COLUMBIA, NJ---When it comes to wine making, Paul Ritter and his daughter Jessica, know that success is on the vine. What started as a hobby in the basement of their family home, has evolved into the Brook Hollow Winery, a 10 ½ acre vineyard tucked away in the heart of the Delaware Water Gap in the town of Columbia.
As he was winding down a 29-year career with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Paul had an interest in making wine and decided to initially make it at home. “We planted two varieties of grapes in the front yard, with 2,000 vines in the front yard,” said Paul.
The idea of opening a winery somewhere down the road didn’t come until 2006. It was then that Paul decided it was time to see if he could take his hobby and turn it into a full time business. So he leased some retail space and land on a local farm.
“When we moved from the home to commercial space, we were only doing wine tastings on the weekends,” said Paul. “We took it slow and wanted to see what the reaction would be to our wines.”
Three years later, Paul realized it would work on a larger scale. So in 2011 he went to work looking for property that he could buy. Initially, he approached the owner of the land he was leasing. However, the owner wasn’t quite ready to sell the property. So Paul decided to reach out to other landowners in the area.
After taking a look at the local tax map, he wrote four property owners, to gauge their interest in selling their property. He received a response from one land owner who wanted to put a storage space facility on the property, but could not gain the necessary permits and variances from the township to build the structure.
With property now available to purchase, Paul quickly turned to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for help with the financing. His next step was taking his business plan to Square 1 Bank, an SBA Preferred Lender. “The Preferred Lenders Program (PLP) is part of SBA's effort to streamline the procedures necessary to provide financial assistance to the small business community,” said SBA New Jersey District Director Al Titone. “Under this program, SBA delegates the final credit decision and most servicing and liquidation authority and responsibility to carefully selected PLP lenders, like Square 1 Bank.”
Paul worked with Mike Tironi, a representative of Square 1 Bank and was approved for $1.25 million SBA guaranteed loan, which enabled Paul to purchase the land, construct a tasting room combined with enough space and equipment necessary to produce wine.
“Considering the size of our loan, the application process was seamless,” said Paul. “Without the SBA’s backing, I am not sure if we could have secured the loan through a conventional bank loan.”
“This is a textbook success story,” said Titone. “Paul Ritter did everything the right way. He started from his home making wine as a hobby. When he was confident enough to start his own winery, he started out slowly and built a loyal following. Then he took a major step two years ago when he wanted to purchase his own land and build a winery that has now become a destination in Warren County. The SBA was happy to team up with Square 1 Bank to provide the necessary funding to make the Brook Hollow Winery a success.”
Today, the Brook Hollow Winery produces approximately 10,000 gallons of wine, offering its customers 12 varieties of red and white wines. Signature red wines include Cabernet Franc, Brook Hollow Red, Chambourcin Reserve and Rain. White wines include Riesling, Cayuga White, Chardonnay and Sequoia. White wines run about $13.50 a bottle and red wines range from $16 to $25 a bottle.
“The soil in the Warren Hills Viticulture Area is comprised of limestone and shale,” said Paul. “It is a well-drained soil and very favorable for producing my dry wines.”
And if that weren’t enough, Brook Hollow Winery offers a limited edition of a cranberry wine each year. “We purchase 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of NJ cranberries,” said Paul. “We produce 10,000 bottles of cranberry wine and we sell out every year.”
For the most part Paul and Jessica work the winery full time. “Jess helps make the wine, run and design the website, does all the art and graphic design, conducting tastings, planting and pruning,” said Paul. “We have many great family and friends that volunteer with much of the tasting room duties along with some of the pruning around the first of the year and the fall harvest around late September or early October.”
Brook Hollow Winery has a number of programs and promotions to engage their customers. From educational seminars on topics like pruning a vine and food and wine pairing to its Adopt-a –Vine program designed for wine lovers. “Our Adopt-A-Vine program is the perfect gift,” said Paul. “You get to experience the entire growing process over the year. You can come out and visit your vine or receive periodical updates and photos on how your vine’s progress. At the end of the year participants receive two bottles of wine and a wine and food pairing dinner.
Wine tastings take place Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. There is also an Open Mic Night where local musicians entertain on the third Friday of each month from 6:30 to 10:00 p.m. either in the wine tasting room or the outdoor pavilion. According to Paul, the outdoor pavilion has become popular for weddings between May and October and can accommodate up to 250 guests.
“We charge a nominal fee and we encourage people to bring in their own caterer,” said Paul. “However, if we are asked to coordinate an event, we will jump in, but the idea is to bring people into the winery. We also will make our wine tasting room available, it has a 70 guest seating capacity and it is a great venue to hold an event.”
Even during wine tastings, people are encouraged to bring their own food. “During Open Mic Night we bring in a caterer with a portable wood fire pizza oven and sell pizza, but that’s really the extent of it,” said Paul.
The winery is also part of Vintage North Jersey, a collaboration of 10 northern New Jersey wineries in Sussex, Warren, Hunterdon and Mercer Counties. “It’s a great way to mass market our winery,” said Paul. “We also want to be part of the community and that’s why we donate proceeds from one of our white and red wines to the Lakota Wolf Preserve, located down the road from us.”
Already, Paul has his eye on expansion, possibly purchasing more property and adding an additional 10,000 vines.
“We have developed quite the following,” said Paul. ‘It’s a good time to be making wine. When you grow the right grape here in NJ you can produce a great wine.”
And Paul Ritter will be the first to tell you that success is on the vine.