ATLANTIC CITY — On a world-famous boardwalk with the Atlantic Ocean as the backdrop, wine enthusiasts on Saturday plopped down as much as $85 to sample 150 different wines from the around the world as they knoshed on tuna tartar with wasabi and green apple caviar.
Many came from neighboring states after hearing radio advertisements for the first Do AC Boardwalk Wine Promenade. They were dressed better than most people strolling the Boardwalk on the sunny spring day.
Meanwhile, more than 30 miles away, wine enthusiasts assembled on a dusty dirt fairground, spending $16 to sample wines from seven southern New Jersey vintners and dining on hot dogs, cheesesteaks and Italian sausage at the first Hammonton Wine Festival.
Dress was casual, as in jeans and T-shirts, and most of the people came from the immediate vicinity and heard about it by word-of-mouth or social media, such as Facebook.
Wine festivals are big right now, and there is no one way to do them. Saturday’s tale of two wine festivals shows they can be upscale, such as the one sponsored by the Atlantic City Alliance — which even brought in award-winning wine expert and television personality Leslie Sbrocco to host it — or they can be decidedly low-key, such as the one in Hammonton.
They also can have different purposes. The Hammonton Rotary Club sponsored its festival to raise money for its college scholarships and sponsorship of youth sports teams. The Atlantic City Alliance wanted to proclaim to the world that Hurricane Sandy did not damage the Boardwalk and that the city is open for business. All of the city’s casinos were involved.
Atlantic City had 150 wines at seven locations. Hammonton had seven wines at one location. None of that seem to matter much to those drinking the wine.
“The white sangria was amazing. I gave it three stars,” said Jeanette Olson, of Somerdale, Camden County, speaking of the sangria made by DiMatteo Vineyards and Winery of Hammonton.
“I gave it five stars,” chimed in her sister, Cookie Olson, of Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, to which Jeanette explained that she uses a three-star system.
The Olsons had planned to go to the Atlantic City festival, which drew thousands of people, but said they ended up staying closer to home at the Hammonton festival that drew more than 400 people. Instead of drinking French wines, they were tasting some unusual New Jersey vintages, including some made with blueberries and cranberries. A growth of wineries in the Hammonton area, three in town and eight within a 20-minute drive, is fueling enthusiasm for the fermented fruit in this rural farming town.
“We’re getting rid of the stigma about New Jersey wines. We’re holding our own with the wine industry and are starting to be recognized,” said Ollie Tomasello, owner of Plagido’s Winery in Hammonton.
Plagido’s opened in 2007 and is a small operation that produces about 10,000 gallons per year. Tomasello welcomed the festival as a way to get publicity. Customers paid $16 for a wine glass and were able to use it to taste freely at all the tents set up by the vineyards.
“We hope they come to the winery and see us, and buy bottles. This is to get people familiar with New Jersey wines,” Tomasello said.
Nearby, Heidi Bowers, of Shiloh, Cumberland County, talked about working at wine festivals in Cape May County and said Hammonton has what it takes to put one on.
“There are a lot of people here and everybody’s nice. If this one starts to take off, more people will come from different areas,” Bowers said.
Sbrocco was the star of the show in Atlantic City. The host of the PBS series “Check Please!” and a regular on the “Today Show,” Sbrocco opened the festival by using a French sabre to pop the cork off two bottles of champagne. Sabrage, she explained, is a tradition started by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to celebrate victory on the battlefield.
“Keep your fingers crossed. Hopefully it will come off easy and we’ll be ready to drink,” Sbrocco said.
A swipe of the blade sent the cork soaring, and the bubbly flowed. A resident of California, the wine country in the Sonoma Valley, who sports a tattoo of a glass of red wine on her calf, Sbrocco was impressed with the venue and complimentary of the wines being produced on New Jersey’s coastal plain.
“It’s a spectacular setting. I think it’s so scenic, though next year I think we might need a trolley,” Sbrocco said.
The distance between the seven stations was not a problem for Peggy and Chuck Biehl, of Maryland, who heard about the event on the radio and decided to come for the weekend. Chuck Biehl said he was prepared to drink wine and walk all afternoon.
“We’re doing all seven stations today,” Biehl said.
The event also drew Rick and Yvonne Carter, of Brooklyn, N.Y., who went to a wine festival on a pier in Rhode Island and enjoyed the setting. Wine festivals are often held at vineyards, but they liked the idea of wine and the ocean.
“It’s a great combination,” Rick Carter said.
Liza Cartmell, president of the nonprofit Atlantic City Alliance, said the festival helps in multiple ways. It promotes the Do AC slogan coined last year, advertises that the Boardwalk was not damaged by Sandy, and links good food and wine with the city.
“It lets people know we are a great good and wine destination. This is a world-class wine event. It’s not just about gambling. There are shows, restaurants, nightclubs and walking on the beach. We hope to make it an annual spring kick-off,” Cartmell said.
The event also drew wine marketers hoping to attract new business. Alexander Conison was there to make sure the right people tasted his medici eimete concerto lambrusco.
“As a wine marketer, we should be doing more of this. When you think of a wine event, you don’t think of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, but wines can mix with some very incongruous settings,” Conison said.
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