Jelly is kid stuff, right? Something you outgrew a long time ago, except for maybe a rare PB&J when the cold cuts are all gone and you’re waiting on your next paycheck to go grocery-shopping? Maybe it’s time to rethink that prejudice. Some Gardiner-based entrepreneurs, doing business under the name of Doc Schwarz Wine Jelly, are brewing up new jelly flavors that will have you looking for innovative culinary uses for what used to be a humble sandwich spread.
The business is rooted in the home winemaking hobby that the actual Doc – Eric Schwarz, whose PhD is in Electrical Engineering – took up in the early 2000s, along with a group of friends. Using grapes sourced in California, Chile and Italy, some of their product was eminently drinkable; some ended up getting poured down the drain, according to Eric’s wife, Roberta Schwarz.
Roberta became friends with another Gardiner resident, Donna Petereit, during a long tenure together of working as teachers’ aides for the New Paltz Central School District. Donna loves to cook, can and preserve locally grown produce: “I made fruit jams for years; I pickle. I know the whole process,” she says. When Donna retired, the two women started discussing the possibility of starting up a small business together. They began renting commercial kitchens periodically and experimenting with recipes, some of them incorporating Doc’s wines that didn’t get drunk up immediately.
Inspired by reading a biography of Emily Dickinson that mentioned the poet entering food contests at local fairs, Roberta inquired whether wine was a category for judged competition in the Ulster County Fair. It wasn’t, she was told. But of course, jams, jellies and preserves are a time-honored country fair staple. The two friends put their heads together and decided to try to make some jellies from wine.
“We had two weeks to figure it out. The stove was going constantly,” Roberta recalls. She brought in her two sons, Zachary and Steve, to assist with the process, and the jelly-making team carefully monitored all the variables of ingredients, proportions – especially how much pectin to use – cooking time, temperature and humidity. The business partners aren’t sharing any trade secrets, but after several failed batches, they hit on the magic formula – “on Friday at nine o’clock at night, just before the fair,” Roberta relates.
On the day of the judging, they got an excited call from a friend that one of their entries had won Second Prize. Roberta stopped by the fair to see the evidence, and was shocked to discover that another flavor they’d entered had won not only First Prize, but also Best in Show in the jams, jellies and preserves category. “There were so many ribbons you couldn’t see the jar,” she says, her voice still filled with wonderment.
After that, there was no question but that Doc Schwarz Wine Jelly would become a going concern. Donna and Roberta began to make the rounds of local crafts fairs, street fairs, farmers’ markets and culinary events like the Rosendale Pickle Festival. Their first visit to Gardiner Day was a huge hit: “When you sell out, you know something’s clicking,” says Roberta.
What clicks is the fact that these products don’t taste like the cloyingly sweet grape jelly of our youth. “Our best customer is someone who doesn’t like wine and doesn’t like jelly,” Roberta observes. Each type is derived from a specific wine variety or blend – whites and rosés as well as reds – and each has a distinctive taste, a multilayered an experience as savoring a good glass of wine, from top note to finish. They range from a San Giovese (the Second Prize winner) at the sweeter end to a Pinot Grigio that’s dry and snappy enough to pair with fish. The Red Zinfandel that took the Best in Show prize is complex and delicious. You could mix it with peanut butter if you really wanted, but it would be more at home on a fresh croissant. Donna strongly recommends experimenting with the wine jellies as cooking ingredients, as a dip for hot pretzels or paired with baked Brie – even for coating a cut of meat as it’s roasting.
Mostly by word-of-mouth, the business has taken off to the point that the partners recently decided to lease the beautiful historic Deyo House (built circa 1876) at 658 Route 208 in Gardiner to create their own certified commercial kitchen and Tasting Room. They’ve been offering tastings as bridal and baby shower entertainment, and marketing the jellies to hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. “We just got picked up by Mohonk about one month ago,” Roberta reports. They’re in the process of developing and introducing new flavors made from Barolo and Chianti wines that they discovered on a recent trip to Italy. And in mid-May, with advice from a Finger Lakes nursery that specializes in wine grapes for cool regions, Doc started planting his own Chamborcin and Diamond grapevines.
“It’s all a learning curve. We’re basically baby-stepping it,” says Roberta. “It really is a group effort.” To check out the Doc Schwarz Wine Jelly line, visit the Tasting Room on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. They’re also available in four-ounce and eight-ounce jars by mail. To order or for more information, call (845) 750-5622, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.facebook.com/pages/category/kitchen-cooking/doc-schwarz-wine-jelly-144414642810975.