New Jersey has great soil for growing things. If only its climate for growing businesses were as good.

Then we might not see situations such as the current stalemate that is threatening our young but promising wine industry.

New Jersey has 39 wineries that grow 40 varieties of grapes and also produce various fruit wines. The state Department of Agriculture says they produce a million gallons a year, making New Jersey the seventh largest wine-producing state. Given a chance, our merlots could one day be as famous as our tomatoes.

But a recent court ruling has stifled the growth of this industry, and, so far, the Legislature has been unable to make the simple changes necessary to get things back on track.

In December, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the state's wine laws unconstitutional because they didn't give out-of-state wineries the same chance to sell wines directly to consumers that in-state vineyards had.

The ruling put in doubt the legality of tasting rooms, an essential part of most successful wineries. The Division of Alcohol and Beverage Control has stopped issuing licenses for wineries and retail outlets, leaving 15 new vineyards and 20 potential outlets in limbo.

It also leaves the state's existing wineries, many of which are in the southern part of the state, unsure of the future of their tasting rooms.

Competing bills in the Assembly and Senate would each rectify this situation, but in different ways.

The Senate bill would allow wineries to sell their product on site and ship directly to consumers. The Assembly bill would prohibit wineries from direct shipping. To sell off-site, they would have to go through traditional alcoholic beverage distribution channels - wholesalers and liquor stores.

The impasse needs to be resolved. Without a law that legalizes direct sales, it is doubtful that small wineries will survive. But the Assembly version, which seems more concerned with trying to protect wine wholesalers than helping wine growers, could keep this budding industry from thriving.

By allowing wineries to ship limited amounts directly to consumers, New Jersey would help encourage an industry that could bring jobs, help save family farms and preserve open space without using taxpayer dollars.

Given the chance, wineries could also be an important part of the state's tourism industry. Tasting rooms aren't simply stores, they are experiences. Already they offer an alternative to vacationers who are looking for more to do than gamble or go to the beach. And they attract upscale visitors who spend money on restaurants and hotel rooms.

When lawmakers return from their summer recess, they should take this measure up again and resolve it in a way that encourages, rather than stifles, the entrepreneurs who are trying to bring new fruits to the Garden State.


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