Corrections or additions?
This article by Diana Wolf was prepared for the October 3, 2001 edition
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From NJ Vines to Wines
When New Jersey comes to mind, your first thought may
not be "wine." With New Jersey wineries currently in 8 of
21 counties producing over 187,000 gallons — that’s one million
bottles — maybe it should be.
"It’s a serious learning curve just to make drinkable wine, let
alone great wine that people would pay for," says Bill Walker,
agricultural marketing specialist for New Jersey Department of
Born and raised in Hamilton Square, and with a master’s degree in
agriculture economics and marketing from Rutgers’ Cook College, he’s
proud to be part of this growth for 10 years. New Jersey ranks in
the top 15 of the 48 wine producing states, producing over 40
in 16 wineries.
All wineries begin as vineyards growing grapes. Little land is
because grapes grow up, not out. However, the startup costs to
the land, vines, posts and wires, chemicals, and pesticides are not
for the inexperienced or those lacking finances. The first harvest
comes after the first three to four years of allowing the grapes to
shrivel up and fall off the vine, returning nutrients back into the
soil. Then chemistry is introduced to make that first bottle
The first bottle of wine is ready as long as weather doesn’t destroy
the vines or incorrect grapes haven’t been planted, both of which
start the four-year cycle over again. Even after that first bottle,
a profit isn’t expected for 10 years.
"Wine is grown in the field, not something you just mix up in
a laboratory," Walker says, fielding approximately two phone calls
a week from interested prospects, most of whom he discourages. What
looks like a glamorous pastime or easy retirement venture is hard
work with a fine tradition.
The state’s winemaking history traces back to 1767, winning accolades
from London’s Royal Society of the Arts for its wine. Vineland, a
town in South Jersey, is named after the plentiful grapevines that
existed there. When Prohibition ended in 1933, New Jersey law
total number of wineries to seven, which was one winery per 1 million
residents. The Farm Wine Act in 1981 removed this restriction, and
legislated a percentage of wine tax to market wine. With the vineyard
numbers swelling and money to support the growth, the Garden State
Wine Growers Association (GSWGA) was born. From buying products in
bulk to networking growing information, this nonprofit organization
is both a support group and a marketing arm.
Promoting wine in this state is natural: after all, New Jersey is
the Garden State. The same soil that flavors our famous Jersey
also grows our grapes. New Jersey’s diverse landscape stretches from
limestone valleys in the north, which has similar composition to
of rich European soil, to warm maritime climates in the south.
are sensitive, thriving only in compatible dirt.
The traditional "Old World" Vinifera grapes — Chardonnay,
Riesling, Merlot, and Cabernet — produce 99 percent of all wines,
but require longer growing seasons than New Jersey climate can
guarantee. The Native American grapes used since the first
in 1623 — Delaware, Niagra, Catawba, and Concord — are hardy,
but not as flavorful. New Jersey grapes are mostly French-American
Hybrid: Chambourcin, Chancellor, Seyval Blanc, and Cayuga. These
combine traditional flavor with sustenance against disease and New
Jersey’s rapid and drastic climate changes.
"People are so hung up that wine is some mysterious highbrow kind
of a thing, and it’s not," says Walker. "It’s squashed grapes
The alcohol content of wine comes from fermentation, which need not
come from a vine. Wine "snobs" turn their noses up at wine
made from anything other than grapes, but in Walker’s opinion,
is the best thing New Jersey does? I’d have to say fruit wines."
Fruit wines blend more sugars and acids to achieve the complicated
balanced aftertaste of fruit rather than the cough-syrupy sweetness
a poor fruit wine exhibits. Most New Jersey wineries specialize in
one or two fruit wines.
Regardless of how wine is made, how does it taste? The
awards are testament to the quality of wines produced. The 2001
Guild International Wine Competition attracted 1,760 wines and awarded
a Gold Medal to both Tomasello Winery’s ’99 Cabernet Sauvignon and
Alba Vineyard’s Red Raspberry, as well as a Silver Medal to
’99 Blanche Noir and Alba’s ’99 Heritage Red and ’99 Blueberry.
Alba’s Red Raspberry also won the rare Double Gold over 500 other
wines entered at the 2000 International Taster’s Guild Fourth Annual
Wine Lover’s Competition, joining the company of other Double Gold
winners Gallo, Raymond, Stone Creek, and 11 others. Unionville
in Ringoes, over 250 medals strong, added a Gold for its ’98
at Pacific Rim 2000 Wine Competition, the ’98 Windfall Riesling won
Best In State at International Eastern Wine Competition in New York,
the ’97 Windfall Riesling won the Chairman’s Gold at Riverside
Wine Competition in California, and the Double Gold at Taster’s Guild
Wine Competition. And these are only a recent sampling of New Jersey
It’s almost incomprehensible that something this good amounts to only
1 percent of the wine consumed in this state, but New Jersey wines
do not have the name recognition as a California or Italian wine.
Due to the voluntary lack of reciprocal agreements with other states,
New Jersey wine is sold only in New Jersey. This keeps the competition
out, but it also prevents recognition. People unfamiliar with wine
order whatever tasted decent at a restaurant or party, clinging to
that wine type like an identifiable brand name. If customers don’t
know to ask for New Jersey wine, liquor stores and restaurants may
not carry them. "We can’t change an impression that’s not
That lack of impression is part of the reason the New Jersey Quality
Wine Alliance (NJQWA) was established this year. Innovative as the
only statewide quality alliance, the NJQWA models itself after
Canada, and its Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA). France has the
AOC in France; Italy and Germany have comparable organizations.
The NJQWA is a seal of approval from the state that the particular
"New Jersey" wine — defined as wine produced with at least
75 percent New Jersey fruit — meets or exceeds standards
of that wine. Any wine made in New Jersey — regardless of where
the fruit come from — can receive the QWA designation.
Wineries voluntarily submit any or all "New Jersey wines"
they release. Evaluation occurs in a blind taste test scored by
wine critics and distributors, winemakers and sommeliers, all
in the tri-state area familiar with regional wines. If a wine is
tasting representative of that particular wine type, then the NJQWA
logo can be placed on its bottle cap foil or wine label. Most wines
submitted have been approved, and the proud wineries are currently
switching their labels over to reflect this.
Meeting commercial standards guarantee a likable wine, but everyone
has a personal taste preference. The best way to know what you like
is to sample it, and that’s the approach behind New Jersey’s wine
festivals. GSWGA sponsors monthly events every May through October.
The $10 admission cost includes a wine glass and all wine samples.
The opportunity exists to learn from the winemaker directly, to speak
with the grower of the grapes, receiving a first hand personal
"The main focus of what we try to do is put our product in
mouths," Walker says. "We’re growing wine enthusiasts."
However, wineries don’t survive on festivals alone. Most wine is sold
retail at the wineries or an outlet location, with 40 percent sold
between October and New Year’s Day. Wineries need educated, interested
consumers. One man with such a mission is George Staikos, president
and founder of the Flemington-based TopShelf. His wine appreciation
classes are designed to promote comfort and confidence from liquor
store shelves to a restaurant wine list.
Staikos worked for 15 years in food and beverage jobs around the
He left his most recent job, as sommelier at the Hilton Short Hills,
in 1999 to start TopShelf. He says traveling with his father in the
airline business when younger, he experienced wine as an everyday
"lifestyle beverage," and incorporates that attitude in his
classes. Wine enthusiasts and novices alike leave Staikos’ class with
handouts of maps, food and wine pairings, and government regulations
for that region. Each class involves tasting seven wines, developing
the skills necessary to identify a full-body wine after tasting seven
wines. Interest has grown his business from a single college class
to five eight-week sessions scheduled for 2002. This fall, classes
are being offered at the Doral Forrestal in Princeton, and in Basking
Ridge and Red Bank.
"People have to have a vice," says Staikos, whose first
of New Jersey wines took place at Unionville. His reaction: "Geez,
I didn’t think it’d be this good." He plans to devote a wine class
to New Jersey wines in the future. "When people think of the wine
country, they think of Napa or Sonoma, California. Campaign to visit
the wine country in your backyard."
Laurent Chapuis, owner of Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop said in
New Jersey wines "lack soul and character;" although he has
tasted a fine Chambourcin from Tomasello. Mark Bovenizer, proprietor
of Community Liquors in Princeton, has a favorite wine in Unionville’s
Riesling, stating "you’ll not get too much better from
He carries Unionville varieties, he says, because he once received
Despite its so-so reputation, New Jersey wines have
garnered the praise of the New York Times, which writes that New
wineries "produce award-winning vintages that can proudly stand
up to Sonoma’s finest;" (July 30, 2001) Forbes magazine,
wine-producing states like Idaho — or Missouri, Ohio and New
rarely get the respect they deserve" (May 25, 2001); and
magazine comments on Alba’s Red raspberry wine, calling it "not
only good to drink, it’s amazing."
Intrigued? Wondering where you, too, can sip a New Jersey wine? Where
are these wineries located? "Discovering New Jersey Wineries,"
a recent book by Kevin Atticks, may be just what you need. The author
of two other wine travel books, Atticks began his wine experience
in South Jersey. It was New Jersey residents’ lack of knowledge of
the quality of wine in their own backyard which persuaded him to write
the book. "(New Jersey’s wine industry is) truly amazing: their
ideas, winemaking skills and sheer confidence in every move were,
at times, daunting," he writes in his book.
The information about each winery focuses on the buildings the
are housed in, the history of the vineyards and grapes planted, the
immediate surroundings, price ranges of wines. In keeping with the
current wine and food pairing trend, each winery donates a recipe
and a wine suggestion. Ample maps are included, as is all relevant
contact information. A glossary in the back demystifies common wine
terms for the consumer. Suggestions of wine trails, wineries grouped
in a regional area and convenient to travel to within an afternoon,
are also included. Local restaurants and hotel accommodations are
What benefits this hidden treasure is public awareness and longer
experience. Europe’s wine reputation has grown over centuries, and
California’s for decades, while most wineries in New Jersey are less
than 10 years old. Not bad for little upstarts in the big world of
— Diana Wolf
line, 800-524-0043. Website: www.newjerseywines.com
College Farm Road, New Brunswick, 609-452-1515.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.