Natali Winery manager, Chuck Cole, of Estell Manor, talks with Patrick Sheeran, of Absecon, with a bottle of Nonnos Cellar red wine at the Natali Winery tent. Producers and consumers of wine and food at the Waterfront Wine and Food Festival at Lake Lenape East, in Mays Landing. Sunday, October, 21, 2012, 2012 ( Press of Atlantic City/ Danny Drake)

Danny Drake

One of the most popular selections at Mays Landing’s Waterfront Wine & Food Festival on Sunday was the wine festival itself.

Everyone from first-time festival-goers to longtime veterans agreed that a wine festival is a fine way to spend a day — especially a fine day in a nice setting.

But it wasn’t just this festival that was a hit. It was the idea of wine festivals, which are gaining popularity “exponentially” throughout South Jersey, as Jeff Haas, of DiMatteo Vineyards, put it.

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Haas, festival coordinator for the Hammonton winery, estimates that DiMatteo was part of 20 wine festivals in 2011. This year, he figures the number will be closer to 30 — including three just this past weekend.

Along with the Waterfront festival, at Lake Lenape Park, the winery was pouring its products at the Autumn Wine Festival in Manahawkin, Stafford Township, and the Cranberry Festival in Chatsworth, he said. Then there were more earlier this month, including the Cape May Wine Festival in Lower Township, and there is another next weekend, in Camden.

As a festival rookie, Cathy Hummer, of Delanco, Burlington County, could see right away why people like them.

“It’s great to get out and taste wine, and it’s a beautiful day,” said Hummer, who drove down with her friend, Cole Gallagher, of Haddonfield, Camden County.

Gallagher liked that the atmosphere is “more one-to-one” with people who know the wines themselves than it is in a standard wine shop.

“And it’s nice to be buying things from here, in New Jersey, and not all California wines,” he said.

Both also liked the chance to try rare, unusual tastes. DiMatteo was sold out of this year’s first-ever batch of pumpkin wine — Haas swears it was a big hit, and the winery will make more next year. But these two wine buddies both swore by the banana wine made by Natali Vineyards in Cape May Court House, which was set up a few booths away at the festival.

Dave Hughes, of Mays Landing, also enjoyed that dessert-style wine — it’s made strictly from bananas, Natali manager Chuck Cole promises — when he tried it.

“But really, I’m more of a beer person — a lot of the microbreweries,” Hughes said.

Still, his wife, Toni, is a big fan of wine festivals — she can get to 10 in a good year, she said, and travel as far as North Jersey or Pennsylvania to do it. And her husband doesn’t mind driving to keep her happy.

“It’s a good opportunity to taste so many different wines,” Toni says. So the Hugheses were happy when the Waterfront Wine & Food Festival — presented by the Mays Landing Merchants Association and sponsored by The Press of Atlantic City, among others — started last year right in their hometown.

“I love that — it took us, what, 10 minutes to get here?” Dave said.

John Kurtz, the president of the merchants group, said the Waterfront festival’s attendance figures also show how popular the idea is getting.

Over two days last year, about 1,400 people showed up, said Kurtz, who owns County Seat Florist in Mays Landing. But on Sunday alone, the sponsors were expecting 1,200 to 1,500 customers — based on a parking lot that was quickly filling up by early afternoon — after they counted about 1,000 people Saturday, Kurtz added.

Yes, there was food at the Waterfront festival, including demonstrations by chefs-in-training at Atlantic Cape Community College’s Academy of Culinary Arts. Then there were more down-home offerings, such as a series of Italian subs made assembly-line style, complete with narration, by owner Gerry Delaney, of Mays Landing’s Sugar Hill Sub Shop, and Chris Graff. The crowds they drew seemed to enjoy Delaney’s step-by-step instructions, and nobody who got a piece had any complaints about the free tastes the shop gave out of the finished product.

But there was plenty of food for sale, too, including a selection of seafood from Casey & Ben’s Lobster Den in Dennis Township.

Owner Jessica Purcell said wine festivals are a hit for her small business, too.

“They’re probably one of my favorite things to go to,” she said. “You get great crowds, people having fun. It’s really a big day.”

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