Defying the Odds, New Jersey Winemakers Are Betting on the Future

Defying the Odds, New Jersey Winemakers Are Betting on the Future 2560 1706 Danny Klein and Fran Denmark

Many times, I have poured a glass of wine for someone in the wine industry… After a sip, their face lights up and they ask me where the wine is from. I reply, “New Jersey” and their lit-up face goes into puzzlement. “New Jersey? Yes, really New Jersey.” I’ve had this experience with many wine “rock stars” such as Peter Mondavi Jr, Chuck Wagner and Joel Peterson and many others deep in the wine industry. Once the puzzled look leaves their face, they turn to a “well how about that” expression as if they thought about it and it makes sense.

Bill Heritage was first struck by the wine bug at a 1997 apple and peach convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  A fourth generation New Jersey fruit farmer, Heritage decided to check out the wine grapes program on the last day of the event. One session was all it took; he was hooked on the grape.

“We went home and planted an acre of Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc grapes,” he explains about his early dream of becoming a grower. “We were going to baby step our way in.” But Heritage’s wife Penni had another idea. Following a trip to the New York Finger Lakes region to explore the art of winemaking, the couple decided to launch Heritage Winery.

In 2002, after a rave review by a local radio station, the new Heritage winery sold its first 500 bottles of 2001 Chardonnay. Nearly twenty years later, now William Heritage Sparkling Brut walked away with the Best in Show award at this year’s Garden State Wine Challenge.

While serendipity may have inspired Heritage to make wine, it is going to take grit and determination for New Jersey winemakers to grow their presence outside state lines, as have their New York, Michigan, Texas and Virginia counterparts. For starters, there is the need for action by the state legislature to amp up the state promotion budget, as well as the quest for a state varietal. Despite these and other obstacles, Garden State winemakers are charging ahead, undaunted.

A Storied History and Serious Challenges

With its longtime moniker, NJ is known as the Garden State, indigenous home of the blueberry and its boast of having the second oldest continuously operating winery in the nation (Renault Winery). What is stopping state winemakers from crafting great wines? After all, there are four AVA’s, a similar temperature and climate to Bordeaux and a location right between such advancing AVA’s as the New York Finger Lakes and Virginia. A quick look at New Jersey’s wine history sheds light on its complicated story.

New Jersey wine grapes were first planted before the Revolutionary War following the British Royal Society’s 1758 challenge to the colonies to grow quality vinifera. A sum of £200 was finally awarded to each of two New Jersey farmers, one of whom became a general under George Washington, explains Tom Cosentino, executive director of the New Jersey Grape Growers Association.

By the 19th century, New Jersey grapes had begun to flourish. In 1864, Louis Nicolas Renault emigrated from Reims, France to start his winery. In 1870 Renault released the first “New Jersey Champagne,” and became the largest U.S. distributor. His base, the shore town of Egg Harbor, garnered the nickname “Wine City”.

But the 20th century brought several blows to the burgeoning New Jersey wine industry. These included the devastating pest Phylloxera, the nationwide Prohibition on alcoholic beverages and in addition, a restrictive NJ law that only allowed one winery license for every one million residents.

It was not until 1981, with the passage of the New Jersey Farm Winery Act, that small growers were permitted to open new wineries. With the door open to developing the modern New Jersey Wine industry, there are still further impediments to success, says Cosentino, like the relatively small state budget for wine promotion, when compared to advancing AVAs like New York and Virginia. There has been some help in partnering with the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association that promotes other East Coast wines.

Accolades and Delicious Wine

Despite these struggles, New Jersey wines were showing especially well when, on a hot sunny day in late July, twenty American Wine Society-certified wine judges from around the U.S., convened at the New Jersey State Fairgrounds to participate in the annual Garden State Wine Challenge.  The tasting, which has upped its game in the past nine years since partnering with the AWS, included both amateur and commercial categories. Nine winners, including the 2016 William Heritage Estate Reserve Sparkling Brut were selected from among 150 entrants.

Outside of their home state, New Jersey wine has also begun to win international medals including a Best in Class for Bellview Winery’s 2017 Gruner Veltliner in the 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. In addition, Beneduce Vineyards score of 93 from James Suckling topped all other US Pinot Noirs other than California and Oregon.

Today, Chardonnay is the number one varietal in a state that is also growing a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and the hybrids Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc and Traminette. With over 50 wineries, some are diversifying into Spanish, French and Italian varietals. Vinifera do better down south,” explains Cosentino, “while hybrids and native grapes flourish up north.”

It will take continued experimentation and promotion – with a “dosage” of serendipity thrown in – to surface the best grapes to grow in New Jersey soil. Just ask Bill Heritage.

When Heritage first tried to grow Pinot Noir grapes, he discovered that the nights were too hot for a successful product. After over a decade of trying, he was ready to pull out all the vines when his winemaker, Sean Comninos, suggested making sparkling wine.

The first 2014 vintage was a revelation. “Ever since then we’ve been all about sparkling,” Heritage explains. “I tell my kids; this is the future.” Cosentino, who is betting on the next generation, agrees. “More and more young people from Rutgers and Cornell are taking New Jersey wine to the next level,” he reports.

Now almost 150 years since Renault’s NJ Sparkling swept across the nation, William Heritage takes the Best of Show award at the Garden State Wine Challenge with his Estate Reserve Vintage Brut a blend of 71% Chardonnay and 29% Pinot Noir from the Outer Coastal Plain AVA. Cheers, the future of NJ wine making once again looks bright!

By day, Danny Klein is a Specialist in the Chemical Engineering of High Hazard Materials and Hazardous Wastes. By night he transforms into a Wine Writer, Consultant and Educator, Sommelier & Presenter for various wine organizations. Armed with Specialist of Wine (SWE), WSET and Wine Judge Certification you will frequently see him sabering a bottle at wine tastings in the NYC metro area. 

He is a Regional Vice President of the American Wine Society and has judged for Nationwide wine competitions including many Governor’s Cup Contests and the Ultimate Beverage Challenge. Additionally, he is the Chairman of the NJ State Fair Garden State Wine Challenge.

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