The wines of South Jersey. The phrase seems almost custom-made to elicit a smile or a sneer.
Either response ignores the surprising truth: South Jersey winemakers work in an industry whose regional roots date back 350 years. They grow two-thirds of the state's grapes. And they boast the federally designated Outer Coastal Plain wine growing region, whose terroir can best be likened to Bordeaux.
Despite that, South Jersey vintners have historically commanded little regard.
"At most," acknowledges Scott Donnini, co-owner of Auburn Road Vineyard & Winery in Pilesgrove, "we were a regional curiosity."
The state of affairs recalls that of the California wine industry before 1976, when West Coast wines were routinely dismissed. Then, on May 24, 1976, came the Judgment of Paris -- the competition in which renowned French judges unwittingly scored wines from Napa Valley higher than the most venerable vintages from France.
That accidental endorsement earned Napa winemakers, who'd been toiling over their vines for more than a century, a deluge of long-overdue respect and singlehandedly transformed the U.S. winemaking industry from a cottage endeavor into an international one.
Thirty-five years later, South Jersey winemakers are undergoing their own pre-'76-style struggles. Unfortunately, this is where the parallel with California breaks down.
In 2007, and again in 2008, South Jersey winemakers triumphed in their own Judgment of Paris, when two panels of certified wine judges blindly rated their wines higher than some of the most exclusive labels from California and France.
This time, the wine world took no notice.
Undeterred, the vintners, who've multiplied in number since then, continued working to perfect their craft while quietly forecasting their status as the "Napa of the East Coast." Finally convinced of their collective readiness, they're launching the first earnest efforts to invite outsiders to come judge for themselves.
"It has been proven that New Jersey can grow grapes as fine as France or Napa," says Lou Caracciolo, the owner of Amalthea Cellars in Atco, who consults for winemakers in Bordeaux, where he learned the trade. "Now, it's time for us to let the world in on our secret."
These agricultural entrepreneurs will boldly proclaim their proficiency via a marketing campaign they call "Vintage South Jersey." It's an initiative that will be managed and funded by the state-supported South Jersey Tourism Corp. (SJTC), which will no longer publicize all visitor amenities across its assigned counties but will instead turn its attention to what's fast becoming the hottest attraction in South Jersey and beyond: wine tourism.
"With the popularity of agri-tourism, it makes sense for us to focus on what's hot," says Jake Buganski, executive director of the SJTC, who notes that Gloucester County led the state in tourism growth last year, thanks to its concentration of agri-tourism sites. "The success [the wineries] had in competitions lends credence to the idea."
Buganski and his team will trumpet Jersey's winemaking worthiness via a new website (vintagesouthjersey.com), set to launch within a month, and a redesigned visitors guide now being distributed. They'll also represent regional winemakers at trade shows across the country.
The SJTC has received permission from state tourism authorities to drop its affiliation with Mercer County and to acquire some responsibility for Atlantic County -- a change that reflects the boundaries of the Outer Coastal Plain American Viticultural Area that includes parts of Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem counties. A two-year matching grant from the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, plus seed money from several wineries and contributions from public agencies in Camden and Gloucester counties, will fund these projects, along with others in development.
"The South Jersey Tourism Corp. is great at connecting the public, and wineries are good at growing grapes. So we're going to each concentrate on what we do best," says Rich Heritage, director of sales and Marketing for Heritage Vineyard in Mullica Hill and now a member of the SJTC's board.
Local destination marketers say capitalizing on the popularity of wineries is the only logical approach to growing tourism in an era when competition for state tourism dollars has become fiercer than ever and the economy is creating downward pressure on visitor assets.
"Other tourist sites are scaling back on advertising. But we're the extremely rare case of an industry that's expanding," says Heritage. "Our tasting rooms are packed. We have limos showing up, buses showing up. Hotels are wondering what's going on."
"With the [acclaim] our wineries are getting we're going to start drawing the Wine Spectator crowd, and we need to develop the infrastructure to support them," adds Buganski. "We want them to know that we do have the fine dining . . . and the historic assets, which are plentiful here. We're promoting those things alongside the wineries."
For help crafting that message, Buganski invited six winemakers onto the SJTC board. Together they're charting wine trails, planning festivals, and seeking cobranding partnerships with entities like the SJ Hot Chefs restaurant consortium, county cultural and heritage commissions, and hotels and boutiques. Beginning this summer, visitors will notice these partnerships via more affiliate products, marketing materials, and guest appearances at wineries and wine events, and through enhanced wine distribution, promotions, and special dinners at restaurants and other destinations.
"We're the common thread that's going to help guide people through the southern portion of the state," summarizes Donnini.
But this winner-take-all mentality leaves some of the SJTC's traditional beneficiaries feeling abandoned. "Tourism is about more than wine," laments Camden County Historical Society Executive Director Linda Gentry. "There's only one winery in Camden County and it's 45 minutes from [our offices in Camden]. The aquarium and the battleship are big enough to advertise themselves. But who's going to promote the rest of our historical and cultural assets?"
Donnini insists that because winemakers stage joint festivals in an array of municipalities, a bevy of nearby attractions, industries, and business owners can be spotlighted or invited to participate. "We're a traveling circus," he says. "The aquarium isn't moving. But we can pick up a little piece of our winery and say, 'Hey, this is what's out here in Salem County or Gloucester County or Camden County. Here's the local livestock. Here are the local vendors and the local chefs."
Whether or not they approve of SJTC's narrowly targeted focus, stakeholders in the region's historical and cultural destinations do have a vested interest in the campaign's success. As they well know, it's one thing to lure visitors and another to lure them back. The pressure's now on the winemakers to deliver on their promise of exceptional quality, especially now that recently passed legislation in Trenton allows wineries to easily sell in-and-out of state.
"This is a game-changer," Donnini says of the so-called. "One of the reasons magazines wouldn't write about us is that you couldn't get our wine anywhere. But now we feel like we have everything we need to compete, and it's up to us to show that we we're every bit as legitimate as the great wine regions of the world."
George Taber, the journalist whose coverage of the Judgment of Paris inspired the movie "Bottle Shock," is arguably the most famous and vocal advocate for the state's viticulture. Through his writings and local appearances, he endeavors to persuade skeptics that maybe, just maybe, New Jersey will one day gain acceptance to the elite group that counts Sonoma, Tuscany, and Burgundy among its members.
"A few New Jersey wineries . . . are making outstanding wines," Taber wrote in a review of the Garden State Wineries Guide, A Tasteful Traveler's Handbook to the Wineries and Vineyards of New Jersey, published last year. "They can hold their own with the best in the world and have done so in blind tastings," he wrote of Amalthea in the same review.
Garden State winemakers are hoping one particular tasting tentatively scheduled for spring will establish 2012 as the definitive year for them. NJ Spotlight has learned that Taber is in the preliminary stages of talks to host a blind competition with, in his words, "quality judges and a combination of New Jersey wines and top world [and California] wines" at the American Association of Wine Economists annual meeting in June. Not only would the contest take place in Princeton -- where the association is holding its first meeting outside Europe or the west coast -- but also this time, more than 350 international wine experts, aficionados, and journalists would be in attendance to witness the culmination of three-and-a-half centuries of labor.
"New Jersey has a long history of wine making," concludes Caracciolo, "but only in the last decade and a half have its wines come of age in the 'fine wine category.' It will take time, as in Napa, for the idea to catch on that this is really possible and really happening."
That time may just be drawing to its end, particularly if past does indeed prove to be prologue and hometown vintners best their more esteemed competitors in June. Should that conclusion bear out, we may find ourselves looking back and remembering 2012 as another pivotal year in American winemaking … the year when producers and drinkers in California, Europe and around the world were forced to bid adieu to the conceit that decent wine could never be made in New Jersey.