Ready For Prime Time?

New Jersey has all the ingredients for a booming wine industry—and a new law to help clear the way. Find out what the buzz is all about.

On a cold, moonless night last November, a group of well-heeled oenophiles crowded around two long wooden bars lining the walls of Amalthea Cellars’ cloister-like tasting room to sample the wares of five local wineries. Those who had ventured to the out-of-the-way Atco winery, which looks more like a French country manor than the 11-acre South Jersey farm that it is, were duly impressed.

“It’s like cashmere on the throat,” said one participant in reference to an Amalthea Viognier, a full-bodied white sometimes compared to Chardonnay.

“This is a massive, massive wine,” added another, sipping a 2007 Cabernet Franc that had been aged in French oak for three years.

“They’re darn good,” said another, Kristina Viviano of Medford. “If they pushed it, I think New Jersey wines could be as good as New York’s or California’s.”

Carolyn Nemia agreed, noting that her husband and she have been “surprisingly impressed” by the quality of New Jersey wines they’ve tried since moving five years ago from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Mays Landing.

“It’s New Jersey. Who would have thought?” she said. “We’ve got great corn and tomatoes and blueberries, but people don’t associate New Jersey with good wines.”

If you asked the average wine consumer for his or her impression of New Jersey wines, the answer would likely be: “sweet” or “fruity” or “light.” Or “New Jersey what?” Although New Jersey is the seventh largest producer of wine in the United States—dropping from fifth place a couple of years ago after being surpassed by more agritourism-savvy states—the hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine produced in the Garden State get little exposure and even less respect.

Nevertheless, it is an industry on the move. With 39 licensed wineries and another 14 in the application pipeline, the wine industry is the fastest-growing segment of the state’s agriculture business, according to Gary Pavlis, an associate professor with Rutgers Cooperative Extension and the state’s de facto wine czar. In 2008, New Jersey wineries produced approximately 282,421 taxable gallons of wine, according to the state Department of Agriculture; by 2010, that number had grown to 341,000 gallons.

“In agriculture, it’s a major growth industry,” says Douglas H. Fisher, New Jersey’s secretary of agriculture. “There’s an enormous amount of interest by folks who want to grow grapes and produce wines.”
The industry is expected to expand even more with the passage in January of new legislation that will allow wineries to ship their product directly to customers, both in and out of the state. The new legislation—a response to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey’s wine laws—is also expected to eventually free up more than three dozen applications, either for new wineries or existing wineries’ retail outlets, that were on hold while the court case was looming.

Those who recently have gotten involved in wine making here are taking a businesslike approach to the endeavor: pursuing advanced degrees, investing in expensive equipment and conducting extensive site surveys in selecting where to grow. This new wine-making crowd is populated by corporate dropouts and young professionals seeking an alternative lifestyle—as opposed to vintners with agricultural roots. The new wine makers also are producing a different type of wine. Eschewing the sweet, native-American grape- and fruit-based wines New Jersey has been known for, the newcomers are turning to drier varieties, using European vinifera (vines) to produce more full-bodied, French- and Italian-style wines that have been winning top prizes in national competitions and blind taste tests.

“Good wines can be made in more than just France,” says wine author George Taber, who in 1976 covered the so-called Judgment of Paris competition, when Napa Valley wines toppled the French for the first time. Since then, he has attended similar events that included New Jersey wines. “Can [good wines] be made in New Jersey? In some places, they have a good shot. They’ve got the right climate and good soil. If they’re blessed by nature, there’s a chance.”

New Jersey has three federally designated American Viticultural Areas, the largest and most bountiful being the Outer Coastal Plain in the southern half of the state, which boasts sandy soil, extensive sunshine, relatively mild winters and moderate breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. Vintners say this microclimate mirrors that of France’s legendary Bordeaux region. A second area, the Central Delaware Valley, straddles New Jersey and Pennsylvania north of Trenton. Farther north is the third region, the Warren Hills area in Warren County. Both these regions specialize in white wines similar to those coming from New York’s Finger Lakes region, like Cayugas and Rieslings, as well as fruit-based wines. So do the wineries farther north in Sussex County, where the colder climate makes it challenging for operations like Ventimiglia Vineyard in Wantage to grow grapes.

Gene Ventimiglia, a retired teacher from Passaic County, selected his rocky, hilly, 50-acre property 12 years ago for its views first and for its potential as a winery second. He got his winery license in 2006 but didn’t start selling wine until 2008. He’s hoping to turn the financial corner this year.

“I’m still a novice, learning what does well here,” says Ventimiglia, 66. “We’re still investing in the business. Luckily, we don’t need a lot of money to live on.”

With two sons now involved in running the winery, Ventimiglia values the opportunity to build a business that can be passed to future generations. That’s typical of many of the recent converts, who seek a better life for themselves and their families through wine making.

Scott and Julianne Donnini were lawyers working and living in Philadelphia, until they purchased a 1750 farmhouse on 16 acres in the Salem County township of Pilesgrove in 2003 and started making wine under the name Auburn Road.

“We wanted to be able to work together and be around the kids,” says Scott, 44, who once put in long hours as in-house counsel for the Philadelphia Stock Exchange and now spends his days driving to farmers’ markets to peddle their wines. “It’s ridiculously hard work, but it’s a good life.”

Julianne is the wine maker, having taught herself through extensive reading, conference-going and a college chemistry course. She’s now continuing her wine education through a certificate program at the University of California, Davis. Likewise, Larry Sharrott Jr. and his son, Larry III, went back to school to prepare themselves to open a winery, also enrolling in a program offered by UC Davis. The father had retired from AtlantiCare Health System where he was a vice president, while the son left his job at Lockheed Martin. Applying lessons learned during their rigorous studies, the two wrote a business plan for Sharrott Winery and worked with Rutgers Cooperative Extension to identify the best available land for planting a vineyard.

“All our training told us site selection was key. You could fix anything after that,” says the 37-year-old Larry III. They eventually settled on an abandoned apple orchard in Blue Anchor, at the eastern edge of Camden County, planting 6 acres of vines in 2004 and selling their first wines in 2008.

Another corporate dropout, Al Natali, was with ADP for 20 years before buying 22 acres in Cape May Courthouse in 2000 to start a winery. Unlike the multigenerational fruit-and-vegetable farms that have more recently added grape vines, such as Heritage Vineyards and Bellview Winery, Natali, who was joined by two partners in 2006, says he “didn’t set out to save the family farm. I was looking to save myself.”

“I think there are a whole bunch of people who are disillusioned with corporate America. I’m part of this,” says the 65-year-old former executive, pointing to the 7½ acres of grape vines and beach plums (a Natali Vineyards specialty) that stretch out beyond his tasting room. “Here you do so much yourself. You grow the grapes, you press them, then bottle and sell them. You’ve done something from beginning to end, and you’re not just a cog in the wheel anymore.”

As it turns out, growing grapes in New Jersey is the easy part. After all, it was in the city of Vineland that Dr. Thomas B. Welch chose to start his Welch’s Grape Juice Company back in 1869. For the current crop of grape growers, however, the challenge has been in getting their wines to a wider swath of consumers.

From laws that until now forbade direct shipping to consumers, to limited government and tourism support, to a skeptical public reluctant to embrace New Jersey wines, the state’s wine makers have had their work cut out for them.

New Jersey was once home to hundreds of wineries, but all legitimate operations shut down during Prohibition. After Prohibition was lifted in 1933, state law permitted only one winery license for every 1 million residents, leaving the state with only seven wineries until 1981, when the Farm Winery Law passed. This act allowed anyone with a minimum of 3 acres and 1,200 vines to apply for a winery license. In the next five years, the number of New Jersey wineries doubled; in the three decades since the law passed, wineries here have increased nearly sixfold.

Only the largest wineries use distributors to get their wines into liquor stores and restaurants. The smaller ones don’t have enough volume to fill a distribution pipeline, and while some hand deliver their goods to area liquor stores, they depend largely on sales in their tasting rooms, satellite outlets, wine festivals and farmers’ markets. Until now, New Jersey was one of just 12 states that forbade wineries to ship directly to customers, either into or out of the state. That position was challenged in 2003, when a New Jersey couple seeking to buy kosher wines from out of state and a California winery that wanted to be able to ship into New Jersey, sued the state saying the restrictions were unconstitutional. (Some New Jersey wines are shipped by liquor stores.)

A 2010 ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law but found that New Jersey wineries enjoyed a discriminatory privilege in being able to sell their wines in tasting rooms and in up to six individual and 21 jointly operated retail outlets, where out-of-state wineries could not be represented. Those satellite outlets include shopping-mall kiosks, tourist centers and BYO restaurants.

In addition to allowing wineries producing less than 250,000 gallons a year to ship directly to customers, the new law, which takes effect May 1, increases to 15 the number of individual retail outlets a New Jersey winery can operate, but drops the joint outlets. While the law opens up local channels to out-of-state wineries, it also gives New Jersey wineries the chance to greatly expand their reach.

“I have people contacting me all the time saying, ‘Can you ship your wine to me?’ They have the money in hand. But I’ve had to turn them away,” says Bob Clark, owner of Chestnut Run Farm Winery in Pilesgrove, which specializes in Asian pear wines. “This is a great opportunity for growth, not only for those additional shipping sales, but also it gets your wine in more hands so more people can say they’ve heard about it and want to order it.”

Audrey Gambino, wine maker and owner of Villa Milagro Vineyards in Finesville, expects the new law to have the biggest impact around the holidays, when “some of my customers want to ship a case to their in-laws in California, or corporate clients want to send wine and cheese baskets to their best customers.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control had frozen 38 pending license applications—16 for new wineries and 22 for additional outlets for existing wineries—leaving some would-be wineries with bottled wine but no way to sell it. Until the court is satisfied that the new law will “appropriately remedy” the remaining legal issues, those applications remain in limbo, says Alcoholic Beverage Control spokesperson Zach Hosseini.

As an industry now valued between $30 million and $40 million, the state’s wineries have caught Trenton’s attention. Still, many wine growers say the state has a ways to go in supporting and promoting the business, including its role in the ever-growing agritourism business.

“People coming to wineries stay at B&Bs, eat at local restaurants,” points out Larry Sharrott III.

Vintners have received specialty crop grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also provides funding for the wine-trail program—a series of tours and special events within the wine regions. Additional funding comes from a state sin tax on retailers to the tune of 47 cents per gallon sold. Last year the tax amounted to $144,000, which was funneled back into the industry, according to Fisher. The agriculture department is also working on a way to include the wineries under its JerseyFresh program, with a slogan Fisher devised: “Jersey Wines from Jersey Vines.”

The Division of Travel and Tourism provides most of its promotional support through the state’s tourism website, VisitNJ.org. Tourism executive director Grace Hanlon says that the words wineries and winery have been the most searched terms on that website in recent months. However, to find information about New Jersey wineries, one must navigate through two sets of tabs and subtabs.

“I’m really happy for the industry,” says Hanlon. “The wineries are really coming together and putting up fabulous events to attract people to visit our state. I commend them for it.”

Indeed, much of the promotion has been left up to the industry itself. The Garden State Wine Growers Association, with 34 active member wineries, has been leading the way, sponsoring wine festivals, tastings and wine-trail events throughout the state. Owners of individual wineries have also become more promotion savvy.

On a recent fall morning, Matty Matarazzo and four women were running the bottle line at Four Sisters Winery in Belvidere, moving a steady stream of bottles along to fill, cork and seal. While the well-traveled Route 519 brings many visitors to the winery in Warren County to taste the tart Cayuga, sweet strawberry or tangy pumpkin wines, Matarazzo has added a number of special events to attract customers to his 254-acre farm throughout the year: murder-mystery weekends, pig roasts and a corn maze, to name a few.

The picturesque Cape May Winery is a popular tourist destination for those visiting the resort town at the southeastern tip of the state. Since taking over the winery in 2004, owner Arthur “Toby” Craig has increased production from 2,000 to 30,000 gallons annually. In that time, he also built a new 6,000-square-foot building for sales and operations, vine-covered patios and a 2,000-square-foot tasting room, added just last year. Craig says he does about 95 percent of his sales on-site.

“People have to realize, you’re in the hospitality business. It’s so important to accommodate the customer, to make them feel happy from the time they come to the time they leave,” says Craig, who owned restaurants in Cape May for 30 years before turning them over to his sons so he could run the winery.

Even Renault Winery, one of the country’s oldest continually operating wineries, has had to include modern touches to continue attracting visitors to the 1864 facility in Egg Harbor City in Atlantic County. Along with a glass museum filled with 650 pieces of rare stemware and memorabilia from the Prohibition era—when Renault sold its product as “tonic”—owner Joseph Milza has added an ornate, Tuscany-themed hotel and an 18-hole golf course to the 1,500-acre grounds in the last 10 years. Many of the newer wineries, like Villa Milagro, can’t afford such expansions, though they depend heavily on tourists to sell their 1,200 cases of wine each year. So each weekend, the owners drop cloth scrims and switch on colored lights to turn their work space into a tasting room.

Despite all these efforts, the greatest challenge for New Jersey wine makers is getting more consumers to taste their wares. The locavore movement, which has drawn diners to restaurants that grow or forage for local products, doesn’t seem to have translated to New Jersey wines.

“The biggest problem is not the quality of the wines we’re producing, but the perception,” says Pavlis, adding, “There’s been a dramatic increase in world-class wines here in the last five years.” He cites 2007, 2008 and 2010 as particularly good years for Jersey growers.

Still, restaurants are reluctant to include New Jersey wines on their lists, and a relatively small number of liquor stores carry state wines. So, while New Jerseyans are ranked fourth nationwide in per capita wine consumption, only about 1 percent of what we are drinking comes from New Jersey. Meanwhile, Tomasello Winery reports that its sweet blueberry and cherry wines are flying off the shelves in Asia, an expanding market for the Hammonton winery—the state’s largest—which also produces European-style wines.

It is those sweet wines, in part, that have contributed to the bias against New Jersey wines, despite the fact that an estimated 75 percent of the wines now being produced in the state are of the European variety, according to Pavlis.

Anthony Fisher is among the numerous wine retailers trying to educate consumers about New Jersey wines, which account for 9 percent of wine sales at the Bottle Barn, his Gloucester County store in Gibbstown. When customers ask for suggestions, he always adds a Jersey wine to the selection. Fisher says he has conducted blind taste tests in large-scale and less-formal settings, pitting a $20 bottle of New Jersey Cabernet against an $80 California Cabernet and a $100 French Bordeaux.

“I ask friends to guess which one is which, or which one they like better,” he says. “It’s amazing how many times New Jersey wins.”

Contributor Jill P. Capuzzo visited close to a dozen Garden State wineries while reporting this piece, sampling their products and erasing her own prejudices against the fruit of New Jersey’s vineyards.

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Great Grapes
Here are the top 10 wine grapes grown in New Jersey:

1. Chardonnay
2. Pinot Noir
3. Cabernet Sauvignon
4. Chambourcin
5. Cabernet Franc
6. Riesling
7. Pinot Gris
8. Merlot
9. Syrah
10. Concord

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FIND OUT MORE
Want to learn more about New Jersey wines? An excellent source is the Garden State Wineries Guide (Wine Appreciation Guild, 2011). This book by Jersey wine expert Bart Jackson has profiles and locations of 36 Jersey wineries and other information to add to your enjoyment of local wines. Another helpful source is newjerseywines.com, the official website of the Garden State Wine Growers Association.

Click here to return to the Jersey Wine landing page.

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