New Jersey Wines Gain Respect

The Garden State develops a robust local wine scene.

Though New Jersey wineries (Unionville Vineyards above) are increasingly offering higher quality wines, they face challenges like higher operating costs and the state's industrial reputation.
Though New Jersey wineries (Unionville Vineyards above) are increasingly offering higher quality wines, they face challenges like higher operating costs and the state's industrial reputation.

New Jersey retailers are seeing increased demand for wines produced in their home state. “We’re adding more New Jersey wines every year due to the increased integrity of the wines,” says Michael Bray, founder of Passion Vines Wine & Spirit Co., which operates a store in Egg Harbor Township and a wine bar in Somers Point, both in southern New Jersey. The selection of New Jersey wines at Passion Vines now totals 40 labels, retailing between $10 and $35 a 750-ml.

At the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Restaurant Latour at Hamburg’s Crystal Springs Resort in northern New Jersey, sommelier Susanne Wagner says guests are intrigued by the 10 locally produced wines available by the bottle ($50 to $100) and the by-the-glass local offering, 2014 Alba Vineyards Pinot Noir ($12 a 6-ounce pour). Wagner often blind-pours a sample of a New Jersey wine when customers request a certain varietal, such as Pinot Noir. “People can be hesitant to try a New Jersey wine,” she says. “But they’re usually pleasantly surprised.”

At long last, wines from New Jersey—the seventh-largest state for wine production, according to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture—are beginning to gain some attention. According to Tom Cosentino, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, New Jersey produced a record 553,000 gallons of wine in 2016. The 2017 total wasn’t yet available at press time, but “we’ve had a bountiful harvest,” Cosentino says. He attributes the recent surge in demand to several factors, including growing recognition for New Jersey’s vinifera grapes and the locavore movement. Adam Sternberger, co-owner of White Horse Wine & Spirits in Absecon, says the state’s wines have improved in quality and consistency as New Jersey winemakers better adapt varietals to varying terrain types. He also points to the “buy local” trend that’s driving wine drinkers in New Jersey—where virtually all of the state’s wines are sold.

While New Jersey winemaking dates back to colonial days, a law enacted after Prohibition restricted the number of winery licenses to one per one million residents, severely limiting the state’s wine industry. The Farm Winery Act of 1981, however, dramatically eased those restrictions and paved the way for today’s crop of more than 50 independent wineries. Since then, many New Jersey wineries have embraced traditional European grapes, moving beyond the state’s traditional reliance on indigenous American grapes and other local fruits.

There’s still a market for New Jersey’s fruit wines, which are typically sweet, but Cosentino and others acknowledge that the state’s reputation as a fruit wine supplier remains one of its challenges. “There are still stereotypes that need to be overcome,” says John Cifelli, general manager of Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes. “While New Jerseyans are proud of their state’s farm scene, outside the state, New Jersey is seen as industrial.”

The high cost of operating wineries in New Jersey and the resulting impact on retail pricing are also challenges. “Land in New Jersey is expensive, and taxes and labor costs are high,” explains John Jansma, wine director at Ninety Acres restaurant in Peapack, which offers the 2015 Alba Chardonnay by the glass for $13 a 6-ounce pour. Sternberger adds that while visitors to New Jersey wineries may be willing to spend $25 for a bottle of wine, that’s generally not the case in the state’s liquor stores. “The magic price at our store is $10 to $15, and not many of the better New Jersey wines fall in this price range,” he says, pointing to opportunity for “entry-level” wines priced at $10 a 750-ml. The store offers about 75 New Jersey wines, priced from $9 to $25 a bottle, and merchandised in a special section that touts local products.

By all accounts, though, the outlook for New Jersey wines is bright. “New Jersey hasn’t been making European-style wines for a long time,” Wagner says. “They’re still developing in character and reputation.” With a little bit of education, she adds, “consumers will discover these wines. I’m happy to have New Jersey wines on my list.”