The Jessie Creek Winery has 700 cases of priceless bottled wine - priceless, meaning they're not for sale.

No one is allowed to buy the wine.

The vineyard is one of 15 in New Jersey awaiting licenses from the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is withholding winery permits until it settles a lawsuit challenging wine regulations.

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"This will be our tasting room," Art Reale, co-owner of Jessie Creek, said as he opened the door to a space filled with boxes of wine stacked nearly six feet high. "But, as you can see, there's no room."

Reale and longtime friend Bruce Morrison bought nearly five acres of land on North Delsea Drive in Cape May Court House three years ago, each pouring their life savings into opening a bed-and-breakfast on the land, building a banquet hall and starting a professional winemaking operation.

In September, they were bottling and sure they would receive a license once they filled out all the necessary paperwork. But in December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled New Jersey's wine laws are unconstitutional, and the ABC stopped issuing licenses until the courts give them permission.

Now, wineries statewide are sitting on their product, unable to sell or even give it away.

"The fact that they let this go this far without taking any action is very embarrassing for our state," said Barbara Wilde, owner of the historic Southern Mansion hotel in Cape May, who is also seeking a winery license for her 50-acre vineyard. "The entrepreneur is the backbone of our economy, and for them to not be backing us all the way is truly disgusting."

The appeals court ruled that the state should give in-state and out-of-state wineries the same opportunities to sell their products in New Jersey, either through shipping the wine to consumers' doorsteps or through brick-and-mortar outlets such as tasting rooms, restaurants and shops.

This week, the state Legislature failed to approve a bill that could resolve those issues.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan, D-Union, sponsored a bill that passed the Assembly and would allow all wineries to open such outlets in New Jersey but would prohibit direct shipments.

That bill stalled in the state Senate until Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, proposed an amendment Monday that essentially made Cryan's bill identical to a bill Sweeney sponsored, adding in the allowance for direct shipments and increasing the number of outlets wineries could open.

When that amended bill passed the Senate and went back to the Assembly, Cryan proposed amending the bill back to what he originally proposed. The Assembly passed the amendment, and there the bill sits. While the chamber will meet again in July, it is unclear when they will take up the proposal again.

Meanwhile, the courts must still decide whether New Jersey's wine-sales laws are constitutional. A lawsuit dating to 1993, now called Freeman v. Christie, was sent back from the appeals court to the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, which has to decide how to make the state's regulations conform to the Constitution's "Dormant" Commerce Clause, which essentially implies that states cannot discriminate against interstate commerce.

The court can either say that all the country's wineries can ship and sell wines at outlets in New Jersey, or none can - and that's what terrifies New Jersey winemakers. If the latter were to happen, every winery would be forced to work with wholesale distributors, and most are too small to make a profit in such a system.

"We as the winery industry are in some serious danger, and all the rest of this is a lot of posturing and positioning that is obviously absurd," said Scott Donnini, co-owner of Auburn Road Vineyards in Pilesgrove Township, Salem County, and in-house counsel for the Garden State Wine Growers Association, the group that represents 33 of the state's 39 wineries.

"I understand the litigation process," he said. "On the legislative side, this is disgusting to me, frankly. It's truly disturbing."

On Friday, the growers association released a statement praising Sweeney's efforts but expressing disappointment that the bill has stalled.

"We applaud the efforts of Senate President Sweeney and the bipartisan support he garnered in the Senate to protect the future of the New Jersey wine industry," Ollie Tomasello, president of the group and owner of Plagido's Winery in Hammonton, said in the statement. "At the same time, we are fearful that the clock is ticking on our industry since the inaction of the Assembly has placed New Jersey wine owners at the mercy of a U.S. District Court judge that can take action on this matter and potentially close most of our wineries."

The growers association is trying to intervene in the court case. Judge Katharine Hayden already denied their motion once, and on Monday the association filed a motion for reconsideration, which it expects a decision on by mid-July.

Meanwhile, the other parties in the case - the state is the defendant and a California winery and two New Jersey couples are plaintiffs - are supposed to meet to discuss a remedy to the situation before July 15 and report to the court by August if they cannot agree to terms.

Robert Epstein, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the goal is still to allow for direct shipments in and from outside the state.

"New Jersey is a little bit behind the times in adopting a law that would permit this," said Epstein, who has handled similar cases involving wine shipment regulations in other states. Epstein was on the winning legal team in the 2005 Supreme Court case Granholm vs. Heald, which established the precedent that influenced the Third Circuit appeals court decision rendering New Jersey's laws unconstitutional.

New Jersey winemakers say that wines from out of the state are already shipped here regularly from companies across the U.S. that simply do not declare they are sending wine to consumers.

"Retailers are shipping now. Everybody's aware of it," said Jim Quarella, co-owner of Bellview Winery in Buena, Atlantic County. "Most of the people you tell that shipping is illegal, they say, ‘What? What are you talking about?'"

But local winemakers say they simply want to make an honest living of growing grapes in the Garden State, without government getting in their way.

In southern New Jersey, the waiting list includes Southwind Vineyard in Bridgeton, Cumberland County; Salem Oak Vineyards in Oldmans Township, Salem County; and Summit City Farms in Glassboro and Villari Vineyards in Washington Township, Gloucester County.

Debra Basile said her family also is on that list.

She and her husband bought a 30-acre farm in Upper Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, to start the Monroeville Vineyard & Winery, a dream of theirs since they met 20 years ago.

After years of work and thousands of dollars worth of equipment and chemicals, the family has 1,000 gallons of wine at their farm.

But the Basiles cannot sell the wine yet, and the couple is saddled in debt.

"This dream now is kind of stuck because of what's going on," Basile said.

Contact Lee Procida:


2010 bulk wine production by state, in gallons

1. California: 606,448,660

2. New York: 25,248,204

3. Washington: 19,787,791

4. Oregon: 4,907,368

5. Kentucky: 2,247,492

6. Florida: 2,018,975

7. New Jersey: 1,519,742

8. North Carolina: 1,201,487

9. Missouri: 1,095,131

10. Ohio: 1,093,443

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

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