The Man Who Helped Put Jersey Wineries on the Map

Gary Pavlis has long been the Garden State's go-to grape guy.

gary pavlis
Rutgers agricultural agent Gary Pavlis assesses a bunch of unripe wine grapes at Bellview Vineyard. Photo by Jason Varney

Gary Pavlis is sharing a socially distant bottle of wine with this reporter outside the tasting room at Bellview Winery in Landisville. We enjoy sandwiches from Bagliani’s Market in Hammonton as we sip the winery’s bright and juicy cabernet franc, the grape Pavlis believes is the future of Jersey wine. “I’ve been pushing cab franc forever,” says the man credited by many with New Jersey’s current winery boom.

From where we sit, one can see rows of vineyards, planted with European (Vitis vinifera) varieties like blaufränkisch, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, as well as cold-hardy hybrids such as chambourcin and traminette. But before this land was home to wine grapes, it was farmland. 

That was prior to 1981, when Governor Brendan Byrne signed the New Jersey Farm Winery Act into law. Until then, Prohibition-era laws limited the number of wineries in New Jersey to seven. Overnight, New Jersey farmers—who were suffering under the weight of declining crop prices and suburban sprawl—had a new option to produce and sell wine with Jersey-grown grapes, effectively creating a new source of income.

But where were farmers who were accustomed to growing apples, peaches, lima beans or corn supposed to learn about growing wine grapes?

Most likely, they turned to Pavlis, an agricultural agent at Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. “Pretty much every winery in the state started in my office,” says Pavlis, 69, who lives in Egg Harbor Township.

Today, there are 64 wineries in New Jersey, including many that are recognized on a national scale. And Pavlis is still leading the way as a Rutgers Cooperative Extension agricultural agent and advocate for Jersey wines.

Pavlis didn’t set out to become the go-to guy for Jersey wine. Growing up in Upper Saddle River, he spent a lot of time enjoying the outdoors, but when he got to Rutgers as a freshman in 1969, he decided to follow the pre-med track. His father, an avid gardener, encouraged him to take at least one class in the agriculture department. Two years into his studies, his father died. “It was really hard on the whole family,” he says.

After graduating, Pavlis got a job running the greenhouses at Duke Gardens in Hillsborough (now Duke Farms), but wasn’t invested in the work. “It got really old,” says Pavlis. So he went back to Rutgers to visit his old professor, Norm Childers, in the horticulture program. Childers informed Pavlis that a former Rutgers student was looking for an assistant. “He told me, ‘You’d work with blueberries and blackberries,’” says Pavlis. “I said, ‘Man, that sounds great, where is it?’”

The position was at the University of Arkansas. He would have to be there in two weeks. “I said, ‘Where the hell is Arkansas?’” recalls Pavlis. “I had no idea where Arkansas was.”

Despite the short notice, Pavlis set out for the South, where he studied plant breeding and genetics. As his graduate project, he worked to create a hairless, thorn-free blackberry that ultimately streamlined the berry’s cultivation. “It was the best thing I ever did,” he says. “There are moments in your life that you look back on and go, This was the turning point. Well, that was mine.”

After finishing his master’s program, Pavlis returned to New Jersey to work on his PhD at Rutgers. There, he deepened his expertise in blueberry science. His main professor, Paul Eck, would host grad students for barbecues and ask everyone to bring a bottle of wine in a paper bag. “It was eye-opening,” says Pavlis. “A professor would bring over a $25 bottle of Riesling, and a grad student would bring a $5 one, and that’s when I realized that cost doesn’t always correlate with quality.” For Pavlis, those nights were the seeds for a future in wine. 

By the time the Farm Winery Act was passed in 1981, Pavlis was already years into working in Rutgers’s Atlantic County extension office, where he conducted research and guided South Jersey’s blueberry farmers with a weekly newsletter called the Blueberry Bulletin. It was perfect timing, says Pavlis, for him to study grapes. “Winery owners came to me asking for Rutgers to help with wine and vineyards,” he says. “I was already the blueberry guy, and grapes were similar enough.”

Today, Pavlis still writes the Blueberry Bulletin and conducts research for blueberry farmers. He also teaches a wine-appreciation class at Rutgers and hosts the annual Grape Expectations Symposium in Monroe Township for professionals and amateurs involved with any aspect of grape growing or the wine industry.

“From May to July, I’m the blueberry guy,” he says, “and from August to October, I’m the grape guy.”

Blueberries may have been the catalyst for Pavlis’s career, but perhaps his greatest contributions to New Jersey agriculture are the wineries he helped launch—and advocate for.

[RELATED: The Red-Wine Grape Gaining Traction in Jersey]

Back at Bellview Winery, Pavlis is reminiscing about his early interactions with the operation’s owner, Jim Quarella, two decades earlier. At the time, Quarella was growing Asian vegetables for New York’s Chinatown market. “I brought this guy to his first Garden State Wine Growers’ tasting,” says Pavlis. He quickly convinced Quarella to pursue a new direction and plant his first three acres of grapevines.

Quarella’s family had been Atlantic County farmers since 1914. But in 2001, Bellview Farms made the jump to wine production. “If they had not passed that farm winery bill, we wouldn’t be sitting here,” says Pavlis. 

Around the same time, Pavlis was meeting with farmers all over the state to discuss the benefits of planting grapevines, while still keeping up with his blueberry-research duties. 

Bill and Penni Heritage, owners of William Heritage Winery in Mullica Hill, met Pavlis by accident. When the Heritages took over the family farm in the mid-1990s, they discovered the pitfalls of the produce business. “We’d grown peaches and apples for five generations, but selling produce wasn’t as profitable as it once was,” says Bill Heritage. “It was a death sentence for us.”

The couple attended a fruit-growing convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “The last program on the schedule was called, ‘Have You Ever Thought About Growing Wine Grapes?’” says Heritage. With an extra hour on their hands, they wandered into the talk. It was facilitated in part by Pavlis, who went around the room asking farmers what they grew.

“When I told him about our orchards, he said, ‘That’s perfect. Every vineyard in Europe had an orchard with peaches and apples,’” recalls Heritage. 

Pavlis remembers those early days of talking wine with the Heritages, too. “I said, ‘Do you know there’s a direct correlation between growing apples and peaches and vinifera grapes? You pick apples in the fall. Peaches die at the same temperature in the wintertime as vinifera grapes do, and they have frost problems just like vinifera. I don’t even need to look at your place. Grow vinifera.’”

“We decided to purchase an acre’s worth of vines and try it,” says Heritage. “We’re growers; that’s what we do.”

Pavlis was already well respected by local blueberry farmers, which made him a more trustworthy source than, say, a wine consultant from California. “It costs $10,000 an acre [to plant grapevines], so you better do it right,” says Heritage. “Gary, he never took that lightly. He knew that was a big responsibility.”

While apple and peach trees thrive in the same type of sandy soils that grapevines do, there’s still a steep learning curve when it comes time to make the leap. “There was no time to go to school or UC Davis [home to a renowned winemaking program],” says Heritage. “So we bought The Mid-Atlantic Winegrape Grower’s Guide [by Tony K. Wolf], and that’s what we started with.”

Pavlis was also there to give support. “He did it in a pretty responsible way. He didn’t just say, ‘Go home and plant the grapes,’” says Heritage. “You need to look at individual properties, match the type of grape with its soil.”

Heritage Vineyards (now William Heritage Winery) opened in 2002, becoming the first winery in Gloucester County. “We’ve been able to continue the farming on the next generation,” says Heritage, whose sons, Richard and Erik, are already committed to the family’s farming legacy.

Many New Jersey wineries share a similar story. Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes was originally a peach orchard and then grew grain for horses. The land was purchased in 1980 with the goal of saving the farm; the winery opened to the public in 1993. Hawk Haven Winery in Rio Grande (Cape May County) was a family dairy and produce farm. In 1997, the first vineyard was planted. Today, Hawk Haven produces about 5,000 cases a year and hosts the popular Hawktoberfest wine festival each fall.

The Farm Winery Act may have allowed Jersey farmers to rewrite their future, but Pavlis is the one who helped them put their wineries on the map. “[Gary] has no doubt helped save New Jersey farms,” says Heritage. “It saved us.”

Pavlis isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and he doesn’t expect the Jersey wine scene to, either. “There’s a lot of untapped potential all through New Jersey that’s great for grapes—in Cumberland, Salem and Cape May counties, as well as up in Long Valley,” he says. “There’s no reason why we can’t have 200 wineries.” 

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