Problems Encountered by Early New Jersey Wine Growers
Wine is not a new phenomenon for New Jersey. In fact there was a fascination with grape growing since the colonial times. In 1765 Edward Antill planted eight hundred vines of Vitis vinifera, or the European grape. William Alexander similarly planted 2100 vines. The Royal Society of England awarded both a prize for making wine reminiscent of the wine drank in England. Because advances in technology hadn’t reached the point of combating the American insect, Phylloxera, that attacked the European grape roots, early New Jersey wine growers chose to grow American/French hybrids and Vitis labrusca, an American grape that didn’t succumb to the insect. The east coast is one of the few places you can taste such wines and they are still grown today. Casey Economides manager at Amalthea Cellars in Atco says hybrids “are what sets us apart from other regions in the country because we are able to grow these French-American hybrids, for example Traminette, which is seen throughout South Jersey and the Finger Lakes.” Even so, Amalthea Cellars does focus on European grapes. Sean Comninos, winemaker at Heritage Winery explains that, “from a classical perspective serious wines would be made from the great European varieties. The major publications certainly shy away from French/American hybrid grapes and anything native to the Americas unless it’s some novelty dessert wine.” In order to be known for serious wines you have to grow the European grapes.
Wine drinkers a hundred years ago were no different and still considered European grapes as the only serious wine, but since the American insect Phylloxera destroyed the plant at its roots, European grapes weren’t grown in the U.S. Then in the early 1900s a technique was developed to graft the European grape vine onto American grape roots thereby protecting it from Phylloxera. It was then that New Jersey wineries, including the Renault Winery, established in 1864, began to pick up steam. An influx of Italian immigrants revived the wine industry in New Jersey.
Prohibition and Its Effects
One of them, John D’Agostino, purchased the Renault Winery in 1913, only to witness the passage of the 18th amendment and Prohibition seven years later. If you visit Renault Winery and go on the tour, a most animated and entertaining tour guide will tell you all about Mr. D’Agostino’s ties with Enoch “Nucky” Johnson and the various schemes that were used to sell their wine– from labeling it medicinal tonic to claiming it as sacramental wine. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933 grape cultivation was cut in half and most wineries were in dire straits. Although wine has been a part of New Jersey since the colonial times, the industry is still in its infancy largely because of Prohibition. When California was making great strides with wine in the 1970s, New Jersey still adhered to Prohibition laws– like the law that stated there could only be one winery per one million inhabitants. That didn’t change until the 1980s with the passage of the Farm Winery Act. Any farmer with three acres of grapes could now apply for a license and produce 50,000 gallons of wine annually.
New Growth for South Jersey Wine
Lynn Richmond of the Department of Agriculture says that wine continues to be a growing part of the state economy and is an up and coming industry. In 2002 there were 551 acres of grapes grown in New Jersey and in 2007 that rose to 1,043. Dr. Gary Pavlis, associate professor with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, past president of the American Wine Society and chairman of the annual New Jersey Wine Competition, says the trend is economical. “Farmers want to continue farming but cannot do so growing more traditional crops such as corn and apples. There is no money in these and the situation arises, find a cash crop or sell the farm.”
New Jersey legislature has come full circle and recently passed measures to aid wineries. According to Zach Hosseini of the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), “wineries have been allowed to open up to 15 wine outlets since spring of 2012. These outlets are partnerships with unlicensed establishments, which allow licensed wineries to sell their wines at what are typically BYOB restaurants.” Only one winery may sell their wine in one restaurant. Everyone from Toby Craig, owner of Cape May Winery, to Casey Economides, manager of Amalthea Cellars, agree that such a system is important for exposure. “We have our wines in six to eight outlets including Mildred’s Strathmere Restaurant. It is another form of advertising and definitely helps our business” says Toby Craig. Casey agrees, “We have outlets at the Morristown INN, Murray Hill INN, and Anthony’s in Haddon Heights. We are in the progress of opening more outlets as we speak.” Also in 2012 a direct shipment ban was lifted thereby allowing any winery that makes less than 250,000 gallons of wine annually to ship directly to customers in and out of state. That is great news for wineries in New Jersey, all of which produce less than 250,000 gallons a year. On the other hand, the law may not be long-lived. A similar law was struck down in Massachusetts as being unconstitutional because large wineries out of state cannot ship thereby discriminating against interstate commerce. As of yet there have been no challenges to the law.
So why all the fuss over New Jersey, particularly South Jersey, and its wine? It may have been best explained in the movie Bottle Shock. If you haven’t seen Bottle Shock I highly recommend it. It’s a true story about the famous Judgment of Paris of 1976. In a blind taste test Californian white wine from Chateaux Mothalena and Stag Leap’s Wine Cellars’ 1972 red wine beat out their French counterparts. This put Californian wine on the map and promoted this idea that great wine can be grown in other parts of the world besides Europe. It is this sentimentality exactly that has sparked so much excitement. Like Steven Spurrier said in the film, “it all begins with the soil, the vine, the grape.” Charles Tomasello of Tomasello Winery has said that South Jersey, in particular, has a “combination of sandy loam soil, adequate degree days to ripen grapes and maritime influence with the close proximity to the ocean” which all support growing grapes. South Jersey’s climate and geography is that of Medoc, or the Bordeaux region of France. Sal Westrich, author of New Jersey Wine: A Remarkable History, says that what makes New Jersey unique is its geography lending toward the “possibility of producing some extraordinary wines.”