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Wine, solar industries find their common ground: Partners may be odd couple, but they are hoping the combination proves lucrative

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Tom Cosentino, left, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, and Lisa Velasquez, manager of business development at Direct Energy Solar.
Tom Cosentino, left, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, and Lisa Velasquez, manager of business development at Direct Energy Solar. - ()

More than 100,000 people each year visit New Jersey's wineries to view and taste over 80 varieties of grapes that grow on more than 2,000 acres in the state.

Tom Cosentino, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association since January, wants to better capitalize on that tourism.

“One of my goals as executive director is to bring in corporate partners and take advantage of the fact that we have a built-in audience,” he said. “I want to use those dollars to not have to rely entirely on grants.”

Thus, Cosentino has been working to create partnerships with like-minded businesses and organizations in order to primarily fund year-round brand campaigns and multimedia marketing.

“For example, we need the sun to grow wine,” Cosentino said. “And solar is an industry that also relies greatly on weather and the sun for its product.”

Now, the Garden State Wine Growers Association has signed its first corporate deal, with Direct Energy Solar, one of the largest residential solar installers in the U.S. The company is headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, with an office in Pennsauken and more than 50 employees in New Jersey.

“We’ve partnered with communities all across the eastern United States and have seen tremendous support for these programs,” Jennifer King, community programs specialist at Direct Energy Solar, said. “People like working with their friends and neighbors to increase awareness of what solar can do and jump-start their energy independence.”

Cosentino is particularly excited about how the initiative, “NJ Wine Grows Solar,” will not only benefit the wine industry, but also encourage residents and commercial businesses in the state to purchase solar power.

“We will be able to educate, empower and provide more options for people, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Lisa Velasquez, manager of business development at Direct Energy Solar, previously worked on legislation regarding wineries in New Jersey in her past career as associate counsel for the New Jersey Senate Democratic Majority Office.

Sunshine in the Garden State
While the solar boom in New Jersey may have dissipated in interest, the industry is still viable.
New Jersey currently has the fourth-highest solar electric capacity installed of any state, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and solar credits in the state are selling for more than $240.
Jennifer King, community programs specialist at Direct Energy Solar, said that, while solar energy has been around and available to homeowners and business owners for a number of years, it is still a very new concept to many.
“It is a home improvement purchase that you really only need to do once or twice,” she said. “The (potential) customer’s first question usually is, ‘How much does it cost?’ Solar is site-specific, depending entirely on usage, the condition and age of the roof, and so forth. So, we schedule a site assessment and take a look at aerial images to confirm.”
Lisa Velasquez, manager of business development at Direct Energy Solar, said that is something that could potentially be accomplished right at the New Jersey wine festivals where the company is marketing.
“With smartphone technology today, we can use a homeowner’s address to bring up images of their home right away on their cell phone,” she said. “Google Earth is a great way to conduct a preliminary, quick assessment of whether their roof is right for solar or not.”

“Tom is such a trailblazer,” she said. “I knew that the excitement and the events he created in the industry would be right up our alley. These festivals often attract tons of vendors and are a great place for us to continue our solar outreach.

“We are really very pleased that Tom was so open-minded to embrace this idea of a partnership.”

The program, which began in May, will offer significant discounts for residents that want to install a solar system on their roofs through Dec. 31.

“We are providing below-market pricing to homeowners who decide to go solar because of their relationship with the Garden State Wine Growers Association,” Velasquez said. “If this limited program goes well, we would love to continue the program every year for a significant portion of the year.”

The Garden State Wine Growers Association and Direct Energy Solar will also co-host several information sessions, community meetings and other educational opportunities for those who want to learn more about solar energy.

“We are working on setting up solar workshops at wineries, hosting at least one per month through the end of the year,” Velasquez said. “We met a lot of interested wineries at our first festival and have been meeting with them to schedule.”

King said that events typically held at wineries are perfect for speaking to residents and business owners about potentially installing solar.

“People are spending time outside, enjoying the beautiful weather and are generally in a good mood,” she said. “They will spend a good part of their day there. If they take just 15 minutes to talk with our solar consultants on their own time and schedule, we have created a positive impact.”

According to King, the response and interest so far have been well-received.

“We are working with several homeowners in the area that have recently attended events at wineries,” she said.

Cosentino said he is looking to create more agreements like this one.

“The Garden State Wine Growers Association would love to partner with companies and industries that see the value in our marketplace and that fit well into what we do as a business,” he said. “We have the festivals; we have a website; we have an email blast that goes out to almost 25,000 people every month; and we can put corporate literature in over 40 wineries in New Jersey.

“A year from now, I’d love to be able to say we’ve partnered with a bank, a hotel, an official credit card, a retail partner and more. That would allow us to grow.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

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