After a 12-hour day of working under the South Australian sun, Conor Quilty ’15 would retire to his small shack on the Yangarra Estate Vineyard and enjoy the cool evening breeze. With no readily available Internet access, he would occasionally try to get online by using a tiny, prepaid cell phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Nestled at the foot of the Mt. Lofty mountain range, Yangarra occupies prime real estate in the prestigious McLaren Vale wine region, which stretches from the rolling hills to the picturesque Gulf St. Vincent.
“That experience in Australia almost didn’t seem real,” Quilty fondly recalls now. “It was really beautiful there, and I had an opportunity to work with those amazing winemakers who taught me so much.”
By the end of the four-month season in Australia, Quilty knew he was hooked on winemaking. So when he returned home to the U.S., the Pennsylvania native was determined to get a job at a vineyard in the up-and-coming East Coast wine industry, rather than working for a more established California vineyard.
Before long, Quilty, whose resume at 23 displayed a level of skill and experience winemakers a decade older would be proud to have, landed a job at Unionville Vineyards in New Jersey, one of the East Coast’s top wineries, where he now serves as associate winemaker.
Quilty says he was initially drawn to New Jersey over better-known areas in the region, such as the Hudson Valley and Long Island wine countries, because there was a notable absence of pretentiousness and a more experimental spirit.
“When I came into this job, a very strong foundation had already been laid, but the vineyard still had an open-minded, underdog feel to it that I loved,” Quilty says. “I think that’s part of why we’re experiencing a wine renaissance in the region.”
Unionville’s wines have been receiving rave reviews, and a broader reputation for high-quality New Jersey wine is beginning to overcome the stigma and lack of awareness that have traditionally posed challenges for winemakers in the state.
“People have a tendency to think of the I-95 corridor with traffic jams and smoke stacks when they think of New Jersey,” Quilty explains. “But our vineyard is in the western part of the state that is defined by bucolic farmland and mountains.”
Introduced to botany during his senior year of high school in an elective course, Quilty’s interest in the subject quickly replaced his early ambitions of going to medical school. When he explored the botany department at Conn—which is celebrating its 100th year—he was confident he’d found his perfect college. The question was, what did he want to do with a botany degree?
The mix of hard science with the anthropological examination of how humans interact with plants fascinated Quilty. But the field of viticulture hadn’t occurred to him as an area of study until his second year at Conn, when he began exploring the various practical applications of botany.
“My father is a classically trained chef and I grew up with an appreciation for and a knowledge of fine food and wine, so the idea of working within the scientific context of wine was a true epiphany for me.”
The key to winemaking, Quilty says, is recognizing what wines can and can’t do well in a particular region, rather than trying to force a grape into conditions that aren’t ideally suited for it, simply to meet a current trend.
“I think cooler-climate wines are more elegant and nuanced anyway than the robust, more acidic wines you find in California, which is essentially a Mediterranean-desert climate,” Quilty says. “The challenge we face is combating the humidity during the summer months that can lead to mildew and fungus harming our vines,” he adds.
Quilty believes it’s essential to evolve, adapt and experiment as a winemaker and to avoid getting stuck in a comfort zone. And as tastes among wine drinkers change, there’s a need to adjust to the market by tweaking the process and offering new takes on classic varieties such as American chardonnays, some of which in recent years have moved beyond the traditional characteristics of being buttery with heavy oak influences to more closely resemble their cleaner, crisper white Burgundy cousins from France.
For now, Quilty is enjoying his dream job and drinking as many different kinds of wine as he can. But he says if he was ever faced with the agonizing scenario of being forced to choose only one type of wine, he’d opt for a good cru Chablis because of how it balances competing characteristics, at once light but acid-driven, fruity but also able to maintain a mineral style.
“Hopefully I’ll never have to make that choice,” Quilty says, laughing. “The reason I got into wine in the first place is because I love drinking it!”