Sommeliers used to scoff at California’s wine industry, saying its vintners could never match varieties from France and Italy.
But as wineries expanded in the ’60s and ’70s, techniques improved and recognition grew, and now it’s a premier wine-making region.
Garden State growers are looking for the same respect, and South Jersey is steadily becoming known as its own wine country.
“I’ve always said that New Jersey is the best place to make wine on the East Coast,” said Gary Pavlis, a wine expert at Rutgers University. “Only a few years ago people would say, ‘Oh, they grow wine in New Jersey?’ You’re never going to hear that anymore. Someone’s got to live under a rock to say that.”
A law that took effect May 1 will allow the local industry to grow even more by loosening the restrictions on how wineries can sell their products. Vinters now can ship directly to consumers and open as many as 15 retail outlets throughout the state.
The larger effect of the law, though, is that it cleared the way for the state to start issuing new winery licenses that were in limbo since December 2010, when a federal court struck down New Jersey’s regulations as unconstitutional.
At least three new wineries have been licensed in South Jersey since January. There are now more than 50 in the state, and many more are planned.
“I think you’re going to see, maybe not an explosion, but a blossoming of a lot of new wineries,” said Al Natali, a partner at Natali Vineyards in Middle Township.
The number of wineries in a specific area is important because it gives tourists a reason to go to an area to visit several vineyards in a row, as they would at certain other well-known wine-making regions.
“I’ve visited Napa Valley, and the Finger Lakes, and those are obviously some regions to aspire to,” said Jake Buganski, executive director of South Jersey Tourism Corporation. “That’s what we hope to happen here.”
The SJTC will fully launch a website Monday called VintageSouthJersey.com that markets the region’s wineries and vineyards as “an unexpected treasure between Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore.”
The site is part of a larger effort to create an identity for South Jersey as a destination. Focus is on the entire Outer Coastal Plain, a region of sandy soil that is recognized as an official American Viticultural Area by the federal government.
Buganski said they have consulted with wine economists and industry experts for the grant-funded effort, and said their feedback is that New Jersey has all the elements to match the best winery destinations in the nation.
“They are saying that this is the model, this is how it works, this is how a winery boom develops,” he said.
Of course, the quality of the wine is important to making sure people come back, but local growers and wine experts believe that won’t be a problem.
“I think the climate and the soil are really conducive to making some really lovely wines,” said Anjoleena Griffin-Holst, Wine Director at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
Griffin-Holst said that New Jersey’s challenge of getting respect nationwide is something that California wineries shared not that long ago.
“It used to be that everything was Fance,” Girffin-Holst said. “People thought California wines, American wines, were garbage back then.”
Grape varieties that grow best in New Jersey include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Chambourcin, Concord and Pinot Grigio. Some grow better in different regions, too, with Cape May’s climate and soil clearly different than that in North Jersey.
Learning what varieties would be best, and how to grow them in New Jersey’s particular conditions, has been a trial and error process for some growers. Now, with some tried and true methods in place, it is a matter of letting the vines mature and hoping for good weather.
The hot, dry summer of 2010 was a particularly sensational season for local wineries, and several of the wines made from grapes harvested that year are just now hitting the market.
“As the vines grow and age and the winemakers get experience, it’s just going to get better and better,” said Michael Bray, owner of Passion Vines Wine Bar & Spirit Company in Somers Point and Egg Harbor Township. “Nobody would have guessed what California turned into ... but just give it a shot and give it some time.”
Bray sells a number of New Jersey wines that he sells are popular, as does Adam Stromfeld, a partner at Joe Canal’s in Egg Harbor Township.
“I think that locally there’s a big following,” said Stromfeld, who plans to continue expanding his local wine section to supply that demand.
The local growers said that enthusiasm from customers is evident from the response they have been getting as well.
The Jessie Creek Winery, also in Middle Township, opened in April. Co-owner Art Reale said that after that wait, his biggest worry was that people wouldn’t like the wine.
“When you have people buying one bottle, it means they think it’s OK,” he said. “If they buy two, they really like it. I had a guy come in today and buy nine bottles.”
Now, his biggest worry is that he may run out of wine by the end of the year.
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