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New Jersey
"He twisted the French map and placed it over
the New Jersey map: they matched!"

Pruning at Bellview Winery

A few years ago, Larry Sharrott became an entrepreneur, together with his son

New Jersey wines: Success in the making
When we reached the vineyard, the rain that had been pouring throughout our entire trip stopped and gave way to a glowing rainbow. Louis greeted us with a large smile. “I ordered it for you,” he said. Well, he obviously didn't, but maybe this is a good metaphor for what is happening in New Jersey viticulture.

Ask anyone about New Jersey wines and you’ll get a blank face for an answer. New Jersey is about the chemical industry, pollution, urban sprawl, the Devils Hockey team, but certainly not wine. That’s why we were surprised when a good friend told us: “You should go there, you’ll be surprised.” Indeed we were.


Charlie Tomasello

New Jersey's first vines were planted by colonists during the 18th century. The earliest testimony to winemaking can be found in 1767, when London’s Royal Society of the Arts recognized two New Jersey vintners for their success in producing the first bottles of quality wine. Charles Thomson and Edward Antill wrote in an essay that “the general climate of North America, the soil, the seasons, the serenity and dryness of the air (...) are fit for making the best and richest wines of every kind.” They recommended for New Jersey “the Chasselas blanc, the Malvois, the grey Frontiniac, the red Frontiniac, the black Lisbon, the white Lisbon, the Chasselas noir” as the most suited vines to the climate. But transplanting vitis vinifera from Europe turned out to be a failure as the vines succumbed to phylloxera, black rot and mildew. Subsequently, American vines were planted and studied. The New Jersey vineyard expanded. The oldest winery still existing today, the Renault winery, was established in 1864. In 1876, the nickname “Garden State" started to be used for New Jersey, because farming was the major activity, but Prohibition (1919-1933) put a hold on the development of wineries in New Jersey (and indeed, elsewhere in the US).

After the war, while California took up vine growing once again, New Jersey lagged behind because of laws limiting shipping and the number of farms. It was not until the early 20th century that things started again. A handful of vintners - some of them with an heritage of several generations, others newcomers - realised that the terroir had huge potential.

To explain the benefits of the New Jersey terroir, Louis started with a joke. He pulled out two maps, one from New Jersey, one from Bordeaux. He twisted the French map and placed it over the New Jersey map: they matched! This coincidence is a hint, according to Louis, about New Jersey's potential. Situated along the Atlantic Ocean, it is divided into four different geological regions, of which three produce quality wine. The major region, Outer Coastal Plain AVA, is the area along the Jersey shore, comprising a thick bed of sediments deposited during the Cretaceous period. It is relatively flat and mostly covered by pineland. The other two - Central Delaware Valley AVA and Warren Hills AVA - are respectively in the foothills and the highlands of the Appalachian mountains.

In the Outer Coastal Plains, the soil consists of gravel mounds with underlying layers of clay and sand. The vine roots can go deep into the lower layers without restrictions. This is the same type of soil as found in Bordeaux; the climate is mid-Atlantic. The ocean and the river Delaware contribute to smoothen the hardness of the continental climate from the Appalachians. The growing season on average has 190 to 220 freeze-free days per year. These similarities with Bordeaux are an inspiration for the vintners. In 2010 they organized a symposium entitled "Bordeaux - An Old World Terroir with Lessons for New Jersey" which concluded that Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot are the best varieties from which to craft fine and complex wines. We also found interesting wines in our tastings made from Chambourcin and Chardonnay. Wineries have worked with a large number of grape varieties and can now focus on those that are best suited - and forget those that do not thrive in this climate, such as Syrah.

In January 2012, a new bill was passed that allows small New Jersey wineries to keep their tasting rooms open as well as to ship their wine directly to consumers inside and outside the state, without going through the tier system which controls the USA wine distribution. This is a decisive move for the wine industry.

Jim Quarella
We visited some of the most significant wineries in the Outer Coastal Plain AVA. They are located among pineland and habitations. Most of them are former orchard farms transformed into vineyards, a few of which were created from scratch. They are all family operated. A number of farms specialise in grape growing; the most famous and significant of these is that of Larry Coia, a retired physician, who reconverted to agriculture. He sells his grapes to selected winemakers.

Amalthea Cellars
Louis is a non-conformist. On the wall of his cellar you can see a sign from the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, where the revolutionaries gathered in 1761 to drink coffee (not tea) and made history: “It's free speech here. You can say banned things.” After a long career in the food industry, local boy Louis decided to settle on the farm he purchased in 1976 and to show the world the kind of wine it was possible to make in Atco NJ. His conviction and talent as a winemaker continue to pave the way for others.

Bellview Winery
The name is probably a typo from the French bellevue, meaning “nice view.” The winery was founded in 1914 and Jim represents the fourth generation. Located on rather flat land, the property is 150 acres (around 60 hectares) large and dedicated to vine growing since 2003. This is effectively a grape variety conservatory, featuring 20 different cultivars. In 2006 they were big enough to produce wines from their own grapes. Part of their harvest is sold to other local vintners.

Sharott Winery
Newcomers to the region, Larry Sharrott spent most of his professional life in corporate America, in the IT sector. A few years ago, he decided he had had enough, and became an entrepreneur, together with his son. One business plan later, they built a brand new cellar with modern equipment on top of a mound that dominates their vineyard. They are testimony to the rebirth of the vineyard.

Tomasello Winery
Grandfather Tomasello was one of the first people to be granted the newly released government license for winemaking in 1933, after Prohibition was repealed. Charlie, who runs the estate with his brother Jack, explains that he was very determined to get the precious paper without delay. He headed to the administration office with his truck, despite heavy snowstorms on that day, and he is the proud possessor of National License number 3. Today, Tomasello produces an incredible variety of wines, including fruit wines, a tradition in the area.

Tomasello Winery
Renault Winery
Renault, the oldest winery in the state, went through Prohibition adapting their production to the Volstead Act, namely producing wine-based tonics including peptone additives for stomach ailments that were sold in pharmacies to cure various diseases.The Milza Family has owned the estate since the late 1970s; they invested in a golf resort as a solution to the difficulties they faced shipping their wines, due to regulatory constraints. Tourism and wine is a powerful alliance; the new bill giving authorisation to ship wine to customers will unleash their energy in winemaking and probably boost the quality of their wines.

The Heritage Vineyards & Winery
Bill and Penni Heritage started to produce wine on their land in 1999. Seeing the potential of the vineyard, they decided to convert the 150 acres (60 hectares) of their orchard.The fields have various expositions dominated by a hummock. Sean Cominos is their winemaker.

Rainbow Over Amalthea Cellars
We were really impressed by the wine tasting. This handful of determined vintners are clearly on the path to revealing new terroir, pioneer-fashion. Nowadays, pioneers are pushing the boundaries from within, thanks to their knowledge of their land, of their terroir. They work in depth, taking time to understand nature and the best way to reveal its fruits. Backed up by geography, geology and ampelography, they take immense risks to prove they are right and give the best to their clients. It takes time to discover which grape variety is best suited, which process will best enhance its characteristics. The vines' vigour has to be mastered, the yield kept under control, the best varieties have to be promoted. Other vineyards have already travelled this path. In France, Provence for example had to recreate a whole wine culture after the crisis of the 1920s. With the sequels of Prohibition laws vanishing, we are prepared to bet that the region will grow in maturity and soon offer serious wines.

By Emmanuel de Lanversin