Vintage Jersey

With a pioneering spirit and some inventive new varieties (pumpkin wine!), Garden State vineyards are creating a buzz.

Photo courtesy of the Garden State Wine Growers Association

New Jersey was pretty much the last place winemaker Cameron Stark expected to land. “It was about 47th on my list of states,” says Stark, who came from the Napa Valley and is now in his fourth year at Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes. “But I was absolutely blown away when I arrived here. It’s bucolic, quiet, and the idea that we can produce what is turning out to be a very high-quality wine is wonderful.”

The Garden State wine scene is young. Only four of the roughly 40 wineries predate 1981, when a law limiting wineries to one per million residents was repealed. (Only Renault of Egg Harbor City, founded in 1864 and still functioning, predates the 20th century.) About half have opened since 2000.

Drawn by ample rainfall and limestone soil similar to that of Burgundy, talented winemakers have been quietly raising the quality of the product. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they give it a try,” Stark says.

From traminette at Silver Decoy Winery in East Windsor to cranberry wine at Plagido’s Winery in Hammonton, variety is a hallmark of Garden State wine. But because of the soil, the grapes that seem to do best are hybrids such as chardonnay, riesling, and pinot noir. “We’ve gotten to the point where the state is known for hybrids,” says Robert “Matty” Matarazzo of Four Sisters Winery in Belvidere, who launched the vineyard in 1984.

Four Sisters holds Family Harvest Weekends from September 27 through the end of October (11 am–5 pm; 783 Rt 519, Belvidere; foursisterswinery.com). There really are four sisters—Matarazzo’s four daughters, each of whom has a wine named for her. Matarazzo says he likes to provide an opportunity for people to enjoy wine and spend time with their kids. So in addition to tastings, which will include the premiere of limited-edition pumpkin wine and apple port, families can go on hayrides, pick pumpkins and apples, and explore a corn maze.

Other vineyards hold similar events. Renault hosts a free October Festival and Craft Show, featuring grape-stomping, on October 5 (noon–4 pm; 72 N Bremen Ave, Egg Harbor City; renaultwinery.com). Bellview Winery puts on an Italian Festival October 25 and 26, with Italian food, music, wine, and bocce (11 am–5 pm; $5, children free; 150 Atlantic St, Landisville; bellviewwinery.com).

Jersey vineyards have a mom-and-pop feel, and the select group of ambitious people who run them tend to support each other rather than view others as competition. “I’d be happy pink if three more vineyards set up shop right down the road from me,” says Matarazzo.

The wine scene has grown particularly quickly in South Jersey, where more than a dozen wineries have popped up in the last several years. Many of those will participate in the Cape May Wine Festival October 11 and 12 (noon–5 pm; $20, under 21 free; Cape May–Lewes Ferry Terminal). The event, which overlooks Delaware Bay, includes music, food, crafts, and a Kids Zone.

At Alba Vineyard in Milford, established in 1982, winemaker John Altmaier gets his fingers on every vine across the vineyard’s 40 planted acres. Relying on hands rather than machines is exhausting, but he says it accounts for the dozens of medals the vineyard’s twenty or so varieties have received.

Those who want to taste his and other Jersey medal winners, whether clueless or connoisseur, just have to hit the road. “In other parts of the country, people can hit a bunch of places on a short drive,” Altmaier says. “Here it’s more spread out.”

But where vineyards thrive, so do autumn views. Along the western edge of the state, from Brook Hollow Winery in Columbia south to Hopewell Valley Vineyards in Pennington, seven wineries dot a pastoral 50-mile stretch. To plan a route, check the Garden State Wine Growers’ map at newjerseywines.com.

Or to save the gas mileage, a trip to Alba’s Grand Harvest Festival October 4 and 5 makes for a highly efficient stop. (Noon–5 pm; $20, under 21 free; 269 Rt 627, Milford; albavineyard.com.) In addition to live music, crafters, children’s activities, and pony and carriage rides, the festival offers tastings and products for sale from about 25 New Jersey wineries.

That is also significant because New Jersey law forbids wineries to directly ship to any private residences or to out-of-state retail stores, leading many businesses to only sell on-site or at such festivals.

“It really limits us,” says Tom Sharko, who owns Alba and must work with a distributor to get his wine on other states’ shelves. Passion is a prerequisite for viticulture anywhere, but especially in the Garden State. Since he bought Alba out of bankruptcy ten years ago, Sharko jokes that he has never lost money, “But we’ve never made it, either.”

The law is actually quite recent. Prior to 2004, New Jersey only prevented out-of-state wineries from shipping directly to its residences. After lower courts and, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned such one-way restrictions, other states began to allow wineries to ship to residences within or beyond their borders. Jersey, however, clamped down on both. Matarazzo says the elimination of private shipping crippled a big part of his business, and that working with a distributor to expand out-of-state would add markups and make his wines less competitive.

Gary Vaynerchuk, of the Wine Library in Springfield, winelibrarytv.com, and author of 101 Wines, says these restrictions are holding back the development of Jersey wineries. “It’s very sad to me,” he says. “It’s 2008. You need to be able to ship product.”

Even so, the industry is growing. Jersey is now the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the country, making more than a million gallons a year in at least 100 varieties. “I believe we will one day see great wines coming from every single state,” says Vaynerchuk, “and New Jersey is positioned as well as anyone to make it happen.”

If you enjoyed this article, you also might like this story about artisanal food in New Jersey
. Click here to read: Artisanal Foods.

Or, click here to read a story about wine guru Gary Vaynerchuk.

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