While it may sound unbelievable, when and where I grew up speakeasies were still in existence. I grew up in Southern New Jersey, what we call South Jersey, of Jersey Shore fame. As far as when, that rests with me. There were many fascinating things about visiting speakeasies with my parents, one of which is that my mother was learning to make her own alcoholic drinks. We went regularly to one which featured the white lightning of the owner and another featuring homemade wines.
My mother was a very idiosyncratic woman. She liked drinking the white lightning perhaps a bit too much. On the other hand, at the other speakeasy we’d visit, she quickly became captivated with the idea of making her own wine. From there, she went about going to antique shops, in the ‘olde’ town of Swedesboro, to find just the right crocks, as the vessel in which she’d make her wines.
To my untrained nose, her wine-making was a foul affair. What else could it be in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, so distant from what we know as wine country? Still, I saw care and love in her crafting of her simple country wines. She favored the local fruits, and though young, I still remember them, particularly her strawberry wine. Her wine-making stage lasted through my teenage years into college. She didn't mind giving me a taste every now and then for my opinion. What she didn't realize is I was tasting wine elsewhere, at parties out with my friends.
My palette wasn't educated, to say the least but perhaps this was the early beginnings of my wine tasting. Some may look down on fruity country wines such as those made with strawberries. Even at a young age, I could see there was a wide range in tastes in these wines. As I recall, my mother’s wine was at first sweet but then it took on a greater complexity.
I abhorred the sickeningly sweet, one note, cloying wines my friends would pick up. Her wine captured the smells that filled my senses on long car rides to town. Somehow she had picked out just the right strawberries from roadside farmer’s stands that while sweet, retained deeper notes that stabilized them. Most likely they were ultimately grounded by the earth in which they grew.
Her wine had something you don’t hear about a lot—it had heart, sprinkled with the depth and aromas created by the humus-tinged earth from which it was made. That fertile soil is what gives New Jersey its identity as the Garden State, yielding Jersey tomatoes and gorgeous eggplants. However educated I become in fine wines, my mind often wanders back to that homemade strawberry one created with love in simpler times by a person I love, long gone but not forgotten.