How would you rather spend your time? Snooki or pretty?
True, it is hard to find a state now that isn’t trying to capitalize on some sort of wine trail. But New Jersey offers several reasons for excitement. Last year the legislature bucked the state’s powerful liquor wholesalers lobby to pass a direct shipping law, which benefited New Jersey residents who until then could not send wine back home from wineries in other states, and also opened up a market for New Jersey winemakers to ship their products. Several wineries have opened since the passage of the law; there are now nearly 50 wineries statewide, and with $35 million in annual sales, New Jersey is now the seventh-largest wine-producing state.
For perspective, that’s close behind Kentucky. But unlike Kentucky, New Jersey — particularly the southern half — features ideal conditions for growing wine, with sandy soil, mild winters and a long growing season. As you drive south of Trenton, the scrub pines along the road will remind you more of Cape Cod than of, say, Elizabeth.
New Jersey winegrowers are confident that they have something people will pay to ship. Their wines have won many awards, but the most buzzed-about was the so-called Judgment of Princeton last June. Organized by the American Association of Wine Economists, it was modeled on the Judgment of Paris in 1976, when the upstart Californians edged out the establishment French in a blind taste test. This time a New Jersey red came in third out of 10, following only a Mouton-Rothschild and an Haut-Brion. Among 10 whites, a New Jersey wine produced an hour’s drive from Manhattan came in second, with two other Jersey wines straight behind it. The two French judges (the others were Belgian and American) chose New Jersey wines over their own nation’s Bordeaux.
New Jersey had a prodigious wine industry before Prohibition, but has produced mostly fruit wine. The newer vintners are planting European varieties — some adamantly refuse to grow even blueberries, once the state’s bumper crop.
The move to wine is an attempt to make more money where produce farms are no longer profitable: as you drive the various spurs of the wine trail, it can sometimes seem as if housing subdivisions and vineyards were battling for control of farmland.
I first discovered New Jersey wine country last spring on a tour of South Jersey with the State Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney, shortly after I began writing about the state. An ironworker who doesn’t drink much wine (“I’m a vodka guy”), Mr. Sweeney had pushed for direct shipping as a boon to tourism, particularly for the less wealthy southern part of the state.
He looked proud as a grape set to burst as he introduced me to Scott Donnini, who left his life as a lawyer for the Philadelphia stock exchange to start Auburn Road Vineyard and Winery with his wife and four friends in 2006. At the end of a winding dirt road, the vineyard reminded me of something I’d find on the North Fork of Long Island. Discovering a wine bar here was proof of the surprises within the state. (We’d also just come from a rodeo around the corner.) Southern and Northern New Jersey are like two different countries: the South is more conservative and far more rural; “the city” is Philadelphia, not New York. But even farther north, there is far more open land than in the caricature of the most densely populated state in the nation. I easily imagined coming back to Auburn Road, and became curious about other wineries.
To get recommendations, I consulted Gary Pavlis, of the Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station, who has run state wine competitions for years, as well as the Garden State Wine Growers Association. I also made a point to visit all the wineries that performed best at Princeton.
Not all of them can transport you to Bordeaux or Tuscany. Along the trail, I found a tasting room across the street from a car detailing shop, and tasted chocolate wine. (It actually wasn’t bad, but you have to wonder if it’s the best ambassador for a state trying to establish itself as a serious wine-producing region. By the same measure, a vineyard aspiring to evoke the Italian countryside might rethink its decision to offer pretzels and Chex Mix as palate cleansers.)
But in visits to nine wineries, I found lovely wines and breathtaking scenery. And more often than expected, a combination of both.
Mr. Pavlis divides New Jersey vintners into two strains: those who bailed on more corporate careers to try their hand at winemaking, and those whose land was farmed for fruit and other crops, now hoping that wine will be more lucrative. Heritage Vineyards in Mullica Hill falls into the second category, having long been a peach and apple farm — the rule of thumb, Mr. Pavlis says, is that cabernet grapes thrive where apple trees do; both need long growing seasons and well-drained soil.
Walking into the tasting room, in a small building on a busy rural road, you are overwhelmed by the aromas from the bakery counter in the back, a remnant of its past life as a farm stand.
The fifth generation of the Heritage family turned the farm over to grapes in 1999, bringing in a well-regarded winemaker to consult. Its wines performed best overall at the Princeton tastings: BDX, its homage to Bordeaux, took third place, and the chardonnay was third among the whites.
There are encroaching subdivisions across the street and alongside the vineyards, yet the tasting room, with wood paneling and plates of Gouda set out on the bar, invites you to relax. There are more tables outside on a gravel patio — the vineyard gets most of its visitors in the summer, including traffic from the Jersey Shore, about an hour away.
The young woman behind the bar, unpretentious, friendly and smart, introduced us to Chambourcin, wine made from a hybrid grape that was developed in France specifically for planting in the northern regions of the United States. It makes several appearances at New Jersey vineyards.
My husband and I left with a bottle of that, and the pretty rosé, and headed through the Mullica Hill Historic District to Auburn Road, in Pilesgrove.
In the small enoteca Mr. Donnini and his co-founders built next to their winemaking room, there are intimate tables, a woodstove, Mason jar candles and a wall of windows overlooking the vineyard. Chalkboards advertise the wines and a menu for Friday night dinners. It hosts open mike night on Wednesdays and local musicians every Saturday. The emphasis on music extends to the wines: the blush is named Rosalita, the blueberry wine Kind of Blue.
Set among wide fields, Auburn Road is a half-hour from Philadelphia and around the corner from Cowtown, the longest-running weekly rodeo in the country — look for the 20-foot-high fiberglass cowboy statue out front. Many winery visitors wander over from Saturday shows there in the summer, and Auburn Road also sells at the flea market held in the rodeo parking lots on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The biggest seller: the Blessington, which the woman behind the counter described as “Welch’s for grown-ups.” (She suggested mixing it with club soda for instant sangria — no need to add fruit.)
We had come expecting to have lunch here — the Web site said food was served “daily” — but when we arrived, we were told it was only on weekends. We ate at a diner instead (this is New Jersey) then drove into the Pinelands to Bellview Winery.
At the end of a sandy, secluded lane, this land was bought by an Italian immigrant in 1914 and became a bok choy farm dealing mostly to New York’s Chinatown. The owner made wine in his basement, and in 2000 his great-grandson, Jim Quarella, decided to make a genuine venture of it, turning all the fields over to grapes. His success won it the winery of the year award in the state competition last year. The tasting room — in a building where Mr. Quarella’s great-grandfather made his wine — is simple, with tables and a tile floor. The real charm is outside, with picnic tables and fire pits, where you can spend a lazy afternoon overlooking the vineyards.
The staff was setting up for an event the next day, but obligingly guided us through the tasting menu — my husband later declared the Petit Verdot the best of the wines we tasted along the trail. We finished with two versions of dandelion wine that Mr. Quarella’s great-aunts taught him how to make.
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