How John Cifelli is Running the Ship At Unionville Vineyards

This is part of a continuing series of Q&As with members of the American wine community from across the United States. Vintner Magazine will share business and personal insights from winery owners, vintners, marketing managers, sales directors, QCQA staff and others to help you get to know each other better in the industry and learn more to better develop your own brand.

John Cifelli — General Manager, Unionville Vineyards — New Jersey

Unionville Vineyards manages and sources grapes from six vineyards, including three estate vineyards, spread across three New Jersey counties. The grapes used in their wines are the product of a variety of soil types, macroclimates, and topography that represent the region’s terroir.

Unionville’s home vineyard is an 88.7 acre farm that was once part of the largest peach orchard in the United States. The farm was split off as a dowry present when one of the original owner’s daughters was married in 1856. The main house and the oldest section of the winery building were built in 1858. It later became a dairy farm before being sold to developers in the 1960s.

The property was purchased in 1980 with the goal of saving the farm, returning the land to its fruit growing tradition and starting the Unionville Vineyards. The first Unionville vines were planted in 1987 and the winery opened to the public on April 1, 1993.

The first vines were a field of French-American hybrid varieties such as Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc, but classic European Vinifera varieties that include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling were eventually added.

For this edition’s Vintner Q&A, Vintner Magazine visited with General Manager John Cifelli.

VINTNER: How has Unionville’s business strategy evolved to help it grow and stay competitive?
CIFELLI: We have shifted focus away from public and private events and we pivoted away from restaurant sales which I think are a risky proposition at this time. Instead, I am working to sell more wine in food stores, which are much more secure in the COVID era, and direct to consumers, both on-site and online. We have incentivized club subscriptions, expanded our outdoor hospitality spaces, and created a curated tasting experience that both satisfies health and safety concerns, and makes guests feel welcome and special.

VINTNER: What changes did your winery make during the pandemic that you plan to keep around long term, and how have they benefited Unionville Vineyards?
CIFELLI: I think we will remain tasting-by-appointment. We are enjoying visits from more serious wine enthusiasts who recognize quality. All restrictions were dropped in May in New Jersey. My team is comfortable filling the room up again, but the appointment-only model allows us to offer a better experience to guests, and allows for better management of labor, which is important due to inflation in the labor market and shortage of people looking for work.

VINTNER: Who is your mentor in the industry and why? What have you learned from them?
CIFELLI: Cam Stark was the general manager at Unionville when I was the tasting room manager. Cam proved to me that world class wine could be made in New Jersey. Previously, I worked in New Jersey restaurants and I was not a believer.

VINTNER: What idea did you or your team come up with lately that has been a big benefit to how your winery functions?
CIFELLI: We decided to invest in a half dozen stainless steel, smokeless fireplaces. We light and tend the fires for any party that purchases a case of wine, undiscounted. It’s kept our weekends busy and profitable during colder weather. It will be interesting to see who will come out for a fireside glass of wine with a foot of snow around them!

VINTNER: If you had one business strategy that you could implement to better the wine industry, what would it be?
CIFELLI: Grow local. Wine at its pinnacle represents the place it is grown, otherwise it is just another adult beverage. Through my work with The Winemakers Co-Op (www.thewinemakersco-op.com) we are constantly banging the drum for New Jersey wineries to grow New Jersey grapes. I think it’s working.

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