One ill-fated real estate deal nearly 30 years ago gave Ray Shea a vineyard.
It was 1986, and a developer looking to turn two abandoned dairy farms in New Egypt into a golf course and a collection of McMansions had hired Shea, a real estate attorney, to help him through the process.
At first, Shea was just that: the attorney.
Then that developer ran into some financial trouble and asked Shea for help making his second deposit on the property. Shea agreed, with the stipulation he would get the land if the developer couldn't pay him back.
Turns out, that was a smart move: Shea ended the attorney-client relationship with a huge chunk of land somewhere between Trenton and Toms River — and one less client.
At first, Shea and his partner, Randy Johnson, weren't quite sure what to do with the property. But one seminar at Rutgers taught Shea that everything he needed to make good wine — sandy, well-drained soil, good breezes and plenty of sunshine — was right there on site.
"That was the germination of everything," he said. "I love music, nature, architecture, people, wine and good food. And I found a way to put all six together in one place that would not only please me, but hopefully please other people who felt like me."
That end product is the Laurita Winery, which has spread 36,000 plants across 40 acres of land on Archertown Road. It produces 17 different varieties and about 8,000 cases a year, with the average bottle costing roughly $18.
Between installing the winemaking equipment, constructing the main winery building and planting acres of crops, the investment has cost Shea and his partner "millions," Shea said.
And it has taken years to show any kind of return.
Shea and his business partner planted the first acre in 1998 — well, they helped. Shea enlisted his daughter's eighth grade class to do most of the hard labor.
"During that time, I broke every child labor law imaginable. We paid them in cheeseburgers and cokes," he recalled with a laugh.
"Those were years of searching," he added, "having doubts about whether the dream was actually capable of fulfillment, and to what extent."
Ten years later, in September of 2008, the Laurita Winery opened to the public, with outdoor stages for events, a wine grove for drinking al fresco and a massive main building constructed almost entirely of salvaged materials.
Whenever Shea heard about a building slated for demolition, he would offer to take bits and pieces away for free. The wood beams that crisscross overhead were taken from two English-style barns, each more than 150 years old. The bathrooms were pilfered from the old Garden State Racetrack.
The resulting structure has helped cement Laurita as a destination, which was exactly what Shea had in mind. The winery hosts country line dances, theme parties and a biannual "American Idol" competition. Thirty-five to 40 weddings take place there every year, and each weekend brings multiple music acts, tour groups and families eager to spend a little quality time outside, Shea said.
"Once people come into this place and they understand this place was built for them — for people who love life — they get it right away," Shea said. "Wine drops the veil, and it allows people to freely exchange with one another. They open their hearts. They open their minds."
And they open their wallets.
The winery broke even six years after it opened to the public — the industry standard is 11 — and they did it with a limited distribution network. Customers can only purchase Laurita wines at the vineyard or online, provided they live in New Jersey. The winery can register and pay a fee to ship to up to 35 other states, but they have to figure out where the demand will justify that expense, Shea explained.
The winery also has the right under the law to have 15 restaurants carry its wines, and so far, Laurita has received inquiries from 40 to 50 different eateries. Shea said that could be a next step for the winery — but all in due time.
"I want to crawl before I walk. I want to walk before I run, and I just entered, I think, the walking stage," he said.
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