on December 22, 2014 at 7:00 AM, updated December 22, 2014 at 2:52 PM
For Paul Ritter, winemaking was a hobby that grew like the vines he planted in his front yard.
A retiree, Ritter made it a full-time business in 2006, and two years ago achieved a loan to help open Brook Hollow Winery, which he says builds on self-promotion and word of mouth.
And yet, he says, "so many people come in, they taste the wines that I make here and they're surprised."
"They say, 'This actually tastes like wine.' I'm like OK, what should it taste like?"
Such is life, it seems, for a winery in New Jersey.
A recent report in the Journal of Wine Economics -- titled "'Nothing Good Ever Came from New Jersey': Expectations and the Sensory Perception of Wines" -- says that a wine drinkers' presumptions influence their experiences, and that doesn't help the Garden State.
"If people believe they're tasting an unprestigious wine, it tastes bad," said Robert Ashton, the Duke University economics professor who did the report.
The Princeton competition squared New Jersey wines against the French. While the Jersey vintages didn't win, they fared well against the established labels.
For his study, Ashton had blind taste tests comparing New Jersey and California wines. In one test, tasters were virtually unable to distinguish which was which, though they harshly remarked on what they thought were Jersey wines -- the report's title comes from one tester's exclamation.
In a second tasting, in which the subjects did not know the origins of the wine, the average enjoyment was equal.
"The moral of the story, from the wine taster's standpoint: We really don't know what we like," Ashton said.
"What consumers should do is try wines blindly ... and get rid of their preconceived notions."
Changing the image
How to fix those notions is a matter of some dispute.
John Cifelli, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, says local marketing is one key to overcoming the state's reputation, which stems both from rocky quality early in the state's winemaking days as well as ever-present Jersey jokes in pop culture.
"Even though the quality of wine has improved, it's taking time to change the perception," he said. New Jersey is "literally thousands of years behind France" in the business, he said, but technology is helping newcomers catch up.
Tom Sharko, owner of Alba Vineyard in Pohatcong Township, called it a quality issue.
"There's no shortcuts in this industry," he said, criticizing what he said was a glut of amateurs and vineyards that "are nothing more than a weed patch."
"You can't be a lawyer one day and a winemaker the next," he said. Hiring established professionals and cultivating a strong vineyard will establish a better character for the state wine industry overall.
"That's how we're going to change people's minds, by showing them we're the real deal and we're doing it the tried and true way," Sharko said.
Both Sharko and Cifelli independently agreed that the problem extends beyond New Jersey.
"I think every state has this problem," Cifelli said. "I think every wine region that isn't named California, Oregon, Washington or New York has this problem."
Growing the brand
Meanwhile, in his corner of Knowlton Township near the Delaware Water Gap, Ritter is finding his own ways to keep people coming back to Brook Hollow.
An adopt-a-vine program helps get people involved in the process, an "education from grape to glass," Ritter said. They work with neighboring wineries and groups, like their sales that support a nearby wolf preserve.
They only sell their wines on site, and so far, he said, that's good enough.
"We're having a hard time keeping up with our sales demand," Ritter said. "That's not a bad problem to have."