Since his grandfather first arrived here from Germany in 1940, Todd Wuerker’s family has reaped the bounty of their 100 acres of land in Lower Township, growing what was in demand and what was profitable.

It hasn’t always been easy, as frequently the farm’s prize crop became a casualty of the competition from bigger farms. First it was lima beans, then pumpkins.

Eventually it became the task of Wuerker, a third-generation farmer, to find the next sustainable crop: grapes.

More than a decade of planning, planting and pruning later, Wuerker, 39, owner of Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery in Lower Township, has turned 14 acres of farmland into what is quickly becoming a boom cash crop, not just for him but for all of New Jersey.

There may be no other crop in greater demand and with greater profit potential in the Garden State than grapes. And Cape May County’s burgeoning wine industry is seeking a federal designation for their product that reflects what local winemakers believe is a unique geography and climate that sets their wine apart from the rest of the state.

The numbers speak volumes. Only nine wineries operated in New Jersey in 2000. More than 50 exist today, with more planned to open soon. Cape May County boasts six wineries.

For Wuerker, the education came first, before he was even legal to drink what he was researching. He began studying grape-growing and wine-making in the mid 1990s, prior to turning 21. He planted his first grapes in 1997, selling his first harvest five years later to other wineries. All the while, the learning continued. As it still does today.

Sixteen varieties of grapes now grow at Hawk Haven. “We are still learning which grapes grow the best in this area,” says Wuerker. “Europe has been doing it for several thousand years. We’ve only been doing it for several decades.”

But they are apparently doing it well. In their first commercial harvest, Hawk Haven winery produced 8,400 bottles. The 2014 vintage will produce more than 40,000 bottles.

And the wine industry in New Jersey is far from its peak ripeness.

In 2011, the last year a study was done, New Jersey wineries had a total economic impact of $231 million. New Jersey has soared from 18th in the country in wine production to seventh in just four years. A new study may be done next year.

“Over the last 30 years, New Jersey wine pioneers have shown you can grow great fruit and high-quality grapes in New Jersey,” says John Cifelli of the Garden State Wine Growers Association. “And Cape May County has a real advantage because of its location.”

“We’re a mile from Delaware Bay and four miles from the ocean,” says Art Reale, owner of Jessie Creek Winery in Middle Township, one of the county’s newest wineries. Reale says being surrounded by water has a moderating influence on the climate — three to five degrees cooler than the rest of South Jersey in the summer, five to 10 degrees warmer in the winter.

The milder climate, plus the sandy and well-drained nature of the soil “mirrors the climate and soil composition in Bordeaux, France, one of the best wine-growing areas in the world,” Reale says. Al Natali, owner of Natali Vineyards in Middle Township, describes Bordeaux as “an upside-down Cape May County,” saying “theirs sticks north, ours sticks south. They are also at a higher altitude, but otherwise, very similar.”

Winemakers know the Cape May Peninsula is geographically and climatologically unique. And now they have applied to make it official. In the wine world, there’s nothing more official than your own AVA, or American Viticultural Area. And that’s exactly what Cape May County is hoping to attain. Natali is leading the charge.

“We’re not saying we are better than anyone else, “ says Natali, “but we are distinctive.” Natali says some of that distinction comes from the longer growing season in Cape May County. The greater number of frost-free days allows Cape wineries to cultivate cold-sensitive grapes that are more wine-friendly. Another part comes from the saltwater that surrounds the Cape. Natali says breezes off the bay and the ocean deposit potassium and sodium chloride in the soil.

The unique soil composition produces a unique grape, Natali says.

New Jersey currently hosts three American Viticultural Areas. Federally regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an AVA is a grape-growing and wine-producing region with distinct geographic boundaries. The Outer Coastal Plain AVA, first established in 2007, encompasses more than 2 million acres and consists of most of the southern and eastern halves of New Jersey, including Cape May County. As of 2014, there were 28 wineries in the Outer Coastal Plain.

Cape May County winemakers have applied for their own AVA, the Cape May Peninsula.

Natali says they are six months into an 18-month approval process. The technical review, considered the most difficult part of the process, is complete. If all other criteria are met, approval is expected next spring.

But why the quest for a separate distinction? It all comes down to specificity. “The more specific you are in terms of geography is a hallmark of quality in the wine world,” Cifelli says.

Wuerker agrees, saying a special designation such as an AVA will bring “more recognition as a region and development and promotion of the product.”

Not that additional promotion is necessary. Jessie Creek Winery has doubled its production in just a few years, winning nine medals in tasting competitions in the process. Owner Art Reale credits the grapes, saying “95 percent of the quality of the wine is based on what comes off the vine.”

Back at Hawk Haven Winery, there are some vines that Todd Wuerker planted himself. And pruned. And harvested. His voyage of discovery continues today, as does his education. He hopes the product he has cultivated will continue to grow for generations to come.

Contact Dan Skeldon:

609-272-7247

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