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Ripe for growth Lobbying victories a signal of maturity for state's wine industry

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"It took France 2,000 years" to become a winemaking powerhouse, one Garden State expert notes, but New Jersey vintners seem to be off to a faster start than their impressively named European rivals.

Take Ventimiglia Vineyards, where owner Gene Ventimiglia has seen sales jump between 10 and 20 percent each year since he opened the winery in Wantage in 2006.
"In general, we've been growing at a pretty steady pace," Ventimiglia said. "People are definitely really into wine — and New Jersey people, thank God, are very dedicated to trying to support other New Jersey businesses. I see more and more of that all the time."

Stories like Ventimiglia's have become more common around the state as the wine industry has expanded and matured. As of April 30, there are 43 licensed wineries and 12 with applications to operate in New Jersey, according to the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control; five of those 12 already are operating with temporary licenses.

That growth is coming as years of lobbying are finally bearing fruit, with the industry getting a direct-shipment bill signed by Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year. Louis Cappelli, an attorney with Florio, Perruchi, Steinhardt & Fader LLC, was hired to lobby for the direct-shipping bill, which was years in the making. Since the law went into effect May 1, New Jersey wineries have "shipped as far away as Alaska already," Cappelli said.

In addition to authorizing wineries to ship their goods directly to customers throughout the state and nation, the bill also allows the locations to keep their tasting rooms open. Cappelli said new licenses were put on hold until the legislation was passed, opening the floodgates for the industry "to grow dramatically."

"This will allow for growth in the very near future, and will also help to create new wineries in the state," Cappelli said.

Willow Creek Winery, in Cape May, has been on hold while the bill was being addressed. Owner Barbara Bray Wilde said she's been working for nearly eight years to get the winery open; she's had her license to manufacture for a while, but the actual opening — scheduled for July — and sale of her wines is what has taken the longest.
Still, Willow Creek won't participate in direct shipping for a while, she said. That's a benefit for the larger wineries in the state right now, though she wants to add that capability at "the next stage."

Liquor stores had lobbied to block the bill, but both Cappelli and Orley Ashenfelter, a professor of economics at Princeton University and president of the American Association of Wine Economists, credited Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-West Deptford) with advocating for the industry as a knowledgeable insider.

With the legislative hurdle cleared, the wave of newcomers faces a more practical concern — catching up to the more established wineries. It'll be a tough road, said Gary Pavlis, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Agricultural Experimentation Station, who has chaired the New Jersey Wine Competition for 20 years. In 1984, he estimates there were 12 wineries judged; at the competition this year in May, more than 250 wines from 25 vintners were evaluated, many of which had medaled at the Finger Lakes 2012 International Wine Competition.

But though they are competitors, promoting the industry as a whole tends to be of significant importance to the state's wine growers. Wilde said she's working with other Cape May vintners to put together a daylong tour of the various sites, modeled after the popular Napa Valley tourist trips. The industry also is generating interest through wine festivals.

The next step is getting the state away from fruit wines — a traditional strength — and putting the focus on grapes, a process that's already started with vintners like Ventimiglia. Pavlis said the next step is reducing the number of varietals used and focusing on the best vines for New Jersey's climate. Right now, he said, there are 87 different varieties of grape grown in the state — far more than well-known regions like California's Napa Valley. "I really don't think down the road we're going to grow 87 varieties. I think it's going to be really weaned down," he said. "It took France 2,000 years — hopefully, we can do it a little quicker than that."

Ashenfelter agreed. "There are phenomenal opportunities here, but … we don't have enough of the right grapes growing, we have to have more people who have been trained … and we need to get the government off everybody's back," he said. "After that, it's just a matter of Mother Nature."

And just like a good wine, the industry itself is getting better as it matures.
"It's got all the things in place to do well. You've got 9 million of the wealthiest people in the entire country to sell to, and everybody is interested in local products," Ashenfelter said. "New Jersey alone could absorb all of the decent wine the people of New Jersey can make."

E-mail to: melindac@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mcaliendo33

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