The white marquis grapes - among other varieties - are growing plump and thick on the vine in neat rows at Plagido's Winery in Hammonton. The same scenario is playing out at DiMatteo's Vineyards and Tomasello Winery across town, and a few miles down the road at Renault Winery Resort and Golf in Egg Harbor City.

The sweltering summer days paired with cool nights are providing a boost to the grape crop, and this year's harvest is starting earlier than normal, farmers said last week. The possibility of a good harvest is welcomed by the wine makers - especially given the record-setting amount of rain last year that damaged many grape crops.

New Jersey has 39 registered wineries, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Consumption said. The total amount of wine produced in the Garden State has been growing. A total of 307,801 gallons were sold in 2009, an increase of 25,380 gallons over 2008, the state Department of Agriculture said.

Ollie Tomasello, who runs Plagido's Winery and has no relation to Tomasello Winery, said all seven grape varieties growing on the nine-acre farm are doing well, and workers started picking the early American varieties Aug. 26 - nearly three weeks earlier than last year.

The amount of sugar in the early fruit has measured to 21 brix, about 1.5 points shy of optimal, Tomasello said during a tour last week. If the weather keeps up, 2010 is going to be a great harvest year, said Tomasello, who also serves as vice chairman of the Garden State Wine Growers Association. "Wine made from it and bottled in 2011 is good vintage," he said.

Tomasello said the grape harvest will continue until the first or second week of October, and then the busy season will set in with holiday sales and wine making. The family-owned winery, which was founded in August 2007, makes about 3,000 cases per year.

Joseph Milza, owner of the historic Renault Winery, said most of the grapes on the 48-acre farm on the Egg Harbor City and Galloway border are having an excellent start in maturing well on the vine. "The quality of the fruit is phenomenal, and this year could be a fantastic vintage," he said.

The hot days and cool nights work well with grapes because the dryness helps keep the sugar content high - about 21 to 23 brix, said David DeMarsico, Renault's director of wine and vineyard operations. The harvesting started about two weeks early and that is a huge improvement over last year's harvest, which was hampered by the heavy rain the region experienced in June 2009 and subsequent months.

Renault Winery's annual grape-stomping festival Aug. 29 drew a large crowd, and Milza said another festival is set for October to mark the end of the harvest. The winery, which was founded in 1864, makes about 20,000 cases per year, Milza said.

Milza noted that the winery is selling a Chianti wine again this year after a long dry spell - the winery stopped producing it in the late 1940s and 1950s when it fell out of fashion. With the more favorable growing weather this summer, Milza said, the winery might be able to use its own Chianti grapes in the 2011 wine instead of buying them from other local farms.

Tomasello Winery started harvesting grapes on its 70-acre property Aug. 20, about two weeks earlier than normal, said Charlie Tomasello, who co-owns the business with his brother, Jack. The third-generation family-owned winery has been around since 1933, and it produces more than 25,000 cases of wine per year, Charlie Tomasello said.

Charlie Tomasello said grape growers are probably the only farmers who love the stifling hot, dry weather, because it improves the fruit. He noted that grape vines have a deep root system and the fruits do not get as stressed out by dryness as other crops do.

"It's like baking cookies," Tomasello said. "You got to put so much energy into the cookie to make it bake, and you have so many hot days to make it ripe."

If the heat continues throughout September, the grape harvest could end early, Tomasello said, but if it cools in the middle of the month, the harvest could go on until mid-October.

Over at DiMatteo's Vineyard and Winery on Eighth Street, the father-and-son team of Frank DiMatteo Jr. and Frank DiMatteo III have been tending their 14 acres of farmland at four locations throughout Hammonton.

The DiMatteos said the grape crop was poor last year and the family-owned farm lost a lot of fruit to rot, mold and low sugar content. This year, the DiMatteos said, the weather has been ideal, pointing to vines laden with white and red orbs. "What's beautiful about the harvest is the dry weather - the (grape) juice is pure sugar, not water," Frank DiMatteo III said. "If a grape absorbs too much water, it could blow up."

DiMatteo Jr. said the biggest problem so far has been fending off the deer who love picking the fruit off the vine. Farmers have been putting up more fencing, and Frank DiMatteo Jr. said he stays up at night in the fields with air horns to frighten the animals.

The DiMatteos said they are optimistic about the wine season and they are putting together their first event - a grape-stomp festival and buffet Sept. 11. The family-owned winery was founded in 2001 and it makes about 4,000 to 5,000 gallons per year, DiMatteo Jr. said.

Grape-growing troubles aside, the DiMatteos agreed the New Jersey stigma is the only other hurdle they have to face.

"The problem the wine industry has is we can't get people to understand we make as good a wine as California," DiMatteo Jr. said. "Try the New Jersey wine. It's locally grown."

Contact Michelle Lee:

609-272-7256

If you go

Egg Harbor City

Renault Winery Resort and Golf, 72 N. Bremen Ave., 609-965-2111

Hammonton

DiMatteo's Vineyards and Winery, 951 8th St., 609-704-1414

Plagido's Winery, 570 N. First Road, 609-567-4633

Tomasello Winery, 225 White Horse Pike, 1-800-666-9463

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