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Wine tours in the region: Have map, will travel

Seven-plus wineries are featured on a new map designed to help tourists navigate six Vintage Atlantic Wine Region "trails" in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.

Down a country lane in the woods of Pilesgrove, Salem County, Auburn Road Vineyards seems to be smack in the middle of nowhere.

In fact, it's smack in the middle of the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region, a collective of 72 wineries, brewers, and distilleries from New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that formed last year to market the area as a wine destination.

The VAWR today issued a map – a foldable version as well as a digital version on the web – designed to steer tourists to wineries on six trails. Three are in South Jersey, one is in the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania, one is along the Chesapeake in Maryland, and one (which includes beer and spirits) is in Delaware. The maps are available at each winery and at through the usual tourist bureaus; there was a first printing of 100,000 copies.

The idea for such a map inspired the formation of the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region.

One year before harvest, Scott Donnini, a partner in Auburn Road, took a vacation with his wife, Julianne, to the Finger Lakes.

"Jules and I found this map," he said. "I carried this thing around in my pocket for the whole week we were up there. … Each of those lakes is itself a discrete trail. They promote themselves individually. But when they promote themselves to the outside world, they promote themselves collectively as the Finger Lakes. That's how everybody knows them. Nobody thinks of Lake Keuka or Lake Seneca. They think of the Finger Lakes."

"I brought it back here and I was thinking, 'Well, this is something. We have little trails. We're the Two Bridges wine trail [between the Commodore Barry and Delaware Memorial Bridges]. Brandywine's got a wine trail. We should glue these trails together."

Donnini told his idea to Sarah Willoughby, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Travel and Visitors Bureau. "I knew nobody at Brandywine. I didn't know anybody in Delaware, or in Maryland but she had all these connections. I said, 'Wouldn't it be cool to kind of get us together as a region just like this?' "

Jake Buganski, executive director of the  South Jersey Tourism Corp. (which markets Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties), and Chuck Nunan, who owns Harvest Ridge Winery near Dover, Del., got onboard. Nunan had helped put together a wine trail in his area.

"It was really just a way to promote ourselves outside and also selfishly for the wineries to cross-pollinate to one another," Donnini said.

"As we started talking about it, we saw all of the South Jersey wineries, all of the Delaware and the Brandywine Valley," Buganski said. "When you zoom out to include all of that in the view, you kind of notice that there's the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake in this view, too. We can't cut that out where we're looking. Let's just see if there are any wineries there. Lo and behold, there's like 15 over on the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake."

That required a road trip. Donnini said he realized that he and his wife had never been to the Eastern Shore. "To me, Maryland is what you cut through to get to D.C.," he said. "It was an eye-opener for us. We got to really kind of live the trail that we are now selling to people so you know, there's some really cool stuff going on out there."

Wine tourism is easy to understand, Donnini said. "One of the things that we offer here is the ability to do that, to taste amazing wine but to do it close to home. You don't have to travel all the way to California or even go all the way up to the Finger Lakes."

Then there's the locavore aspect. "That has been huge," he said. "People have come to us and they want to meet the winemaker. They want to know, 'What do you put into this? What do you make it from?' We can walk them out to the vineyard and show them where the grapes come from."

That involves Jules Donnini, who is the winemaker at Auburn Road. Before she, Scott, and four friends got together to buy Auburn ' initial 15 acres in October 2003, she and her husband were lawyers in Philadelphia. The couple lived in Queen Village.

Like most winemakers, they've come from other disciplines.

Hang out in a tasting room, and the stories pour out:

Scott Donnini, now 48, said, "It kind of got to that point in your life where you had kind of gotten everything that you have asked and worked for, right? You went to law school. You got a crappy legal job. You got good legal jobs, started making money, buy a house, start having kids [he and his wife have two sons], getting married, all that stuff. You realize, 'Hey, I'm getting one chance around in this. Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life doing?' "

"We quickly realized, 'No, we aren't. This isn't what we wanted to do.' We said, 'All right. What else are we qualified to do?' We quickly realized we weren't qualified to do anything other than what we're actually doing, which believe it or not, became a very liberating realization. Right? Once you realized you're not qualified to do anything else, the whole wide world of stuff you're not qualified to do kind of opens up to you. You've just got to pick something."

He and his friends were sitting around, drinking wine. "I just happened to say, 'What does it take? What about this?' I don't know," he said.

Donnini and friend Dave Davis, an investment banker with JP Morgan Chase, planted vines in Davis' yard in Woolwich Township, Gloucester County. "I was still in Queen Village so I didn't have any grass. We roto-tilled up part of his yard, much to the chagrin of his wife [Shannon], who is now my partner, and planted grapes just to see if they would grow in New Jersey."

After the modest harvest, the Donninis bought a homebrewing kit from Home Sweet Homebrew at 20th and Sansom Streets. "I stuck it in the back of a cab, took it home and it was just god-awfully bad," he said. "Jules was like, 'All right. If you idiots want to go ahead with the whole winery thing, that's cool. But let me be the winemaker.' From that point on she started studying the whole wine making process and I mean, no formal training. None of us have. We just learned this by doing."

They bought the farm in late 2003, planted the first vines in 2004, and had their first vintage in 2006. All the while, Dave and Scott worked their corporate jobs.

"We would get up in the morning, work in the vineyard, he would go to Wilmington, I would go anywhere," Donnini said. "I would either be in D.C or New York or Philly or wherever and then we would meet back here in the evening. We'd keep working and work all weekend. We were all the while keeping in mind that we wanted to eventually hang it up."

Donnini quit his job in 2008 just after he represented the Philadelphia Stock Exchange in its sale to the NASDAQ OMX Group.

"It truly is a lifestyle thing," he said. "We're not going to make lots of money doing this."

Auburn Road now produces about 7,500 cases a year.

Its rustic tasting room, once a horse stable with a dirt floor, is an enoteca that allows tastings of Auburn Road's 14 varieties ($5 for eight tastings). Lunches are served daily.

The food and wine experience really shines 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday when Dean Paolizzi and Ron Sorrentino come into the kitchen, fire up a wood oven, and bake thin-crust, full-flavored Neapolitan pizzas under the name Ravello.

Ravello started several years ago as a pizza truck whose route took it to the driveway at Auburn Road. The winery operators were so impressed - and Paolizzi and Sorrentino were so tired of the itinerant life - that an oven was built into the kitchen.

Friday nights at Auburn Road bring a $29.95 fixed-price Italian dinner including wine pairing from 5:30 to 8 p.m.

See the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region map here; an interactive version is here.