After reading the address, he realized the destination was near where he worked and offered to hand-carry the champagne for them. They agreed, and the next thing they knew, he was driving away with their six bottles.

No word came for months—until the results were announced. The ’97 blanc de blancs had won the gold medal for champagne, leaving the judges and much of the European wine community a bit taken aback.

Maki and husband Jim Haldy suspect that another advantage was the vineyard’s name at the time—French Creek Ridge Winery—and the fact that it was personally delivered by a Frenchman. “We assume the process got streamlined and [our entry] got put into the category with all the other champagnes,” Haldy says. “They were probably very surprised in the end to learn that we were not French.”

The J. Maki story is reminiscent of another wine tale, one that was recounted in the 2008 film Bottle Shock. Alan Rickman portrays Steven Spurrier, an actual British sommelier based in Paris who set off to the United States in 1976 to find wines to compete against French vintages in a blind taste test. Against a backdrop of strained family relationships and European wine snobbery, the film essentially recounts the moment when the Napa Valley wine region gained international recognition.
 

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The similarity to Bottle Shock ends with the French judging each wine the best. Bottles of the winning wines in Spurrier’s blind tasting now reside in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. J. Maki Winery’s appeal to the Smithsonian, meanwhile, was rejected.

“The California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon in the ’70s had a big impact,” says Haldy. “It launched a whole industry. Our win has not had a national impact—though no one could ever refute the significance of our award.”

Even local impact has been limited. While Southeastern Pennsylvania boasts its fair share of wineries, in northern Chester County—where the vineyard is surrounded by horse pastures and small family farms—there’s really no danger of a wine boom.

The vineyard is located in Warwick Township, nestled right up against the borders of Lancaster and Berks counties. It’s an area that, thanks to its historic Amish and Quaker influences, has traditionally been dry. That doesn’t prevent some Amish from stopping by J. Maki in their buggies or sending a driver to buy what they refer to as “medicine.”

It’s unlikely you’ll ever see Maki and Haldy living like they do among the sun-dappled terraces of Tuscany or Bordeaux. What you will see is the two of them working—a lot. Tending a vineyard is challenging in itself; actually making the wide varieties the winery produces is a monumental task. The cinematic version of a vineyard might be all romance and Dionysian revelry, but at a two-person operation like J. Maki, it’s a job.
 

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“This is a whole different level of farming, and most people don’t understand about the glamour thing, which probably has a lot to do with the European tradition, and everyone going to France and Italy to check things out,” Haldy says. “There, it’s a different way of life. But then you get down to the nitty-gritty of champagne, and you get down into the caves over there in France, and you see how dark and dingy and unbelievably difficult it is. When you get into the real workload, any glamour associated with it is just gone.”

For Maki and Haldy, their passion comes from the wines they produce, the personal romance they share, and their combined delight in sharing the fruits of their work with others. It’s what led Maki to continue her work after the death of her late husband, Frank, in 2004 from esophageal cancer. It’s also what drew her and Haldy—himself a survivor of rectal cancer—together.

“That’s the thing about this—you have to be passionate about it,” says Haldy.

To learn more, visit jmakiwinery.com.

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