Letting a fine wine sit and age to improve its flavor is one thing. Being forced to sit and watch thousands of cases of wine accumulate without being able to sell it, as Barbara Bray-Wilde has had to do, is another thing altogether.

For her and several prospective winemakers in New Jersey, the wait may soon be over as a law Gov. Chris Christie signed Tuesday morning will loosen the state’s regulations on selling wine and allow for new winery licenses to be issued.

“You can’t imagine the relief it is to find out that you’re not going to go bankrupt,” Bray-Wilde said at her West Cape May property with 50 acres of grape vines where she aims to open the Willow Creek Winery.

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“I’ll be even more delighted when I can have a dollar coming in instead of all the dollars going out,” she added, discussing plans to open a 12,000-square-foot tasting room and hall in a few months. “I’m sitting on a huge amount of wine that I’d love to get rid of because it’s really, really good.”

Christie’s signature comes years after a lawsuit by two New Jersey wine connoisseurs set in motion a court battle that ultimately found the state’s wine laws were in conflict with the Constitution’s clause dealing with interstate commerce.

The primary issue was that the state unfairly discriminated against out-of-state wineries because they could not open retail outlets here, as in-state wineries could.

After that ruling in December 2010, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC, decided to withhold all new licenses for wineries as well as retail outlets for existing wineries until the conflict was sorted out.

The court postponed a decision on solving the matter in order for the Legislature to fix it. After months of wrangling over a solution, with wine industry advocates on one end and liquor distributors fearing a loss in their bottom lines on their other, lawmakers passed a bill Jan. 9.

By making changes to existing regulations and setting new regulations, the new law:

  • Permits a winemaker that produces no more than 250,000 gallons of wine a year to ship directly to consumers, with a limit of 108 liters of wine a year per person.
  • Establishes an out-of-state winery license for wineries that produce no more than 250,000 gallons a year to open up to 16 retail outlets in the state.
  • Increases the amount of retail salesrooms in-state wineries can open from six to 15.
  • Allows winery licensees to sell and distribute products directly to New Jersey retailers after paying a fee.

The law takes effect May 1, but it is not yet clear how it affects the federal court case, Freeman v. Christie, and the status of those licenses that have been withheld.

“The court would need to determine whether this legislation will appropriately remedy the constitutional defects and allow us to go forward,” said Rachel Goemaat, spokeswoman for the state Office of the Attorney General, in an email.

James Tanford, a professor of law at Indiana University and co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the court case, said some technical issues still need to be resolved by the court, such as the cost of the licenses and restrictions on consumers transporting wine across state lines.

But with the primary issues of outlets and shipping resolved, he said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the parties can get together and iron out those wrinkles in a relatively short amount of time.

Industry advocates were similarly excited about the bill’s signing Tuesday, but tempered their enthusiasm because of what remains to be done.

“I won’t be satisfied until they’re all up and running,” said Ollie Tomasello, owner of Plagido’s Winery in Hammonton and president of the Garden State Wine Growers Association. “We have to get the ABC to get all the wineries that have been waiting all this time to open.”

Art Reale is one of those winemakers waiting not-so-patiently for the issue to be resolved.

He co-owns the Jessie Creek Inn on Delsea Drive in Middle Township, where he plans to open the Jessie Creek Winery. For years he has harvested grapes and bottled wine on the site, but has not been able to sell his products.

On Tuesday afternoon, he was setting up his tasting room, hoping to finally open it soon.

“We’ve had this place for four years, and it’s been a long haul,” he said. “Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but for months I thought that was a freight train coming at us.”

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