When Maryanne Teesdale wants to go out with friends on a Friday night, sometimes they'll drop into one of their favorite local spots for a glass of wine - right at the place that makes the wine.
Teesdale lives in Lower Town-ship, not far from Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May. And Willow Creek has drawn crowds to kick off many weekends this winter with its Fire Pit Fridays, a promotion that doesn't start until most wineries have traditionally closed up for the night.
The Friday events run 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and draw their name from the fire the winery builds in a brick-lined box on a patio. And although the popularity of the pit itself is strictly weather-dependent - even a roaring fire couldn't compete with some of the snow and cold that hit South Jersey this winter - Fire Pit Fridays have other attractions that keep bringing people back.
They include live music from a local musician, plus food directly from a local producer - often lately fresh-shucked oysters from South Bay Shellfish Co. in Middle Township. Oh, and then there are the winery's own products, which many customers buy in refillable jugs they bring back with them on each Willow Creek trip.
"It's great down here," says Teesdale, relaxing on a leather couch inside Willow Creek's sprawling tasting room, but referring to the whole wine-producing scene in her county. "It's like a little Napa."
Nighttime fires are just one way South Jersey wineries are trying to draw more attention to their products, and dollars to their cash drawers. The nearby Cape May Winery, in Lower Township, holds a "teacher-appreciation day" on the first Friday of each month, including this Friday.
And a big part of local winemakers' marketing message is that they definitely don't just lock the doors and hunker down when cold weather hits their vineyards. They say winter can be a great time to tour and taste at your favorite winery - in part because it's generally a much less crowded time to visit a New Jersey winery.
"We are a very seasonal industry - people don't want to go out and drive around as much in the winter, so we do see a downturn," says Matt Pino, the marketing and advertising director at Bellview Winery, in Buena Vista Township's Landisville area.
"Any time is a good time to visit us, and we encourage it. But because of that seasonality, they don't come as much in the winter. So if people want a more intimate experience - sometimes I run the tasting room, and it can be just one couple in there with me," he says. "We'll sit there and talk. It's a lot more personal that way, and it could be the winemaker or the owner in there with you."
Bellview stays open seven days per week all year, and on weekdays in the off-season, "If someone comes in, it's usually just us and them. We love to be able to sit down and talk and educate and inform," Pino adds.
At Cape May Winery, Pat Devlin walked up to an otherwise empty tasting bar shortly before closing time one day last week and turned to a visitor to emphasize those seasonal swings.
"In the summer, you wouldn't be walking in here like this," he said, "because it would be full of people."
From mid-June through Columbus Day weekend in October, the winery runs tours seven days per week. They cap the number at 40 people to keep them more personal, but sometimes the winery gets enough visitors signing up that it splits them up into two separate groups, says Devlin, who is in charge of sales, promotions and tours.
In the winter, that busy schedule gets cut back to one tour per week, on Saturday afternoons. On the last Saturday in February, about 30 people took the tour, Devlin said, checking his record a few days later - on an afternoon when enough snow hit the dormant-for-winter vines to leave a picturesque coating of white a few sunny hours later.
Cape May Winery also has an outdoor fireplace on its large patio, and lights it up some summer nights - when grills also light up to cook the food for the the winery's weekly grill nights. There are more evening promotions, and the Back Barrel Room, which closes at 5 p.m. in these colder months, stays open until 7 p.m. on summer nights.
As a matter of course, the winery is a "BYOF" establishment - "bring your own food," Devlin explains, with a grin. But in another very popular draw, Cape May Winery provides free food, from the Washington Inn in Cape May, for its happy hour aimed at teachers, which runs 3 to 6 p.m. on the first Friday of each month.
Those happy hours end for the summer, but the winery replaces them with "sip and song" nights some Fridays - sort of like karaoke night in a wine cellar, only with the backing music played by a live pianist.
Back in Atlantic County, Plagido's Winery in Hammonton combines wine tastings with art lessons - known there as a "Palate and Palette" event, says Christine Wilson, the manager.
"And we might have a cheesemaking class," she says, although she notes Plagido's is "boutique size, so we keep things smallish."
Willow Creek isn't so small, but the winery tries all kinds of specialized, niche events to bring people onto its 50-acre property in West Cape May.
"We'd like to do 'drink wine and yoga,' or 'drink wine and tai chi,'" says Kevin Celli, the winemaker and farm director, adding other events include combining wine tastings with language lessons - with Italian and French being natural fits. "And once a month, we do wine-paired dinners. We bring in different chefs, and pair our wines to their courses."
Willow Creek plans to shift nights on its Fire Pit Fridays at the end of this month, moving them to Mondays at a time of year when many local residents are gearing up for spring and summer - and switching to a schedule that forces them to work more Fridays.
But the ultimate "goal is to offer something special, every day, all season," Celli says.
"One big misconception is that businesses like these only want to go after tourists," he adds, emphasizing a point made by people at several local wineries. "But our locals are very important to us. ... Our view is that if you take care of the locals and give them an excellent experience, they're only going to send us the tourists when they do come."
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