SHAMONG TOWNSHIP — At their winery on a fertile crescent on the edge of the Pine Barrens, the Valenzano family is bottling sunshine.

Solar panels are going up at the vineyard on rural Route 206 that will generate enough electricity to power Valenzano Winery  and its distribution center, tasting room and banquet facility.

“Energy costs go up every year and this gives us the ability to control those costs,” says Anthony Valenzano. “It also enables us to take good care of the land and that’s important, too.”

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With large spaces to heat and cool, equipment to operate and cases to deliver, wineries swill energy. Last year, Valenzano installed a geothermal system that taps steam from the earth 60 feet beneath the vineyard’s surface.

But even with generous incentives from both the state and federal governments, going green costs about a third more up front than traditional energy systems. And Valenzano says a dispute with the Pinelands Commission is casting a potentially expensive cloud over the solar project.

But over time, he believes the winery’s investment in sustainable energy will pay off in its niche of affordably priced wines, where the ability to shave cents is a distinct competitive advantage.

“It’s been 15 years of living humbly and dumping every dime we’ve made back into this business,” he said.

Valenzano, 38, and his brother Mark, 31, opened the winery in 1996 with their father, Tony, a recreational farmer who enjoyed making his own wine. Today, they can toast Earth Day in climate-controlled geothermal comfort, a technology that produces more consistent heating and cooling levels than fossil fuels.

“For keeping wines at the optimal humidity and temperature, geothermal is a winemaker’s dream,” Valenzano says.

Generations ago, farmers relied on sun, rain and animal power to grow crops.

“Today, every farmer is concerned about energy costs,” says Jerry Frecon, a fruit specialist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension. “There are energy concerns in spraying, harvesting and irrigation, then trucking your products.”

Installation of the solar panels was nearly complete earlier this week when the Pinelands Commission initiated a review of the project. The agency has no jurisdiction over agricultural proposals, but because the winery includes a catering hall, the solar installation would require commercial permits, says Chuck Horner, the commission’s director of permitting.

Valenzano says environmental studies and engineering fees associated with a review could cost as much as $100,000.

“We went through this when we built our banquet facility,” he says. “The process took three years and cost us $250,000.”

Horner says the catering hall was a complex project, built on land that had been zoned for agricultural use. Installing solar panels is a simpler prospect.

“Based on my knowledge of the property, it should be approved with minimal expenditure, perhaps a site plan,” Horner says. “We want to help people meet the rules and get them on their way.”

Solular, the business installing the solar panels at the winery, also has provider agreements with Catalano Farms and LaRosa Greenhouses, both in Salem County, says company spokesman Kenneth Long. Larchmont Farms already has gone green, converting its peach packing operation in Upper Deerfield to solar energy.

Still, solar energy doesn’t brighten the gloomy prospect of paying more to get products to market.

Valenzano has long been concerned about volatile gasoline prices, investing in smaller panel vans and a Chevy HHR station wagon that gets 31 miles to the gallon. The energy-efficient vehicles supplement the winery’s full-sized trucks, which average less than five miles to the gallon.

“Instead of sending out a big truck that would be one-half or one-fourth full, we send a smaller vehicle,” Valenzano says.

More expensive energy also is reflected in glassmaking. Valenzano says he is paying 10 percent more for bottles this year and at least a third more than he did five years ago.

“We’re producing 70,000 gallons of wine a year, with five bottles to the gallon,” Valenzano says. “That is a lot of bottles.”

Mary Corona of Northfield, a recent visitor to the winery, says she expects to see more New Jersey businesses investing in green energy.

“In New Jersey, we were pioneers in recycling and we are more energy conscious than other states, with our windmills off Atlantic City,” she says. “There will always be sun and wind and we should do all we can to harness them.”

Valenzano says being good to the earth is important to the future of the winery, as well as his rural slice of South Jersey.

“I’m raising my kids in the same place that I grew up,” he says. “Finding ways that we can reduce energy and be more profitable makes it easier to stay.”

An AP Member Exchange.


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