A time for wineThe popularity of wine is growing, so are the local opportunities to learn more about your favorite fruit of the vine

Hawk Haven Vineyard owner Todd Wuerker gives a short tour to visitors at the winery in Lower Township. During the tour, Wuerker explains the process of how wine is made. Interest in such tours has grown as more people seek to improve their knowledge of wine.

Bob Rone of Richland did not drink wine 15 years ago.

But once he tried wine, he realized what he had been missing.

"In the year 2000, one of my best friends passed away, and maybe six to eight months after that, we're out to dinner with a group of friends. Everybody is drinking wine, and I'm sitting there saying to myself, 'Life's pretty short. Let me see what this is all about,'" said Rone, 61.

The first wine to ever touch Rone's lips was William Hill Cabernet from Napa Valley, Calif.

"I said to my wife and my friend, 'Man, this not bad. This is pretty good.' My buddy said to me, 'See what you have been missing.' I said, 'Give me another glass,'" Rone said.

Rone started reading books and magazines about wine. Two years later, he started buying wine to store and save. He established a wine cellar in his home about five years ago. He has taken a class on wine. He was inducted into the Dionysian Society International in April, a wine organization. He visited the Finger Lakes region in New York and took a tour of the wineries.

"Whenever you think you know everything, you always learn something new," Rone said.

In New Jersey, there were 39 licensed wineries producing an esimated 1.72 million gallons of wine in 2010. Twelve years ago, there were only 12 wineries. This state ranks eighth in the nation in per capita consumption of wine in gallons in 2009, and the amount of wine consumed nationwide is on the rise.

Wine growers, sellers and educators say that more and more people are not content just drinking wine. They want to know more about it.

John Mahoney, of Milmay, is a certified wine educator. Mahoney was the fifteenth certifed wine educator in the world. There are about 130 now with the International Society of Wine Educators.

"From Collingswood (Camden County) to Cape May to Atlantic City, that little triangle in South Jersey, there are some of the greatest B.Y.O.B.'s in the entire state... I would sit and watch what wines are coming in. Fifteen to 20 years ago, it was Sutter Home White Zinfandel because people didn't want to drink hard booze, but they didn't know anything about wine," said Mahoney, 69.

Mahoney teaches a four-week course titled, "Introduction to the world of wine," in the fall and in the spring at Tomasello Winery in Hammonton.

"It's getting more and more specific," said Mahoney. As wine has become more socially acceptable to drink, people want to know more about it, he said. "What's the difference between Chardonnay grown in Napa Valley and in Sonoma County and even Monterey County?"

Todd Wuerker is the owner and winemaker of the Hawk Haven Vineyard in Rio Grande. Wuerker's vineyard celebrated its fourth anniversary on Memorial Day.

Wuerker started offering a combined wine tour and tasting at 1 p.m. daily this year.

"More and more people are coming in and asking questions about the wine-making process," said Wuerker, who covers the winemaking process from grape growing to bottling during his tours.

Wuerker believes the wine education he is doing will increase sales eventually.

"I think it will definitely increase customers, knowing that we have the ability to educate them more on how the process takes place, but that will also help them understand the wines," said Wuerker, 38.

Earlier this month, Robin Blankeneiller, from Reading, Pa., took the wine tour and did the tastings with her niece. It was the first time she took a wine tour. Blankeneiller learned about how the grapes were hand-tended and the amount of work that goes into the cultivation. After the tasting, Blankeneiller purchased two bottles of Hawk Haven Red-Tailed Rose even though she is not a wine drinker.

"The wine that I bought sang to me. It was very, very good," said Blankeneiller, a retiree.

Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery is a member of the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association, which is dedicated to the establishment and promotion of sustainable and economically viable grape growing in this state.

Richard Stockton College of New Jersey's Pomona campus has been working with the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association for a couple of reasons, including to help figure out ways to help bring awareness of that local industry to the public, said Cynthia Sosnowski, research and program development specialist for the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies.

This has included public interest and public awareness sessions, such as, wine-tasting classes, wine awareness courses and helping people become aware of the wine trails in southern New Jersey, Sosnowski said. As part of its Foodie Tuesdays series, Stockton College's instructional site in Hammonton hosted, "New Jersey Wines: World Class in our Own Back Yard!," in May, Sosnowski said.

"People in New Jersey are pretty well-heeled, well-educated. They have discerning palettes. They drink a lot of wine. It's not a yahoo, beer-drinking crowd. This is a crowd of people in our state that know what they are looking for, and they have buying wines from Australia, France, Italy, Spain and California," Sosnowski said.

Michael Bray is founder of Passion Vines Wine Bar in Somers Point and Passion Vines Liquor Store in Egg Harbor Township. The two liquor stores have a strong focus on hand-crafted wine, spirits and beer.

Bray, 33, said selling wine was strictly a business venture when he started eight years ago, but 18 months after opening, he caught the wine bug.

"I realized there was so much more to wine than just selling it. I felt like I wanted to learn it. Once I learned it, I felt like I needed to share it, and sure enough, people wanted to hear it," the Somers Point man said. "Over time, what really has been created is what I call a community. We learned from our customers as much as we teach them. That's the fun thing about wine."

Passion Vines offers wine education classes. The next one is this Tuesday. It is titled, "All About California." Seating is limited to the first 13 students, and a prepayment of $30 is required, but participants will sample six expressive wines from different growing regions within the state.

"There are thousands of grape varieties in the world, and a lot of our tastings focus just on that," Bray said. "People speak of Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. They are the world's most popular and most consumed varieties, but there are thousands of other varieties that are so unique and so interesting and such an expression of the particular land to which it comes from. That's what we really love to explore."

For Newell McCalmont, 69, of Margate, his interest in wine was a natural progression. He was looking for something other than beer to drink.

When McCalmont does a wine education activity - he has learned from Mahoney and has been patron of Passion Vines off and on for the past four years - he is hoping to broaden his horizons on wine and his knowledge.

"I found out that it's a lot more complex than one would think from the types of soil, to the temperatures to how they pick the grapes. Various winemakers have slightly different techniques," said McCalmont, who has joined California wine clubs and has visited California vineyards.

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Wine events

Listed below are upcoming Atlantic City casino wine events

•Cal-Ital Summer Wine Fest - Sparkling Brunch & Fashion Show 11 a.m. today at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City. Tickets $39.

• Jersey Shore Wine Festival noon Saturday and June 30 in the Showroom at the Tropicana Casino and Resort. Tickets $15 general admission.

• Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival 2013 - Wine Seminar at noon and 2 p.m. July 27 at Caesars Atlantic City. Tickets $45 general admission.

Tickets to all three of these events can be purchased at the box offices of the respective casinos or through Ticketmaster at ticketmaster.com, or Ticketmaster outlets or Ticketmaster charge by phone at 800-736-1420.

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