Armed with stemware and post-tasting giddiness, Lori Miragliotta and friends browse the tasting room of Heritage Vineyards in Mullica Hill, eyeing the selection of cheese and vintages.
“Lori is getting married in a month, so we wanted to do a girls’ day out,” says friend and bridesmaid Theresa Rilli. “We looked up wineries in the Philadelphia area, and saw that this one was award-winning. I had no idea wineries even existed in New Jersey!”
It’s a misconception as familiar—and threatening—to New Jersey winemakers as the much-maligned mid-March frost.
“You hear, ‘Really? New Jersey? You can grow grapes there?’” admits Richard Heritage, director of sales and marketing for Heritage Vineyards. “There’s this impression that we look like the cast of Jersey Shore trying to make wine or something.”
Despite growing conditions similar to those in Bordeaux, France—a region renowned for some of the world’s most expensive wines—the Garden State is anything but synonymous with viticulture. That’s not to say we don’t like our vino: New Jersey ranks fourth in consumption nationwide. But when it comes to finding its way onto the winemaking landscape, the state has proven notoriously tipsy.
The ongoing roadblocks facing the Garden State’s vintners and vintages trace back almost a century, starting in 1933 with a law limiting winery licenses to one per one million residents. By the time the cap was lifted in 1981, the Garden State boasted 7.4 million people—and, accordingly, just seven wineries.
The number of wineries has risen steadily from seven to 39 in the years since (with another 12 currently awaiting licenses), making the state the seventh largest producer of wine in the United States. But its winemaking reputation hasn’t proven as buoyant: It wasn’t until 2006 that parts of South Jersey even received designation as an American Viticulture Area (AVA), or legitimate grape-growing region—nearly 200 of which already existed elsewhere in the United States.
Known as the Outer Coastal Plain, the area is noted for its well-drained soil and relatively mild winters, including parts of Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties, and joins the ranks of two other New Jersey AVAs—the Central Delaware Valley, which spans the Delaware Water Gap, and the Warren Hills area in Warren County.
“That was a huge asset to South Jersey’s winemakers, the ability to put a name to our area the way parts of northern and central Jersey could,” says David DeMarsico, director of Wine and Vineyard Operations at Renault Winery in Hammonton.
One hurdle was cleared, but another, arguably more crucial, still needed to be overcome: The ability to ship products directly to customers.
Up until just a couple of months ago, New Jersey was one of only 13 states unable to ship wine to clientele, meaning local wineries went unrepresented beyond state borders unless distributed by an out-of-state wine or liquor store—a move that most regional vintners call unwise for operations of their scale.
“If you take a look at standard economics, a winery with our output shouldn’t even be using distributors,” Heritage says. “Stores take 30 percent off the top, and they don’t want wines over $15. The rules of economics state that we should only sell out of our tasting room, offer wine clubs, hold events, and ship to customers.”
Unable to tap into the shipping option, though, New Jersey wineries often found themselves in the unenviable position of turning down revenue opportunities.
“A gentleman in town from California visited Renault last year and asked whether we could ship him our Cynthiana. We had to tell him ‘No,’” DeMarsico recalls, referring to the winery’s top-rated vintage.
Now, his answer can be “Yes,” thanks to a new law signed by Gov. Chris Christie that went into effect May 1, allowing New Jersey winemakers that produce fewer than 250,000 gallons of product a year to ship directly to consumers’ private residences.
“I received an e-mail from that same man in California last month. He wrote, ‘I heard about New Jersey’s new shipping law. As soon as it goes into effect, please send me a case of that Cynthiana,’” DeMarsico says. “This is going to be a huge plus for us. We get similar requests all the time from former New Jersey residents who’ve retired to Florida or Arizona.”
Since 2004, New Jersey’s doors have been closed to wine shipments both into and out of the state, a move that came in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court mandate: If out-of-state producers have to go through the “three-tier system” (the industry term for the use of wholesalers as middlemen to retailers) to sell their wine to any given state, then in-state producers must do the same. Most states evened the playing field by allowing shipping both in and out of their borders. New Jersey enforced the opposite.
“The only way national magazines like Wine Spectator and Food & Wine are going to write about New Jersey wines is if people can access the wine,” Heritage says. “Why are they going to write about our sauvignon blanc when people can’t get it without driving here?”
Heritage hopes the new law changes that, but like most things wine-related in New Jersey, it’s a stride toward exposure that didn’t come without growing pains. In December of 2010, a federal appeals court called the sale of wine from winery tasting rooms unconstitutional, saying they discriminated against out-of-state wineries that lacked such access to the state’s consumers. The matter was passed up to a federal district court judge who could have cut off wineries’ ability to sell on-site.
“If we’d outright lost our tasting room, and couldn’t sell wine out of this building or outlets and didn’t have shipping, it would’ve crushed us,” Heritage says.
While that threat didn’t pan out, Democrat Senate President Stephen Sweeney nonetheless reacted by introducing a bill that would allow for the reinstatement of shipping privileges both in and out of the state.
“The limited access people have to New Jersey wines has suffocated an industry that has enormous potential for growth,” Sweeney said in a written statement in late 2011. “New Jersey’s wine industry can grow by leaps and bounds if we act to change our current flawed policies.”
Immediately, it was met with resistance by parties concerned about the fate of the three-tier system. And distributors admit that their profits are on the line.
“I think it will affect us somewhat, as we do ship a considerable amount of locally produced wines which have become popular,” says Owen Altbaum, owner of Hops & Grapes in Glassboro. “Wineries from California will also be able to ship directly to New Jersey customers, which [is another] negative aspect [to this law].”
As they waited for the law to go into effect, though, local winemakers revved up for what could potentially be a windfall of new opportunity—and respect.
“I’ve been bumping up tank space, and just installed a new bottling line that increases our bottling rate by 33 percent,” DeMarsico says. “If you put a nice bottle from California and New Jersey in front of a taster, take the labels off and let that person try both; the quality of the New Jersey wine is there.”
“Without a doubt,” Heritage says, “New Jersey wines can have a place on the world stage.”
WINE SELLERS: Where to find good vino in South Jersey
209 Vineyard Road | Atco
Auburn Road Vineyard & Winery
117 Sharptown-Auburn Road | Pilesgrove
150 Atlantic St. | Landisville
Cape May Winery & Vineyard
711 Townbank Road | Cape May
205 Repaupo Station Road | Logan Township
1526 Dutch Mill Road | Franklinville
951 8th St. | Hammonton
Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery
600 S. Railroad Ave. | Rio Grande
480 Mullica Hill Road | Mullica Hill
221 N. Delsea Drive | Cape May Court House
570 N. 1st Road | Hammonton
72 N. Bremen Ave. | Egg Harbor City
370 S. Egg Harbor Road | Winslow
860 Main St. | Shiloh
225 White Horse Pike | Hammonton
Turdo Vineyards & Winery
3911 Bayshore Road | North Cape May
Valenzano Winery & Vineyard
1090 Route 206 | Shamong
1401 Route 45 | South Harrison Township
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May, 2012).
For more info on South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To subscribe to South Jersey Magazine, click here.
To advertise in South Jersey Magazine, click here.