Southern Shore yields fine wines

Jessie Creek Winery co-owner Art Reale strips the leaves off cabernet grapes in the vineyardin Cape May Court House.
Jessie Creek Winery co-owner Art Reale strips the leaves off cabernet grapes in the vineyardin Cape May Court House. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)

Cape May County wineries make splash.

Posted: September 25, 2012

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - The sandy soil and temperate climate of the lower Cape May County peninsula, between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, are good for more than a great beach experience.

They produce a pretty decent wine, too.

So says an expanding crop of vintners - and the experts who critique their products - who run a handful of wineries in the southernmost section of what's known in their industry as New Jersey's Outer Coastal Plain.

One of the Garden State's fastest-growing agricultural sectors, winemaking has been a $30 million to $40 million business for each of the last five years, according to state agriculture officials. In lower Cape May County, particularly in the off-season, the area's six wineries have been a welcome addition to traditional Shore attractions.

"It's becoming a big niche market for us," said Diane F. Wieland, director of the county tourism department.

Economic-impact statistics are not yet available, Wieland said, but it's clear that "this sector is attracting a lot of new visitors."

Her department is producing a brochure for those interested in taking a self-guided tour of Cape May Winery and Vineyard in Cape May, the Jessie Creek and Natali wineries in Cape May Court House, Turdo in North Cape May, Hawk Haven in Rio Grande, and Willow Creek in West Cape May.

In addition to tastings at the individual locations, there also are events such as the Cape May County Wine Festival, sponsored by the Garden State Wine Growers Association, scheduled for Oct. 6 and 7 at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal.

The number of wineries in New Jersey, now about 40, has doubled in the last decade, according to Gary Pavlis, a Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service adjunct professor who is known as the state's "wine guy." That growth was made possible by the 1981 repeal of a Prohibition-era state law that, based on population, had kept the number to about seven, he said.

The state now ranks seventh in wine production, with about 1.5 million gallons bottled annually. California, the top producer, has 3,500 wineries and bottles 651 million gallons a year, according to WineAmerica, a national trade association.

Pavlis is the go-to person for those with a yen to get into the business. He sees two or three prospective vintners a week, from disheartened doctors to wrung-out Realtors to pooped plumbers.

"Some of them have this romantic idea about running a winery, putting their label on bottles of wine, and selling them to their friends," said Pavlis, who is chairman of the annual New Jersey Wine Competition and past president of the American Wine Society.

"But it's farming," he said. "They're going to be spending a lot time on a tractor. . . . They're going to get dirty."

Ask Art Reale, who owns Jessie Creek Winery with Bruce Morrison, a family-practice physician in Huntingdon Valley. Morrison makes the wine on weekends, and Reale, a former Florida marina operator, is in charge of everything else - including driving a tractor, spraying insecticide and fungicide, and running a bed-and-breakfast on the property.

"It's not just a matter of you plant something and hope it grows. . . . It's a matter of ultimately producing a quality product that people want to buy, and also marketing and running a business to make it a success," said Reale, standing among vines lush with Cabernet grapes on the verge of harvest.

The five-year-old winery took a silver medal for its 2010 cabernet and a bronze for its 2010 merlot at the Garden State Wine Growers Association's annual competition in May.

Jessie Creek had a very good harvest in 2010, producing 13,000 bottles, Reale said. A less successful growing season last year led to about 5,000 bottles. This year will be in between, he said.

Because of the hot summer, grapes are being harvested earlier than usual this year, which could translate into a smaller yield, according to Dan Ward, a Rutgers Agricultural and Extension Center specialist in tree fruit and wine grapes.

In general, Ward said, Cape May County wineries may be the best positioned of those on the Outer Coastal Plain, which stretches 2.5 million acres across the southeastern portion of the state, including Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Ocean Counties, and parts of Salem, Gloucester, Camden, Burlington, and Monmouth Counties.

Lack of harsh weather - the area averages more than 200 frost-free days a year - minimizes vine damage. And with less than 40 inches of rain most years, roots aren't as susceptible to rot and disease. The shoreline's unique not-too-hot/not-too-cold mesoclimate and well-draining soil produce what some say are among the highest-quality grapes on the East Coast. The conditions are comparable to those of France's Bordeaux region, say Ward and Pavlis.

The state's wines are off to a good start, according to Karl Storchmann, vice president of the American Association of Wine Economists.

"New Jersey wines can play with the big ones," said Storchmann, whose association sponsored a competitive blind tasting in June. At the event, some modestly priced Garden State wines - the highest sells for about $35 a bottle - scored on a par with $650-a-bottle whites and reds from France.

After wading through months of red tape to get her property open to the public, Barbara Hamilton Bray Wilde says she's eager just to start selling wine at Willow Creek Winery.

In addition to the tasting room and production facility, her winery will give visitors access to the vineyard and surrounding lavish gardens.

"We want them to have true understanding of what the winery lifestyle is, that this place, and places like it, are helping to put the 'garden' back into the Garden State while employing people in the area year-around, instead of just three months," said Bray Wilde, who had her first harvest two years ago.

The chance to see that agri-lifestyle is what sends Ashley Rowe, 28, of Matawan, N.J., on weekend jaunts to places like Cape May.

"Cape May is really our favorite place to do a winery tour because the wineries are close to one another and there is also so much there to see and do otherwise. We usually make a weekend of it," said the software marketing specialist, whose "Wine With Me" blog features New Jersey wineries.

Rowe said she had heard about visitors who arrived in Cape May on their boat, then bicycled to a local winery. When they bought a couple of cases and couldn't carry them back by bike, the winemaker drove the bottles to the boat for them.

"I think that's an example of how a small industry like this can really cater to visitors . . . why people love the small-winery experience so much," Rowe said.


Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

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