Red, White, or RosÉ — Assembly Bills to Help Build Up NJ’s Wineries

Eight measures that could make 2018 a very good year for New Jersey wines and the people who make them

New Jersey’s wineries have been growing in number and production, but could still use some assistance to continue to thrive, say several Assembly members whose legislation would help do just that.

Bills that would make wineries eligible for state economic-development loans, allow them to set up retail shops in “dry” towns, and create a signed “wine trail” are among eight that recently cleared an Assembly committee.

New Jersey’s 50 wineries and vineyards provided $323 million in economic impact, including salaries, taxes, and tourism revenue, in 2016, according to a report commissioned by the Garden State Wine Growers Association. That was a 40 percent increase over the previous five years. Still, the report concluded there is no guarantee that wineries will continue to expand and prosper.

“New Jersey wine and grape growers face sizable challenges to their continued growth and success,” the report concluded. “Working to support the New Jersey wine industry and to ensure its long-term success will protect the significant benefits the industry provides to the New Jersey economy.”

Special hearing on wine

Legislators seemed to heed that call in introducing the measures and in getting them released last week from the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which held a special hearing on the wine industry at the Jessie Creek Winery in Cape May County.

“These commonsense measures are about wineries and vineyards and helping them stay competitive in a tough industry, but they’re about more than just those benefits,” said Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro (D-Gloucester) and sponsor of three of the bills. “This is also about creating jobs and economic development in the agricultural industry and all the businesses that rely on agriculture for success.”

“These bills are another step in helping to grow an industry that already provides a $323 million dollar a year economic impact to our state,” said Tom Cosentino, executive director of the wine growers’ association, which supports all but one of the bills that the committee approved.

Particularly helpful, he said, would be A-3643, cosponsored by Assemblymen Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) the committee chairman, and Roy Freiman (D-Somerset). It would have the state create and erect signs to direct tourists along a state wine trail. The state departments of transportation and agriculture would create the “Viticulture Trail Sign Program.” People would then apply to the DOT to have trail signs installed on state highways and other eligible roads to identify and direct people to wineries and other viticulture locations.

“Adding road signs to drive people to our wineries and creating a seasonal permit for farm markets makes it easier for our wineries to engage with the public,” said Cosentino.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), A-3921 would allow for the annual issuance of permits to sell alcoholic beverages, including wines, at seasonal farm markets.

“I am proud to be a sponsor of these bills, which I think will be tremendous for our state’s economy,” Mazzeo said. “There is so much potential for New Jersey to become the premier winemaking state in the country, and these bills will help us accomplish this goal.”

Another measure, A-1046, would require the state Economic Development Authority to work with the Department of Agriculture to establish a loan program for certain vineyard and winery capital expenses. Cosponsored by Andrzejczak, Mazzeo, Taliaferro and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth), who is vice chair of the committee, the bill would help wineries trying to pay for capital improvements or expanding by making them eligible for loans of up to $100,000 for improvements — more for physical expansion — at interest rates of between 3 percent and 5 percent.

“The economic and job potential of wine vineyards have been underestimated in this state for far too long,” Andrzejczak said, adding the loan and other bills “will help to encourage these businesses to grow and keep New Jersey competitive nationally in the wine industry.”

Financial aid for wineries

Financial assistance from the state is something else that the wine growers’ economic impact report suggested, stating, “it is critical wineries and all associated organization and vendors receive significant support from the state and local governments, particularly with funding dollars that will enable better marketing of the industry as a whole. In addition to improving winemaking and vineyard practices, it is this kind of financial support that will help the industry’s growth better reflect that of many of its neighboring states.”

The other bills that cleared committee are:

  • A-1512 would allow wineries to operate salesrooms in municipalities that currently restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages. New Jersey had about 35 such “dry” towns as of 2013. While local ordinance in those communities prevents the sale of alcohol, state law may supersede that. It is state law that currently allows wineries to operate sales locations off premises to sell their wines and other goods and to offer tastings in a retail setting.
  • A-3121 would allow students age 18 and over to taste wine or malt alcoholic beverages for educational purposes while they are enrolled in authorized enology or brewing training program at a higher-education institution. The student can’t swallow the sample, however. The bill seeks to help the state’s wine and beer industries by permitting the practical training of staff in the state.
  • A-3344 would exempt certain wineries from having to file paperwork and pay a fee required of other retail sellers of litter-generating products. This measure passed the full Assembly in the last session but was not heard by the Senate.
  • A-1054 would make it clear that the operator of an off-premises retail wine location and his employees would be responsible for ensuring that no one under age 21 can taste, drink, or buy any of the wine sold there. Under the measure, the winery and the operator of the retail salesroom would have to agree to an alcohol management plan to govern operations on the site, but the ultimate responsibility for any potential underage drinking violations would be the operator’s.
  • A-1205 would allow for wineries to operate on less than three acres of land, which is the current requirement, although it would prohibit those smaller wineries from the retail selling of their products on site or nearby. This is the only bill not supported by the Garden State Wine Growers Association, which feels “strongly” that the three-acre minimum size should be maintained, Cosentino said.
  • Six of the eight bills are awaiting a full vote by the Assembly, with A-1054 and A-1046 referred to other committees for additional consideration.