(Previously published in On Deck Magazine and CapeMayCountyHerald.com)
Before you scoff, consider this. In 1767, nearly a century before Napa Valley established its first commercial winery, the British Royal Society recognized New Jersey wine as the best in the colonies.
Of course, the English are not exactly known for their gastronomical achievements, so that bit of braggery could be akin to my brother-in-law’s claim that he is the funniest accountant in his office. Still, the industry has deep roots here. In fact, Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City, began producing wines in 1864, and it remains one of the oldest wineries in America. And at one time there were as many as 60 vineyards in Vineland alone.
That was until Prohibition pulled the plug…or the cork, if you will. Rutger’s agricultural agent, Gary Pavlis said, it took generations for the industry to rebound from that setback.
Pavlis is a wine expert who is involved in New Jersey wines from root to glass, and he seems to enjoy talking about wine, almost as much as he enjoys drinking it. At a recent visit to Cape May County Winery, in North Cape May, he explained what it took to get the industry moving again.
“(Prohibition) was, of course, extreme ignorance,” Pavlis said, taking a waft of the claret liquid swirling in his glass, but even after the law was repealed in 1933, New Jersey law only allowed for one winery per million people. It was a law that continued Prohibition’s ignorance, Pavlis said, in a way that made clear how offended he was that anyone would usurp a New Jerseyan’s right to sip.
The Farm Wine Act in 1981 changed all that, however, and allowed more wineries to operate in within the state so long as they used New Jersey fruit. Within a few years, the state went from four to 12 wineries, and over the last two decades the industry has bloomed again.
Increased Demand and Location, Location, Location
“We have actually 45 wineries in New Jersey now, and about twice a week I have someone come in who wants to start a winery,” he said. There is now an increased demand for New Jersey grapes, and Pavlis said it is a venture that can really work out for farmers, especially since vineyards remain one agricultural crop that they can still make a profit on.
According to Pavlis, New Jersey farms and wines are “perfect together” for many reasons, but it can be boiled down to just three—location, location, location. The one factor that impacts a region’s ability to grow grapes more than anything else is temperature, Pavlis said. Different types of grapes need different climates, and for the most part, vineyards in the Northeast produce American grapes like Concord and Niagara. Those varieties can withstand temperature as low as minus 15 degrees, Pavlis said.
“But the wine…not so good…Manischewitz, basically,” he said.
European grape varieties (Vinus vinifera), like Cabernet, Riesling, Chardonnay and Merlot produce the best wines, Pavlis said, but they need warmer temperatures. And that’s where southern New Jersey’s ocean breezes come in. They provide the mild winters vinifera grapes need to thrive.
And of all New Jersey locations, Cape May County, with its microclimate between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, is ideally positioned to grow vinifera grapes and more.
“In Cape May, it’s not, ‘What can I grow?’ I’m not even sure what they can’t grow here,” Pavlis said. He offered as an example the vines at Turdo Vineyards, in North Cape May, which are producing varieties of grapes never grown here before, including some that thrive in Southern Italy near the Mediterranean Sea.
“We are growing all of them and then some,” Pavlis said. “The potential is incredible…The New Jersey wine industry is taking off.”
You can taste New Jersey Wines from these three Cape may County wineries.
Cape May Winery
711 Town Bank Rd
Cape May, NJ
Natali Vineyards, L.L.C.
221 North Delsea Drive (North Route 47)
Cape May Court House, NJ
3911 Bayshore Road
North Cape May, NJ
Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery
600 S. Railroad Avenue
Rio Grande, NJ