By Michele S. Byers
You may be surprised to learn that two New Jerseyans started our state’s wine industry almost two decades before the American Revolution.
At the time, Great Britain was thirsting for good wine in the colonies and London’s Royal Society of Arts offered a reward to any colonist who could produce wine of the same caliber as vintages from France.
Two New Jersey men, William Alexander and Edward Antill, took the challenge and were recognized by the Royal Society.
Since then, New Jersey’s winemaking history has been filled with stops and starts, and ups and downs.
The vineyards planted by Alexander and Antill in Basking Ridge and Piscataway, respectively, shut down after their founders’ deaths. Other vineyards were established, but many vines transplanted from Europe succumbed to insect pests in the late 1800s.
A few decades later, Prohibition crippled the state’s remaining wineries. Even after Prohibition was repealed, strict laws kept the wine industry from growing.
Today, winemaking is enjoying a renaissance in New Jersey, thanks to sturdier hybrid grapes and changes in regulations.
The Garden State now has more than 50 wineries with more than 80 grape varieties on more than 2,000 acres; not surprising for a state famous for blueberries, peaches and apples, fruit wines are also popular.
“It’s an exciting time for New Jersey’s wine industry,” said Tom Cosentino, president of the Garden State Wine Growers Association. “It takes 30 to 40 years for an industry to take off and we are at our infancy stage right now.”
The boom in New Jersey’s wine industry can be traced to the Farm Winery Act of 1981, which abolished an old law allowing only one winery license per million New Jersey residents. Prior to the law, the state had only seven licensed wineries.
Cosentino said the most growth occurred in the past 16 years, with the opening of more than 35 new wineries.
“New Jersey’s wineries now go from the tip of Sussex County all the way down to the tip of Cape May,” he noted.
The state includes three designated “American Viticultural Areas” – Warren Hills, Central Delaware Valley and the Outer Coastal Plain – each with its own geology and climate.
The state’s oldest vineyard is Renault Winery in Egg Harbor, Atlantic County, which was established in 1864. Renault survived Prohibition by labeling its products as medicinal tonics, and now occupies a niche with its “New Jersey Champagne.” The newest is the White Horse Winery in Hammonton, Burlington County, which opened in July.
The new wine industry has provided a shot in the arm for New Jersey agritourism, drawing more than 100,000 visitors a year.
As a bonus, many of the vineyards are permanently preserved for agriculture. According to the State Agriculture Development Committee, New Jersey has about 20 vineyards on more than 1,500 acres of preserved land.
An example is Hopewell Valley Vineyards in Hopewell Township, Mercer County.
“We are very passionate about what we do; we are standing by our decision to preserve the land, one of the finest decisions of our life,” said owners Violetta and Sergio Neri.
The Garden State Wine Growers Association actively promotes wine agritourism. Its website, www.newjerseywines.com, includes an interactive map of member vineyards and suggestions for “wine trails,” or clusters of vineyards.
If you are a wine lover seeking a challenge, the association offers a wine “passport.” The passport includes a page for each participating New Jersey winery and tasting room employees stamp the pages when you visit.
If you get all of the passport pages stamped within a three-year period, you can enter a drawing for a trip to a famous wine-producing region. Try out the New Jersey Wine Trails app for smartphones, which is essentially the passport in a mobile format.
This fall, hit the wine trail and explore New Jersey’s wineries. You will see beautiful vineyards and experience the Garden State’s diverse geology and landscapes, much of which is now preserved.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Consesrvation Foundation, Far Hills.