What do you do after a 20-year career in the Army, after having lived all over the world, when you finally get to retire and do what you want?
Plant grapes, of course.
That has always been Jim Jenks’ dream. When he and his wife, Kathy, first married, he was stationed in Germany. That’s when he got interested in wine and winemaking.
“This is the 21st house we’ve lived in,” says Kathy. “We’ve never lived in one house long enough to plant grapes!”
It’s a bright, clear summer day when I turn into Unami Ridge Winery, outside of Quakertown. The long driveway leads to a stately, beautiful home, new construction but obviously built with intention and care.
As I later discover, Jim designed the home. After retiring from the army, he got an associate degree in Architecture.
“This is our dream house,” Kathy explains. “We’ve lived in so many places that we knew what we wanted and didn’t want.”
In fact, before they even broke ground for the house, Jim planted 1,000 vines. That was 2005. The next year, he planted another 1,000 vines. Now with 2300 vines, they grow six varieties of grapes on 4½ acres of land. They received their federal license in 2008 and their state license in 2009 (which allows for sales). The tasting room opened in 2010.
None of this surprises me as I sit chatting with Jim and Kathy. Jim retired a Lieutenant Colonel from the army. His white hair and grandfatherly demeanor don’t fool me. Behind his tanned, square face, and twinkling blue eyes, you see a man who goes after what he wants and does it well.
“It’s really a hobby gone amok,” says Kathy with a smile. But she’s definitely proud of what Jim has achieved.
It’s a family affair too. Both Jim and Kathy grew up in the area; both went to Pennridge High School. Their daughter and grandchildren live nearby. Everyone helps out — pruning, picking, bottling, corking, labeling, or selling in the tasting room. The Jenks’ 13 year old granddaughter, Emily, sounds like a sommelier as she explains the wines to visitors, and leads them through the winery’s selection.
“We’re definitely a ‘mom and pop’ operation,” says Kathy.
It is a small operation to be sure, but definitely a labor of love. Everything is done by hand, Kathy explains as we stand by the tanks. “We hand bottle and hand cork,” she says, showing me the equipment that they use.
The Jenks only bottle when their inventory in the tasting room is running low. With 800 gallons of wine, and only ten tanks, they are running out of tank space.
And because they are still a young winery, and money doesn’t grow on vines, instead of using barrels, they put oak staves in the tank after the first rack (racking is when the wine is moved from one tank or barrel to another, leaving sediment behind), and they rack every 3 months.
Let’s talk wine
The Jenks are growing only vinifera grapes, that is, grapes native to Europe and the Mediterranean. “No hybrids,” says Jim. So, for example, you’ll find Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir — but no Chambourcin, a hybrid grape popular in the Mid-Atlantic states.
Almost all of their wine is grown in their own vineyard. The only exceptions are the UR Blushing which includes Cayuga juice from Beekman Orchards in Boyertown and their Apple Wine, which is made from juice from Zeigler’s in Lansdale and Penn Vermont Farm in Bedminster.
I ask Jim how things are looking this year. “Everything looks good. Last year we had no Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon because of the harsh winters. The winter of 2014 killed one-third of our Cabernet Sauvignon vines.”
But he’s pleased with how the grapes taste. When I was there, the Pinot Noir vines were producing red, sweet grapes. They were covered in netting because the starlings like them also.
In the tasting room
While Jim’s favorites are his 2011 Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir (which is a blend of two years), their most popular wine is one you’ve probably never heard of.
Scheurebe (pron: Choi-rābee) is a German-style semi-dry wine made from grape clones of Riesling and Sylvaner varieties.
“It’s a variety unique to us. We are the only ones we know of growing it in Pennsylvania,” says Jim.
The tasting room is small but cozy, with just enough room for half a dozen people sipping and a few family members pouring. As is traditional, I started with the whites, and then moved into the reds.
(Disclaimer: I am not a wine expert, so forgive me if I lack all the adjectives often used in describing wines. You’ll just have to come to the winery to evaluate the wines yourself.)
I’m not a big fan of Chardonnay because it is often too oaked, but I was willing to try Unami’s unoaked Chardonnay. It was fruity and crisp, and, as you might expect, is fermented in stainless steel, not oak.
When I nosed the oaked Chardonnay, I could definitely smell the wood. But the wine had a sweetish and buttery taste, which perhaps made up for the oak (!).
After hearing Jim talk about the Scheurebe, I was intrigued. The wine has a tangy smell. It starts sweet and finishes dry. The semi-sweet Riesling was next and it is definitely drier than your typical Riesling.
For those who love sweeter wines, try Unami’s Apple wine, with flavors from seven apple varieties. It was sweet but also had a drier end taste than I expected.
The UR Blushing is a blend of Cayuga from Beekman Orchards and Cabernet Franc juice from Unami. I don’t like blush wines so I skipped this one. But it’s there if you like a sweet blush.
Onto the reds! Beginning with the 2011 Cabernet Franc, which was dry with definite tannins. Unami describes it as “full-bodied red, loaded with hints of oak, well-balanced with soft tannins and subtle berry flavor.”
The 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon has a fruity nose but a tart bite as is noted by Unami in their description: “intense flavors and full-bodied, complex red wine. Fruity with hints of berries, plums and cherries.”
I found the Pinot Noir the most interesting. It is complex and dry, but I could definitely taste berry and plum.
Tastings are $5 per person which includes a Unami Ridge souvenir 10 oz. tasting glass. The wines range in price from $9.50 to $15.
When I ask Jim what plans he has in store for the winery, he talks about doing more blending of wines. He loves working in the vineyard and meeting people in the tasting room. Kathy loves gardening, and you will see her beautiful flowers all over the property.
But what the Jenks most want is for more people to come to the winery. “We’re a little out-of-the-way,” says Jim, “so we want people to know we are here.”
And as spring finally approaches, visiting Unami Ridge Winery is the perfect weekend day trip.
Unami Ridge Winery
2144 Kumry Road
Quakertown, PA 18951
Click here for more information on Bucks County Wine Trail events.