By Paul Vigna
Larry Sharrott III has been making wine at his namesake winery, Sharrott Winery, in Hammonton, about a 40-minute drive northwest of Atlantic City, for just over 10 years. “When we first opened the tasting room, my favorite comment was ‘this is really good … for New Jersey.’ We heard it often, as if it their opinion on the wine wasn’t valid because it was from New Jersey.”
He’s not hearing that these days, he says. “I get the feeling from people who come to us for the first time that they no long feel the need to qualify their opinion of any New Jersey wine.”
Numbers reflect the improvements – with New Jersey having now increased to 50 wineries and more than 1,000 acres of wine – as do the recent awards – Sharrott’s port-style red called Wicked, made from Chambourcin grapes, won the state’s Governor’s Cup and a double gold in the San Francisco Wine Competition this year. That’s just one example.
Still, its obstacles match regional neighbors Pennsylvania and Maryland – a lot of wines are sweet, too many aren’t up to snuff, and the perceptions of inferior quality have taken time to change. Then there’s the added problem of its proximity to a major East Coast shipping port, providing wine drinkers an excess of cheap international imports. There lies the irony for New Jersey, a state known so widely for its agriculture, struggling to make people aware of its wineries.
“Raising the quality of our wines is vital, but also making sure the public understands there is a thriving wine industry in New Jersey is very important,” says Tom Cosentino, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, a coalition of around 50 wineries and vineyards. “There are still thousands of potential consumers out there in the state that have no idea we have a wine industry in the state.”
Alba Vineyard is a 90-acre estate with 50 acres under vine, located in Milford, Hunterdon County, a few miles from the Pennsylvania line and an hour west of Newark. Owned by the Sharko family, it grows eight grape varieties, from Riesling to Cabernet Franc to Pinot Noir.
Vineyard manager Nick Sharko says the viticulture and winemaking techniques have been their two biggest obstacles during the first 20 years in business.
“We have overcome these challenges by extensive travel to the best wineries throughout America,” he says, “meeting great winemakers and seasoned growers and spending time in their vineyards and cellars, learning from their trials and tribulations, tasting benchmark wines, and bringing it full circle by applying what can work on our farm to continue to push the envelope of wine growing here in New Jersey.” Tasting blind each week against those benchmark wines that cost hundreds of dollars, Sharko adds, helps them measure their progress.
“For over 15 years we have been pushing the envelope of what was believed to be possible on the East Coast and we feel like we are really just getting started now,” he says.
They’re not the only ones implementing ways to improve quality. Cosentino says his organization has created a QWA program, which ensures that all wines poured at an association event had to be tested, so any potential faulted wines could be pulled ahead of the event. “This process worked well,” he says. “We have an enologist on retainer to work directly with wineries on QWA issues, but very few are taking advantage. We cannot succeed if just a handful of wineries drive this. All wineries must embrace excellence. We are an industry still basically in its infancy. In many cases a visit to one of our vineyards and tasting rooms may be the first opportunity for someone to try New Jersey wine. The same holds true for a festival. That is why quality is imperative.”
Raising the bar is what prompted four wineries, including Unionville Vineyards in the town of Ringoes, to create in 2015 what they call The Winemakers Co-Op. All focus on dry vinifera wines, exclusively from New Jersey grown grapes. Beneduce, Heritage and Working Dog are the other wineries.
John Cifelli is Unionville’s general manager and the executive director of the Co-op. He says the success of the Co-Op’s wineries is a win for the state as a whole. “It goes back to the cost of doing this business in this state – we need broader acceptance of premium bottles of N.J. wine and the price tags that they command,” he says. “That means more higher-end consumer tastings, stronger support from restaurants, sommeliers, liquor stores, and wine shops.”
All four producers sell at least one wine for more than $30 and as high as $50; the majority are red blends although Unionville’s premium Chardonnays sell from $36 to $43.
Making great wine, Cifelli says, is expensive. “Suitable farmland, skilled labor, regulations … and, of course, the meticulous care you have to put into an East Coast vineyard.” Achieving success requires prioritizing investments and capital projects and, of course, having patience as the business grows.
Part of that patience, he says, is seeing what thrives in the vineyard, and some recent experimentation prompted the winery to announce last month that it would be pulling out nine rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Syrah and planting several Rhone varieties, including Marsanne, Rousanne and Picpoul.
“I’m lucky to manage a vineyard that has been at it for 30 years, so we have a lot of information to work with relative to some of our peers in the state,” Cifelli says. “There also is a familial, collaborative attitude around the state that can be tapped into and taken advantage of.” Still, as the replanting shows, they continue to adjust.
So are the state’s customers, who still have to visit the wineries or festivals to taste and purchase New Jersey wine. It isn’t available in retail outlets such as grocery stores, a recent change in Pennsylvania that has dramatically changed the sales dynamic there. Because of the limitations, many smaller wineries are having a difficult time generating enough business from tasting room sales, Cosentino says. “We need more distribution opportunities for our wines.”
As that happens, Sharrott says, customer appreciation will follow its awareness. “New York and Virginia have proven that great wines can be made here on the East Coast,” he says, pointing to his awards as proof. “As the industry grows we are reaching the critical mass where a handful of boutique wineries making great wine becomes an industry with all the know-how and services needed to sustain it.”
Alba’s Sharko says he’s proud of how much his family has accomplished in their 20 years in business. They’ll reach several milestones in the next 12 months, opening a new winery and tasting room in the fall and beginning a three-year vineyard expansion project in 2018.
“When my father started 20 years ago, cheap and sweet wines ruled,” he says. “It is only within the last five years that a handful of East Coast wineries have been recognized as world-class producers, and that has changed the narrative for everyone.”
Additional producers to consider for a taste of quality New Jersey wines:
- Beneduce Vineyards, 1 Jeremiah Lane, Pittstown
- Fox Hollow Vineyards, 939 Holmdel Road, Holmdel
- Heritage Vineyards, 480 Mullica Hill Road, Mulllica Hill
- Plagido’s Winery, 570 N 1st Rd, Hammonton
- Terhune Orchards, 330 Cold Soil Road, Princeton
This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.