In the Vineyards, an Interest in the Classics
With 17 wineries ranging from northwesterly Warren County south east to Cape May, New Jersey has established itself as a minor wine region whose still wines--white and red, dry, semidry and sweet--and sparkling wines deserve attention at home, in retail shops and restaurants statewide.
The impetus for a modern New Jersey wine industry was provided in 1981 by enactment of the Farm Winery Act, allowing producers to make up to 50,000 gallons a year. Until then, vestigial post-Prohibition regulations had allowed one winery for every million state residents.
The state's wine industry has been "rowing slowly since the mid-1980's. Although Trenton does not have up-to-date information on total acreage planted to grapes, in 1998 there were 78,177 cases of the state's wines sold as against 66,300 in 1993, with perhaps 13 wineries.
"The trend is toward vinifera," said Bill Walket, the State Department of Agriculture's liaison with the New Jersey wine industry, referring to classic European grapes like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. "There is a lot of interest in South Jersey: people don't want to fight Mother Nature, and there is the maritime climate." Promising potential vineyard sites lie in Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties.
Numbers of wines are still made from hardy French-American hybrid grapes. (They arrived before vinifera's feasibility in the Northeast was proved, mainly in New York State.) The hybrids include Chambourcin and Villard noir, both red, and Seyval blanc and Vidal blanc, both white. Some wines are also made from such native American grapes as Concord and Niagara.
Many of the state's best vinifera wines can be read as the equivalent of, say, France's vins de pays, agreeable and interesting country wines: the kinds that American visitors relish in the Midi but say never "travel well." In fact, they do.
Ignorance, indifference, wine snobbery and yesterday's reputation for quality explain the lack of interest in local wines, industry sources and restauranteur's say.
But nobody has ever heard of blueberry snobbery, tomato snobbery or sweet-corn snobbery: it's normal and sensible to buy the state's local products. Then why not Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Seyval and Chambourcin? Or the exceptionally tasty fruit wines made from, say, blueberries, raspberries, plums and apricots?
The medal-awarding results of the 1999 New Jersey Commercial Wine Competition, held in February at the Tomasello Winery in Hammonton (a pioneer, founded in 1934), provide a useful index to some of the state's best wines and producers.
Winning producers whose wines have been especially rewarding in recent years have been Sylvin Farms, whose 1995 Cabernet Franc was rated No. 1 and won the Governor's Cup (Sylvin also won a silver medal for its '97 Sauvignon Blanc); Cream Ridge, specialists in nongrape wines, whose '98 cranberry wine was voted best fruit wine; Tomasello, whose 1997 Villard Noir was named best French hybrid; Amalthea, whose '97 Merlot took a gold medal (and '95 Chardonnay Reserve and '97 Chancellor Reserve took silver medals); King's Road, whose '97 Riesling won a silver medal, and Unionville, whose '97 Windfall Seyval also took a silver medal.
In the bronze-medal category, Poor Richard's '95 Chambourcin is worth consumers' attention, as are a '97 Chardormay Reserve and '96 Cabernet Sauvignon both from a promising newcomer, the Cape May Winery, and such Unionville proprietary wines as '97 Hunter's Red Reserve, '97 Fields of Fire and '96 Hunter's White Reserve.
In recent years, Unionville's sophisticated Germanic-style Riesling has consistently been one of the best in the Northeast.
Alba, an early winery that went through a downturn and is seeking a comeback, earned bronzes for, among others, a '97 Vidal Blanc, nonvintage red raspberry and '97 and '98 Rieslings. Alba is worth watching, if only on the basis of its early record plus the skills and ambitions of an ambitious owner, Rudy Marchesi.
The bottom line is that public interest by and large is flat. The producers and their allies face an uphill struggle to win and keep public attention.
Francis Schott and Mark Pascal, the co-owners of Stage Left, a wine-oriented restaurant in New Brunswick, have tried to use New Jersey wines but have not been successful.
"The customers haven't been able to see them," Mr. Schott said. "I would like to see the New Jersey wine industry have the same kind of acceptance that Long Island wines have in New York."
In a restaurant, one problem is that wine is marked up two and a half or three times, making New Jersey wine a hard sell, especially when competing wines can be bought for less, Mr. Schott said. It is more practical to buy New Jersey wine, "if you would like to try them out of local pride," in a retail store, where the markup is smaller, he said.
A steady upgrading in quality and improved marketing strategies could change this.
All wineries receive technical assistance through Rutgers University's Fruit Research and Extension Center in Cream Ridge, Monmouth County, where Dr. Joseph A. Fiola, a specialist in small fruit and viticulture, is in charge of the grape program, and from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Mays Landing in Atlantic County, where Dr. Gary C. Pavlis, whose specialty is viticulture, is the county agent.
Perhaps one day New Jersey, one of England's first wine-growing colonies in the New World, will more fully realize its potential. They were foreseen in the 1700's when one Edward Antill planted 900 vines in Raritan Landing (now Piscataway). In 1771, he published "An Essay on the Cultivation of the Vine, and the Making and Preserving of Wine." For a time, it was the authoritative text on the subject.