Julianne (Jules) Donnini is the winemaker at Pilesgrove, New Jersey’s Auburn Road Vineyard. The winery was founded in 2003 by her and her husband Scott, both former Philadelphia-based lawyers; who left the corporate world and never looked back. Jules is a former litigator and a self-taught winemaker; we talked to Jules about her European approach to winemaking and the winery’s Euro-centric positioning – they have an après ski winter party and an on-site enoteca that serves wood fired pizzas – and espresso.
When did you first develop an interest in wine?
JD: In the late 1990s we started to really develop an interest in wine. In those days (the situation is much improved today) the wine selections were really limited locally with Pennsylvania’s state controlled alcohol system. We began shopping for our burgeoning passion in New Jersey wine stores which had a much more diverse selection; coupled with visits to family in the area who were generous wine collectors; we fell hard for Italian wines; and were big Zinfandel fans.
What galvanized you and Scott to make the leap from the legal field to opening a winery?
JD: With two young children and working really long hours in the legal field our quality of life was not what we wanted. We were entertaining dreams of starting our own winery; but became serious when Scott’s father passed away suddenly right on the heels of 9/11. The idea of life being short really hit home. We had tasted local Pennsylvania wines; but were more impressed by those from New Jersey – Bill & Penni Heritage’s wines were the first ones we had and we were further encouraged to look to New Jersey. We started with four partners; began looking for land in New Jersey and took a leap.
Mitigating risk comes naturally to us both; our goal was to make this our primary jobs and source of income; but we did have an escape plan if needed. Thankfully we never needed to pull the trigger on that and have been making wine here for the past twenty years.
Your winery and wines are Italian-inspired, what particular regions/Italian wine styles serve as inspirations for you?
JD: Super Tuscans were our inspiration; we loved how their dedication to making the best quality wines for their sites created the category that had to be classified outside the official Chianti DOCG system at the time (editor’s note: if you’re not familiar with the history of Super Tuscans see Wine Spectator’s definition here). We also enjoyed the food friendly styles, marked with crisp acidity, moderate alcohol and good fruit concentration. Inspired by those wines we loved to drink, the first grapes we planted were Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese.
What do “European” or old world wines represent for you? Has that changed overtime?
JD: Although I realize this is not necessarily true today, my initial impression of European wines compared to California or other new world wines was they were more region-specific; built to be food friendly first and foremost, and more typically small scale, family-run operations. Once we started digging further into Italian wines, we migrated to Piemonte and started drinking a lot of Barbera and in some ways that broadened my understanding of Italian wines but with the same common themes – often an indigenous varietal focus, with pronounced acidity that were well balanced. Also, the vintage variation that was and still evident in European wines as opposed to California is more reflective of the climate here in New Jersey. Once we started growing Cabernet Franc; we also began getting to know French wines; and a visit to the Loire to taste their benchmark Cabernet Francs really underscored my love of wines that express a sense of place, and what I strive to emulate in our wines.
How did you decide who would take on the winemaking role, and did you consider hiring a winemaker initially?
JD: Very serendipitously! As I mentioned when we first bought land we had some friends who came along on the journey as partners. Scott and a partner were experimenting with a home winemaking kit that I still recall them calling ‘fool proof’. After I realized they never even read the instructions, I suggested they focus on the operations and other elements and I started digging into the winemaking. Since we had made this venture our primary vocation and source of income for both of our families, we never considered hiring a winemaker and never have. Although we have worked with some wonderful consultants like Virginia-based Tom Payette who has been indispensable to us.
Do you have any formal training as a winemaker?
No formal training, however I did take a UC Davis winemaking course remotely, and have read countless books and done numerous seminars over the years. I did have to take a chemistry course which was a prerequisite for UC Davis, which was of course very helpful. I have found I learned much more from attending East coast focused trade events and speaking with local winemakers; UC Davis and other US-based wine courses can be so focused on California, and we have different climate issues, pests and disease pressures that just don’t translate.
How is being self taught an advantage in a technical field like winemaking?
JD: Winemaking is such a physically and mentally demanding job, and learning on the job has been both rewarding and frustrating at times. I think it has afforded me the luxury of not being too bogged down by hard science, and leaning into the artistry part of the job a bit more. You don’t know what you don’t know – and that can let you be more experimental and open to new techniques.
What specific winemaking techniques do you feel are more European than Californian? For example – grape handling, fermentation vessels and temperatures, aging vessels (type and duration), yeast selection, etc.
JD: I think that the lines are continually blurring here. I wouldn’t say specific techniques are more associated with European winemaking – but that laser-focus on creating the best wines possible from the land; continually learning which sites match best with which rootstocks and varieties, and leaning into vintage variation year after year keeps me inspired.
Have you encountered any resistance to others in the industry or from consumers as a woman?
JD: Not really. Some people are surprised to learn I am the winemaker as opposed to my husband; but it’s been more curiosity, or some off-hand comments. I think people are becoming more used to seeing women in winemaking; we happily have a few other female winemakers in New Jersey and Sloane D’Souza, my assistant winemaker is fantastic.
Do you think women are particularly well-suited to be winemakers, what advantages/disadvantages are there?
JD: I think women are well-suited to the role; but it is a lot of physical work which is not everyone’s ideal – no matter your gender. I think women tend to be more detail oriented, more attentive and more flexible in general – and those are characteristics that are really important for winemaking. Women also tend to be great tasters, which is a huge advantage.
You have modeled Auburn Rd on an a gritourismo model, does this translate in the Garden State? What challenges and opportunities have you encountered?
JD: Like most wineries in the Garden State we’re ideally situated within a two hours drive of major population centers; in our case Philadelphia, New York City and Wilmington, Delaware. I can speak to the appeal of connecting with the land when you live in an urban setting. Visiting a small scale farm where we employ local staff, collaborate with local artists on our labels and work with local chefs on special dinners like our Dinner in the Vineyard series has resonated. We really lean into that messaging, that direct connection with consumers and giving people a place to connect with the land and their surroundings. Some small-minded regulations have been obstacles, but we’ve had real success, and more importantly have a lot of fun and that shines through.