Everyone knows New Jersey is the Garden State. But it could just as easily have been called the Vineyard State. No less a grape grandee than Thomas Bramwell Welch — as in Welch’s grape juice — began operations in 1869 in, appropriately enough, Vineland, New Jersey. New Jersey viticulture goes back to colonial times and, despite the massive blow dealt by Prohibition, continues to thrive. Today New Jersey is the fifth largest wine-producing state in the U.S.

The Garden State Wine Growers Association sponsors the Jersey Fresh Food and Wine Festival in celebration of the award-winning in-state wineries, as well as local eateries that use Jersey farm produce and encourage “slow food” over fast food. Five restaurants and one artisanal ice cream shop/bakery will be offering tasty examples of their culinary skills and vintners from over 25 New Jersey wineries will be pouring (and selling) their wines at this year’s festival on Saturday and Sunday, August 9 and 10, at Hopewell Valley Vineyards in Pennington.

Sergio and Barbara Neri own and run Hopewell Valley Vineyards, which has played host to the Jersey Fresh Festival for several years now. “If you look at history, before Prohibition New Jersey was one of the largest states for growing grapes,” says Sergio Neri. And just as in the pre-Prohibition era, Italian immigrants like Neri continue to play a leading role.

Born in Milan, Italy, Sergio Neri grew up with winemaking. “My father, Giuseppe, was an engineer and he worked in industrial business, but we always had vineyards as a side business,” says Neri. “We had vineyards in Tuscany, in the Brunello di Montalcino region. It was more than a hobby but not our family’s main source of income.”

Neri first came to the United States in the 1980s, then returned to Italy. In the later 1990s he returned to America and bought the 75-acre property off of Route 31 in Pennington, but didn’t start growing grapes until 2001. “We have 21 acres planted now with vines,” Neri says. “We started from scratch. The entire farm has 70 acres available and there’s another 20-acre field to plant.”

Neri started with Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Chambourcin, a varietal that has proven quite successful in New Jersey. But true to his Piedmontese heritage, he recently planted vines for one of Italy’s best-loved red grapes, Barbera. “Three years ago we planted Barbera and more Chardonnay. The Barbera has become one of the more popular wines. In fact, it’s our most popular red,” Neri says.

That’s easy to understand. Soft, smooth, and pleasantly fruity, Barbera makes for a friendly, medium-bodied red that drinks well on its own or with a variety of pasta or meat dishes. It’s also absolutely ideal with pizza — in fact, Hopewell’s own Nomad Pizza Company (U.S. 1, June 27, 2007), is one of the restaurants participating in the Jersey Fresh festival.

Neri prides himself on how well his native Barbera has taken to Jersey soil. And with a sense of humor he also boasts about how much of it he grows: “I am the largest producer of Barbera in New Jersey — it’s not that hard since I’m really the only one who grows it.”

Along with Barbera, Neri produces several white wines. “Chardonnay really grows well in New Jersey,” he says. “I grow some Traminette, a relative of Gewurztraminer. I also make a white Port using Vidal Blanc.”

With its Gewurztraminer-like aromatics and flavors, Traminette pairs nicely with spicier foods, such as Indian and Thai-influenced dishes. Traditionally served chilled, white Port is more an aperitif than a dessert wine, but another way to serve it as a real thirst-quencher is to mix it with equal parts of tonic water over ice and throw in a lemon slice.

But on a typical August day in central Jersey, what could be better than a glass of well-chilled Pinot Grigio? Describing his traditional approach to making this wine, Neri says, “Our Pinot Grigio is not aged in oak because it’s supposed to be a crisp, light wine, so we age it entirely in stainless steel.” Ah, just as Nature intended. The result is a wine that refreshes, a perfect aperitif that also goes wonderfully well with hors d’oeuvres and shellfish — perhaps some grilled shrimp or bacon-wrapped scallops?

Aside from hosting the Jersey Fresh Food and Wine Festival, Hopewell Valley Vineyards maintains a regular, year-round schedule of events. “We have a pretty constant flow of people to the vineyard, especially in the fall,” Neri says. “We do a lot of events, like music nights where we stay open late till 8 p.m. Every Friday we have a different event at the vineyard. And we work with local restaurants.”

Joining Nomad Pizza Company at the Jersey Fresh Festival this year are the Brothers Moon in Hopewell; Tre Piani Restaurant in Princeton Forrestal Village; the Underground Cafe and the Bent Spoon, both in Princeton; and High Street Grill in Mt. Holly.

Having hosted the festival before, Neri knows what to expect: “We get thousands of people. It’s really a lot of fun.” He also happily adds, “And we sell a lot of wine, too.”

Still, despite festivals, individual advertising, and robust awareness campaigns by the Garden State Wine Growers Association, being a vintner in New Jersey has its challenges. Just as California-centric consumers once turned up their noses at wines from Oregon and Washington, many Americans would dismiss a New Jersey cuvee without even a sip.

“New Jersey wine is improving every year,” Neri says. “It’s getting to be a consistent product. But it takes time to establish a reputation. The association is doing a lot to promote New Jersey wine, but it’s still tough. New Jersey is one of the biggest states for wine consumption yet only one percent of wine consumed in New Jersey is actually from New Jersey.”

That might sound like a disheartening statistic, but someone like Neri understands the figure in its proper perspective. Despite over 200 years of winemaking tradition, American viticulture is really in its infancy. Prohibition may have decimated California’s wineries, but it wiped out just about all of New Jersey’s. Perhaps in another 10 years, wine connoisseurs will extol the virtues of Jersey Barbera the same way they praise Oregon Pinot Noir. Like “slow foods,” wine takes time.

For now, Neri focuses on crafting quality wines made from grapes grown on his own estate. But like any winemaker, he is also a businessman. After citing the percentage of New Jersey wine consumption, he follows up with an optimistic observation: “It means that there’s lots of room for growth.”

Jersey Fresh Festival, Saturday and Sunday, August 9 and 10, noon to 5 p.m., Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington. Tastings, live music, food vendors including the Brothers Moon, Tre Piani, Bent Spoon, the Underground Cafe, and Nomad Pizza. Rain or shine. $20. www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com or 609-737-4465.

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