An old turn of phrase about wines: If you can’t be with the wine you love, love the wine you’re with.
That’s a sacrifice locals had to make long ago, but during the past decade, the New Jersey wine industry has boomed, and there are now high-quality wines only a short drive away from many of the state’s residents.
The Garden State has four times more wineries and sells three times as many gallons as it did before 2000, and that growth has been coupled with a rising awareness that some of the best grapes in the world can be grown in New Jersey’s climate and soil.
This year has been the best in decades, with weather conditions matching internationally respected regions to produce what vintners are already calling a vintage to be remembered.
“I’m willing to say after 28 years, I have never seen a harvest like this,” said Louis Caracciolo, owner of Amalthea Winery in Waterford Township, Camden County, and president of the Garden State Wine Growers Association. “It’s going to be an amazing vintage. It’s just amazing.”
Amalthea was one of the first wineries in the state to get a license when the Legislature changed a law in 1982 that severely restricted how many licenses could be issued, at that time limiting the state to seven operations.
“You can’t really have an industry with only seven wineries,” said Charlie Tomasello, co-owner of Hammonton’s Tomasello Winery, the largest and one of the oldest in the state.
Today, there are 39 wineries in New Jersey, and eight more are waiting for licenses. They run from the southern tip of Cape May County to the northern peak of Sussex County, bottling a wide range of award-winning products.
A growing number of promotions and festivals is planned to make people more aware of that fact, and legislation is being considered to make it all more available.
“There’s a call to action to go pull some corks,” said Dan Ward, the Rutgers University state extension specialist for fruit. “Tell people to buy some wines, and I think they’ll be surprised by the variety of New Jersey wines.”
Improving with age
Despite being known as a world-class grower of fruits and vegetables, New Jersey has only recently begun to emerge as a wine producer.
Part of that reason is because a blue law limited the state’s wineries to one per every million people. When the Legislature repealed that law 28 years ago, it opened the doors for a new industry to form. But the state already lagged far behind its domestic competitors.
“When that passed, then the boom began,” Caracciolo said.
The pace of adding new wineries picked up in the 1990s, Caracciolo said, when longtime farmers started adding grapes to their repertoire to add value to their land when competition in other crops increased.
He said farmers also realized it was possible to grow respectable grapes in New Jersey as some wineries turned their focus to fine wines, encouraging would-be vintners to get into the market.
About half of the state’s new wineries since 2000 were licensed in southern New Jersey, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control says. Near the shore, Atlantic County added Bellview Winery, DiMatteo Vineyards and Plagido’s Winery. Cape May County added Cape May Winery & Vineyard, Natali Vineyards, Turdo Vineyards & Winery, and Hawk Haven Vineyards.
Cumberland County added Swansea Vineyards in Shiloh. Ocean County added Laurita Winery in Plumsted Township.
Larry Sharrott III, co-owner of Sharrott Winery in Winslow Township, Camden County, received his winery license in 2007.
A software engineer at Lockheed Martin living in Waterford Township, Sharrott developed a passion for brewing beer in college. He got his farther, Larry Sharrott Jr., interested in home brewing and winemaking as well, and together they started planning their own winery.
After talking to industry members, drafting a business plan and searching for more than two years for a proper growing location, they found more than 50 acres on South Egg Harbor Road between Routes 73 and 143.
They first planted their vines in 2004, and three years later came the first harvest. This year, they expect to produce about 4,000 cases, equivalent to about 9,000 gallons.
Around the same time Sharrott III entered the industry, he noticed other producers were beginning to focus more on high-quality fine wines, the dry reds and whites that are commonly found in restaurants.
“We’re kind of getting away from the very sweet wines and fruit wines that were produced,” he said.
Sharrott’s first harvest came just as the state’s southern region earned a federal designation as an American Viticulture Area, or AVA. The Outer Coastal Plain — 2,255,400 acres of land with well-drained sandy loam soils and a climate known for its moderate winter temperatures and later frost dates — is now considered one of the East Coast’s best growing regions and one of about 200 AVAs in the country.
New Jersey also is home to several different mesoclimates — small areas with particular season lengths, humidity and soil types that are more beneficial for certain kinds of grapes.
“One of the beautiful things about New Jersey is the amount of diversity in a small area,” Ward said. “What New Jersey is really searching for is identity, and because there is so much diversity, I think we will have distinct identities, more than one, in this state.”
Cape May is more accommodating for cabernet sauvignon and merlot because of its longer growing season, while northern New Jersey obliges pinot noir and Riesling because of its cooler, higher-elevated environment that is less affected by surrounding water bodies, Ward said.
Al Natali and Ray Pensari, who founded Natali Vineyards in Middle Township, started planting a variety of grapes at their seven-acre farm around 2000, not knowing at the time what would grow best.
They chose to start their post-retirement hobby right in the middle of the Cape May peninsula, where breezes from the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean provide an environment that certain European grape varieties enjoy.
Kevin Celli, manager at the winery, said it turned out that they all worked pretty well.
“The problem is, the wine is doing so well, we’re selling out left and right, that now they’re working for their retirement,” Celli said. “Supply and demand kicked in, and now I think they’re working harder than they did at their careers.”
Getting a taste
While production and quality have improved dramatically in recent years, the imposing hurdle for New Jersey vintners is convincing consumers that the Garden State’s namesake translates to quality wine production. For a long time, there has been a disconnect there, and as recently as 10 years ago, wine experts laughed at the notion.
An official at Wine Spectator, one of the industry’s premier magazines, declined to comment, saying too few New Jersey producers have submitted wines to be tasted for the publication’s judges to offer an opinion.
Marc Caruso, a partner with the Uncorked Consultants firm based in northern New Jersey, said many of the state’s wines have not been rated using industry standards. One of the reasons is that many vineyards are small and cannot deliver out of the state, so there is not much point in paying the fees required to have their wines rated nationally.
Another reason: “Frankly, they’re not thought of as wines that should be rated,” Caruso said with a chuckle.
A recent wave of research and experience into the finer grape varieties has improved the state’s standing in that market, but Caruso said the state is still thought of as simply a fruit winemaker.
“They had a pretty bad reputation because that’s what everyone saw them doing,” he said. “Everyone knows blueberries grow great in New Jersey, but you shouldn’t be making serious wines out of them.”
More recently, however, Caruso said he tried wines produced in New Jersey that astounded him, and plans to recommend them to the restaurants and collectors he advises.
Zita Keeley, a wine specialist from Hoboken who runs the All I Do Is Wine consulting company, said she also has seen the state’s wine improve in recent years, something she attributed to growers learning what grapes grow best here.
“They are definitely getting better techniques to make the drier still wines we enjoy,” she said, but added, “It’s still going to be some time before the public actually knows that.”
A keener focus on quality and a statewide effort to review and approve wines through the Quality Wine Alliance Program also has led to better production overall. To be certified Jersey Fresh quality, wines produced by New Jersey grapes have to pass tests based on categories such as appearance, color, aroma, body and flavor.
The wine growers association has focused recent promotional efforts on staging wine festivals and encouraging enthusiasts to travel the state’s various Wine Trails, which are convenient since many wineries are clustered in close proximity.
Seven wineries are within 14 miles of each other in Camden, Burlington and Atlantic counties. Four wineries are within less than 10 miles of each other in Cape May County.
Another cluster runs through Shiloh, Buena Vista Township and Franklin Township, and there are another four near each other in Salem and Gloucester counties and Ocean, Monmouth and Mercer counties.
“Instead of one destination, they’re visiting a region,” Caracciolo said.
A limiting factor for the state’s smaller wineries has been a ban since 2004 on direct shipments of wine, so that the only way New Jersey growers can sell their products outside the state is through distributors — something only the few largest producers can do.
The state Senate approved a bill reversing that ban in the spring, and the Assembly is now considering it.
Last year, the state’s wineries sold more than 307,000 gallons of wine directly to consumers, while only about 83,000 gallons went to distributors who could sell it outside the state.
“Small, boutique wineries across the country survive and thrive because of their ability to ship to consumers from their websites,” the New Jersey Farm Bureau said in a statement released in June to support the legislation. “As the fifth largest wine-consuming state, New Jersey residents should be able to enjoy the boutique wines produced in their own state via the same means. As the law now stands, they cannot.”
“Our wineries have won national and international acclaim, but many residents aren’t even aware of them because of state law restrictions,” New Jersey Farm Bureau President Richard Nieuwenhuis said in the statement.
The state also used a portion of wine sales to fund research and promotional efforts by the New Jersey Wine Industry Advisory Council. The council prints a variety of promotional materials, organizes festivals and runs publicity programs, as well as puts money toward the science of improving production.
Rich Small, a marketing consultant for the growers association, said the new home-delivery law could be a game changer for the group’s marketing techniques, since it has been limited to promotions inside the state.
When the ban went into effect in 2004, legislators argued that direct shipments made up only a small percentage of growers’ profits. In the six years since then, however, the industry has changed dramatically, and direct shipments could be a way to continue its expansion.
“I think that would change the entire strategy of the organization,” Small said.
Bring the heat
Tomasello’s Winery started harvesting at the end of August, slightly earlier than normal, as vines started to ripen early after a dry, hot season.
The family business owns three acres of vines behind the White Horse Pike property, and another 67 acres divided among three sites in Winslow Township. It produces about 120,000 gallons per year.
The growers association named the third-generation operation, founded in 1933, the 2010 Winery of the Year. The Tomasellos, like most New Jersey farmers, expect this year to blow previous years away.
Based on a variety of factors, such as sugar, acidity, pH level and color, this year’s grapes have all the makings of a banner vintage.
“You can get a pretty good handle on what your wine’s going to be like from the first day you look at the numbers,” Tomasello said.
On a recent morning at one of his fields on Flittertown Road, Tomasello watched as a massive blue machine rumbled up and down the rows of vines, shaking, conveying and bucketing the purple grapes. Those grapes would then go back to the Route 30 facility, churned and separated from their stems and pumped in a steel vat where they would stay to ferment.
Both Tomasello and Caracciolo said New Jersey’s soils and climate share characteristics with the Bordeaux region of France, home to many world-renowned wines. This year, a hot, arid summer created conditions similar to those seen in California’s Napa Valley.
The grapes used for European-style wines are tougher to produce on the East Coast because they are susceptible to diseases absent from where they evolved in Europe but endemic to this part of North America.
This year, however, hot sun and clear skies gave vine leaves plenty of energy for producing the sugars and complex compounds that give grapes the characteristics farmers seek. Growers actually want their vines to suffer slightly, because less water in the ground means less water in the grapes to dilute the flavor.
In recent weeks, hot days have turned to cool nights, another element farmers look for to spur their vines to generate other nuances in their grapes.
“I can’t wait to make the wine out of it,” said Gary Pavlis, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County agricultural agent. “If you have never tasted New Jersey wine, when 2010 hits the stores, you have to try it.”
New Jersey is ranked seventh in overall domestic production, which is much higher than how much wine is actually sold each year since vintners hold their fermenting grape juice in barrels for months and years before bottling and selling it.
Even though New Jersey is among the top 10 domestic producers in the U.S., however, every state pales in comparison to California. The Golden State contributes about 90 percent of the country’s wine, outproducing all but a few countries by itself.
New Jersey churns out less than a quarter of 1 percent of total U.S. production, and Florida and Kentucky both recently surpassed it. But wine producers do not necessarily look for high yields, instead aiming for about the same level of production each year with better tasting grapes.
“It’s more about the quality of wine than the quantity,” Tomasello said.
With that goal in mind, vintners may be toasting 2010 for some time.
“The grapes from this year will hopefully be making wines that will be important for this area for years to come,” Rutgers specialist Ward said.
Contact Lee Procida:
Total 2009 wine
production by state, in gallons
1. California: 634,245,633
2. New York: 26,257,964
3. Washington: 23,712,650
4. Oregon: 6,321,881
5. Kentucky: 1,992,647
6. Florida: 1,869,687
7. New Jersey: 1,703,280
8. Michigan: 1,267,875
9. North Carolina: 1,230,236
10. Virginia: 1,141,490
Source: U.S. Department of Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
Total annual gallons of wine sold by New Jersey wineries since 2000*
*Includes in-state and out-of-state sales.
Sources: N.J. Department of Agriculture, N.J. Department of Treasury