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

Agriculture.

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

varieties

in 16 wineries.

All wineries begin as vineyards growing grapes. Little land is

required

because grapes grow up, not out. However, the startup costs to

purchase

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

palatable.

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

restricted

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

Tomatoes

also grows our grapes. New Jersey’s diverse landscape stretches from

limestone valleys in the north, which has similar composition to

segments

of rich European soil, to warm maritime climates in the south.

Grapevines

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

consistently

guarantee. The Native American grapes used since the first

Thanksgiving

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

grapes

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

that ferment."

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,

"What

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

Tasters

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

Tomasello’s

’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

Vineyards

in Ringoes, over 250 medals strong, added a Gold for its ’98

Chambourcin

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

International

Wine Competition in California, and the Double Gold at Taster’s Guild

Wine Competition. And these are only a recent sampling of New Jersey

achievements.

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

there,"

says Walker.

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

Ontario,

Canada, and its Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA). France has the

well-established

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

represented

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

certified

wine critics and distributors, winemakers and sommeliers, all

professionals

in the tri-state area familiar with regional wines. If a wine is

balanced,

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

education.

"The main focus of what we try to do is put our product in

people’s

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

nation.

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

experience

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

general

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

California."

He carries Unionville varieties, he says, because he once received

a request.

Despite its so-so reputation, New Jersey wines have

garnered the praise of the New York Times, which writes that New

Jersey

wineries "produce award-winning vintages that can proudly stand

up to Sonoma’s finest;" (July 30, 2001) Forbes magazine,

"lesser-known

wine-producing states like Idaho — or Missouri, Ohio and New

Jersey…

rarely get the respect they deserve" (May 25, 2001); and

Philadelphia

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

wineries

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

included.

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

wine.

— Diana Wolf

Resources

Garden State Wine Growers Association , New Jersey wine

line, 800-524-0043. Website: www.newjerseywines.com

TopShelf , 973-699-2199; www.topshelfuncorked.com

Garden State Wine Club , 800-817-9657; www.gswineclub.com

October Activities

6-7 Cream Ridge Winery, Route 539, Cream Ridge,

609-259-9797.

6-7 Four Sisters Winery, Route 519, Belvidere,

908-475-3671.

7 Renault Winery, 72 North Breman Avenue, Egg

Harbor,

609-965-2111.

10 Tomasello Winery, 225 White Horse Pike,

Hammonton,

800-666-9463.

11 Poor Richard’s Winery, 220 Ridge Road,

Frenchtown,

908-996-6480.

13-14 Alba Vineyard, 269 Route 627, Milford,

908-995-7800.

13-14 Amwell Valley Vineyard, 80 Old York Road,

Ringoes, 908-788-5852.

20-21 Unionville Winery, 9 Rocktown Road, Ringoes,

908-788-0400.

21 Har-Fest 2001, New Jersey Museum of Agriculture,

College Farm Road, New Brunswick, 609-452-1515.


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