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Officials: It's a vine time for wine in New Jersey

By , - Last modified: September 11, 2018 at 7:02 AM
Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and vintner Louis Caracciolo examine the grape crops at Caracciolo's Amalthea Cellars Farm Winery in Atco.
Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and vintner Louis Caracciolo examine the grape crops at Caracciolo's Amalthea Cellars Farm Winery in Atco. - ()

For centuries, one type of grape has been chief among wine production in the state, the Concord. It’s also had a diverse variety of fruit wines, such as blueberry and cranberry, according to Louis Caracciolo, owner of Amalthea Cellars Farm Winery in Atco.

The industry has been that way for nearly 350 years, yet most wine connoisseurs don’t immediately think of New Jersey when they set out to buy a bottle of red.

But now, Gov. Phil Murphy wants to make Jersey wines really stand out by tacking the Jersey Fresh logo onto the state’s wine products. 

The Jersey Fresh program, operated by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, is aimed at boosting the sale of the state’s agricultural products. 

Since wine technically isn’t considered a “fresh” product, state officials are creating a wine subcategory for a new logo, to be called Jersey Wines and Jersey Vines.

Making up for lost time

In 1981, then-Gov. Brendan Byrne signed the New Jersey Farm Winery Act, which rolled back Prohibition-era legislation that only allowed a single winery license per every 1 million residents.

As a result, the number of wineries in the state ballooned to 15 in 1981 and now stands at 50.

Winemakers found ways to grow grapes typically associated with California’s Napa Valley or the Bordeaux region of France, Caracciolo said — the class known as vitis vinifera, the chief source of Old World wine.

“They’re called the European grape,” he said. “They were very difficult to grow in the East Coast until about 1980, when breakthroughs with different technology gave us the ability to finally grow the European grapes.”

As of 2016, New Jersey’s wineries made up a $323 million industry and employed 1,979 people, according to a December 2017 report from the Garden State Wine Growers Association.

The industry generated $23.24 million in federal taxes and $17.73 million in state and local taxes during 2016, according to the report.

Wineries produced 702,671 gallons that year, and attracted 108,813 tourists that spent nearly $20 million, the report said.

“We’re a big part of the agricultural component of the state,” said Tom Cosentino, executive director of Garden State Wine Growers Association.

And Cosentino said he expects that to grow. Having a Jersey Fresh stamp gives agricultural businesses and farmers a leg up in the state’s market, he noted.

Farmers pay a fee to be able to sport the signage. In order to be eligible for the logo, the agricultural product has to be grown in New Jersey, Cosentino said, rather than produced out of state and imported.

“The product has to be 100 percent Jersey,” Cosentino said.

“There’s so many people that look at Jersey Fresh and automatically know ‘hey I know those are the tomatoes I want to buy, those are the corn I want to buy, the peaches I want to buy.”

- Tom Cosentino, Garden State Wine Growers Association

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture runs the Jersey Fresh program with a $100,000 annual budget. Farmers, vendors and businesses are included on the department’s Find Jersey Fresh website, which maps out the locations of the participating businesses.

“There’s so many people that look at Jersey Fresh and automatically know ‘hey I know those are the tomatoes I want to buy, those are the corn I want to buy, the peaches I want to buy,” Cosentino said.

And though Jersey Fresh has been around for years, winemakers have been unable to find a way into the program because their product technically is not considered fresh since the grapes were grown years ago, after which they were aged and treated.

That in turn has led to the proposal of the Jersey Wines and Jersey Vines subcategory, which will be part of the Jersey Fresh Wine Program, Murphy said Aug. 31 while touring Caracciolo’s Atco winery.

“New Jersey is becoming a force not only in our nation’s wine scene, but we are making waves around the world,” Murphy said.

Added New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher: “The continuing growth of the wine industry in New Jersey has allowed it to make a major impact on the state’s agricultural landscape.

“That we are now able to partner New Jersey’s wineries with our Jersey Fresh brand will only elevate the awareness of the high quality and unique wines that are produced right here in the Garden State.”

The wine growers association will hash out the marketing budget it would get from the agriculture department following its inclusion into the Jersey Fresh program, according to Cosentino.

Cash crops

Currently, the agriculture department offers a handful of other economic incentives to help bolster businesses that grow and sell different crops.

One program, Cosentino said, is the Specialty Crop Block Grants, which are meant to “enhance the competitiveness” of specialty crops, according to its online application.

The department defines eligible businesses as those that grow “vegetables; fruits, including grapes for wine; nuts; horticultural products, including Christmas trees; honey; herbs; potatoes; sweet corn; and other similar crops.”

The U.S Department of Agriculture is the funding source of the grants, but tasks state agriculture departments with awarding them.

The Garden State Wine Growers Association was approved for a $40,000, two-year grant from the agriculture department, which Caracciolo said will help it to start branding its different fine wine categories.

The association also gets money from the state’s excise tax, which is imposed on the sale of wines and is calculated at the end of the year based on the number of gallons sold in the state.

In June, Murphy signed a law allowing wineries located on preserved lands to host major events such as weddings, birthdays and retirement parties on certain approved days of the week, provided they use their product to promote agricultural tourism.

The wineries had previously been prevented from doing so, but state officials experimented with a pilot program that ran from 2014 to March of this year. Murphy’s signing of Assembly Bill 2787 permanently loosened the regulation.

Under A2787, a winery located on a preserved piece of farmland can hold special events on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and government-stipulated holidays.

The owners also have the option to apply for a waiver from the State Agricultural Department Committee to host events during the week.

“In our nation’s competitive environment, New Jersey ranks the sixth-highest state in wine production because we do a good job in promoting agricultural tourism,” said Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, R-40th District, and a sponsor of A2787.  “Wineries hosting jazz festivals, food-truck gatherings and seasonal events will give the industry a chance to establish a path for continued growth and a more prominent position among the nation’s wine producers.”

In 2016, wineries generated $2.3 million from non-wine products and services such as weddings, according to the wine growers association.

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Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel J. Munoz


Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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