Two years ago, at the Tasters Guild International Wine Competition, which had more than 1,950 entry wines from 16 countries and 32 states and provinces, it was a New Jersey winery - Alba Vineyard in Milford - that took home the Gold Medal in the Chardonnay competition.
To tout New Jersey's exceptional wineries, a full-scale wine festival that includes music, art, and food was just a matter of time. The Chauncey Conference Center at Educational Testing Service is the site for the first ever "Great Grapes! Wine, Arts & Food Festival" to come to New Jersey. The event takes place Saturday and Sunday, June 25 and 26. "We're like the circus," says festival producer Greg Nivens, "only we bring wine instead of elephants.
"I don't like titles. I prefer to call myself 'the wine guy,'" says Nivens, whose company, Moorea Marketing, produces the show, called "Uncork the Fun." Nivens has already uncorked similar festivals in North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, with New Jersey about to be added to the "Great Grapes" list.
And for good reason.
According to Nivens, New Jersey is now on the national map as a "wine state," meaning that the state's wineries are being recognized as they proliferate.
Donna Csolak, spokesperson for the Garden State Wine Growers Association New Jersey, says New Jersey wines are making their mark. "Today New Jersey is the fifth-largest wine producing state in the country, bringing prestige, money, jobs, and more than a quarter million tourists to the state," says Csolak. (California, Washington, New York, and Oregon are ahead). "Wine grape growing is the highest value fruit crop in the nation and preserves farmland, generates jobs, exports, tax revenues, tourism, and of course, outstanding wines."
The non-profit association represents the state's 27 wineries, which collectively bottle over 1 million gallons of wine. It was started in the mid-1980s by the owners of New Jersey's commercial wineries and vineyards. Thanks to its fertile soil and moderating winds from the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean, New Jersey is ripe for growing wine grapes.
But timing is everything. And Nivens points out that in the last decade wine is making it onto the radar screen of a broader cross-section of the populus, partly because of a backlash against the fast-food mentality. "Savoring food has become a national trend, and with that savoring and appreciating comes wine," says Nivens, adding that because wine is one of the few commodities that is cheaper than it used to be, consumers are even more interested in experiencing it and enjoying it. Additionally television shows like those on the Food Network are educating the general public, not just "foodies," about the intricacies and nuances of wine.
And then there was that movie. "Sideways has had a huge impact on the ever-increasing interest in wine," says Nivens. "The undercurrent was always out there, and then along comes that movie and that main character, just a normal everyday school teacher, a kind of everyman. And suddenly, we've got a real trend going."
Depending on where you are on the scale of wine knowledge, the "Great Grapes!" festival may immerse you deeper into the world of red, white, and rose, or it may serve as an introduction to the pleasures of wine. On the other hand, it may just be a fun way to spend a summer weekend day.
"The concept is that festivals and families go together," says Nivens, who is quick to point out that the festival will be family-friendly in every way, with kids, of course, having access to non-alcoholic beverages.
The festival features wine tastings, wine seminars, exhibitions, and sales of wine accessories. Also on tap will be tasting and sales of gourmet food items from exotic cheeses to olive oils, along with cooking demonstrations throughout the weekend.
"Under tents, more than 15 New Jersey wineries will be offering over 150 wines, including merlots, Cabernets, Chardonnays, and Rieslings," said Nivens. "So there's a real chance to experience lots of flavors and varieties with expert guidance, and to take home the ones that are most appealing."
Wine "pairing" classes will also take place throughout the weekend, with experts explaining how best to match particular wines with complementary foods for maximum impact.
A festival isn't a festival without music. Nivens says the Saturday, June 25 line-up includes jazz guitarist BD Lenz, performing from noon to 1:30 p.m,. and the jazz musicians of the David Bach Consort from 2 to 3:30 p.m.; Blue Number Nine from 4 to 6 p.m. On Sunday, June 26, Shawn Grace, a Celtic flutist, performs from noon to 1:30 p.m. Roxy Perry, known as the "Blues Queen," will take center stage from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The VooDudes perform at 4 to 6 p.m.
Acting Governor Richard Codey has proclaimed June as "New Jersey Wine Month," with the goal of heightening awareness and pride in the state's wineries. In addition to experiencing significant growth, New Jersey wineries have been garnering prestigious awards.
Equally impressive as the award won by Alba Vineyard was the showing of Unionville Vineyards of Ringoes at the recent Pacific Rim International Wine Competition. This competition received more than 2,200 entries from throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. In the end, it was Unionville Vineyards that was awarded the Gold Medal in the Cabernet Sauvignon category. Both the Alba and Unionville wineries will participate in the Great Grapes Festival.
More bragging rights: New Jersey wines are on Smith & Wollensky's prestigious Wine List of America and are served at the Culinary Institute of America, at Gramercy Park Tavern in New York City, and at many other prestigious restaurants. Nivens says: "New Jersey's thriving wine industry is definitely something to celebrate." Great Grapes Wine, Arts, and Food Festival, Saturday and Sunday, June 25 and June 26, noon to 6 p.m. Chauncey Conference Center at ETS, 660 Rosedale Road, Princeton. $20 at the door; $15 for designated drivers and tickets purchased in advance, includes performances, cooking demonstrations, a souvenir wine glass and wine tastings. Children under 12 are free. 1-800-830-3976, ext. 108, or visit www.uncorkthefun.com