Article by Ryan Gallagher, 20 Lemons LLC
Not even a decade ago, connoisseurs and snobs from wine hubs like California or France would scoff at the idea of “fine wine” from New Jersey. Today, wineries from the Garden State are winning nationally recognized awards and making efforts to put NJ on the map for wine lovers looking for a new destination.
Since 2000, the number of Jersey wineries nearly doubled, according to the International Wine Review. Today, the most condensed state in America is home to more than 50 wineries—many of them award-winning as NJ wineries brought home 45 medals in the most recent Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, according to ROI-NJ. The rising number of quality wineries in New Jersey is the first step towards validating the state as a destination for individuals sampling the fermented fruits of the vineyard.
“If there are quite a few notable wineries in a certain location, then that becomes a destination for the consumer,” said Joseph Villari, the Vineyard Manager at Villari Vineyards in Deptford, NJ. “I don’t think any of the wineries are necessarily competing with each other. It’s such a young market. So, it is more like ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ effect.”
In America’s capitalistic system, there aren’t many markets where businesses who are all making a similar product and targeting a similar audience would not consider one another as competitors. However, this is the case for wineries in NJ and it simply means the growth happening within the local wine market is far from finished.
Instead, efforts are being made by the key players in the NJ wine industry to promote the region, rather than just the individual businesses. Jersey wine-grape farms have hopped on board with the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association (OCPVA)—an organization responsible for promoting Jersey wineries and acting as a governmental liaison in various situations. This specific American Viticultural Area (AVA) is Jersey’s own “Napa Valley.”
Most recently, the goal has been to find a certain type or blend of wine which will characterize the entire region. In order to do so, OCPVA has enlisted NJ wineries to concoct a wine which is called the Coeur d’Est, or “Heart of the East” when translated from French to English.
While every individual winery has their own take on what they believe to be the “best” version of the Coeur d’Est wine blend, “the differentiating factor would be Chambourcin,” said Villari. “There is a minimum of 25% Chambourcin required for each Coeur d’Est blend. Not many blends internationally use that particular grape. So, it should set us apart in the flavor profile.”
Specifically, the Chambourcin grape was developed for high quality wine and has a good resistance to disease and pests, according to OCPVA. This particular grape flourishes in the warm, humid climates of the Outer Coastal Plain and is unique to the area.
As a result, NJ winemakers have worked tirelessly to meet the high standards that a blend of this type requires. Larry Sharrott is part owner of Sharrott Winery with his son (also Larry) in Hammonton, NJ. Sharrott explains that the OCPVA studied how other leading wine associations ensured the validation of their region’s product.
“The use of the grape in that wine is restricted in the same way as the French use their AOC’s to restrict what grapes are used in the French wine,” said Sharrott. “The Chambourcin wine blends all have to go to the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago. Every vintage must have a minimum score of 85 points [or “Highly Recommended”] just to use the name. We’re making a high-quality wine that we can promote as a certified high quality.”
There has been plenty of success for Jersey winemakers as of late. However, Villari admits that, “NJ is definitely small on the radar. California, Washington, Oregon, New York, and also Texas receive attention. Globally, we’re definitely not on the map yet. That’s somewhere we’re hoping to get to.”
Sharrott understands how a wine from New Jersey might be offputting to a longtime wine enthusiast. “There is still some stigma, or an old belief that NJ only has cheap, sweet wines,” said Sharrott—addressing the industry’s hesitancy towards NJ. “But, boy that sure has changed. We have some sweet wines, which are very popular. But we make a variety of really fine, dry wines. Those wines are the ones that build the reputation.”
Jersey’s wine producers understand that the only way to continually promote the state as a leader in winemaking is to develop a wide variety of high caliber wines. Both Villari and Sharrott have continually proved themselves by putting their product up against the best in the world.
In the most recent Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York, Sharrott Winery took a pair of gold medals, for their NV Pinot Grigio and 2016 Wicked Port wine. Villari earned three silver medals and one bronze. The Garden State even produced a “Best of Show” out of Plagido’s Winery.
Until these vineyards are nationally and internationally known for their product, the businesses will continue to foster their grassroots following, host wine tasting events, partner with other local restaurants or bars, and do it all to ensure the Outer Coastal Plain is taken seriously by “WineOs” around the world.
“The key is producing high quality wines, validating that they are high quality, and making them available to the public,” finished Sharrott.