Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cape May County's wineries blossom as a tourist destination

Cape May County's wineries blossom as a tourist destination
Posted: Monday, June 21, 2010
Press of Atlantic City

The wineries of southern New Jersey are doing big business, but even so, the reputation of industrial northern New Jersey isn't helping.

"People (who don't know better) talk about New Jersey wine like they're drinking skunk juice," said Ray Pensari, co-owner of Natali Vineyards in Cape May Court House.

Rather, the sandy soil of Cape May County is ideal for grape vines, growers say. The wineries are young, however, and just as wine grapes take a long time to cultivate, so does a regional reputation.

"I think a lot of it has to do with people being snobs," said Ewa Nadolczak, working in the tasting room at the year-old Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery in Rio Grande, Middle Township. "Everything is 'California, California, California.'"

Among the customers touring the county's wineries Sunday were the Buonannos of West Milford, Passaic County, who make the four-hour trek once a year.

"You will not believe how many people (looking for wineries) go, 'What, in New Jersey? What, in Cape May?'" said John Buonanno, a construction official. He had never before seen the cozy premises of Turdo Vineyards in the North Cape May section of Lower Township, but he had enjoyed a bottle of dry, rare Italian wine from there.

"I'm not a connoisseur," Buonanno said. "I like it. I don't know how else to say it."

Most of Turdo's marketing happens for free, by word of mouth or Internet reviews, owner Sal Turdo said. Like all his competitors, Turdo said business is improving year after year, even without a marketing blitz - and with an entrance that would be easy to miss without the broad Italian flag planted there.

"People who drink wine, they still drink wine" in a slumping economy, said Turdo, a native Sicilian who set up shop in 1999. "We don't have to do much, we just have to be here."
The best days of business usually come when inclement weather makes the county's more famous tourism draw less attractive.

"You can only take the sun and beach so many days," said Stephanie Vogel, Cape May Winery's tasting room manager, who worked behind a counter in the merciful air conditioning while Sunday sweltered outside.

The 14-year-old winery is expanding after several years of steady growth. Customers there frequently have been referred by local bed-and-breakfasts where they stay, Vogel said.
None of the winery workers said government tourism bureaus have marketed Cape May wine country impressively.

"The actual state themselves, they could care less," Turdo said. "Everything we have to do locally."

Pensari predicted several more wineries will debut in the county in the coming years. That process is understandably slow, Nadolczak said.

"Down here for years, lima beans were the king of crops," the Lower Township resident said, as an acoustic guitarist entertained guests under a tent on the lawn outside. "You have to get (farmers) out of that mindset."

Pensari admitted rooting for the occasional roll of clouds to dislodge visitors from their beach chairs, but on most days, for his vines' sake, he'd prefer a dry 80 to 85 degrees. That just happens to be perfect beach weather, but that's all right, Pensari said as he puffed on a cigar: "We only want you for one day."

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