Wine growers in New Jersey are adamant their product is as good as any California or French selection — they just lack the marketing campaign. Now, state lawmakers are looking for ways they can help.
On an afternoon last week, legislators gathered in the cool, dark of Amalthea Cellars, a winery in Atco to hear testimony from wine growers, state tourism representatives, and New Jersey viticulture experts. One of their most common complaints was the lack of directional or advertising signage for wineries and breweries on state and federal roads.
Tom Cosentino, director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, said one of the biggest things that hamstrings vineyards and breweries in New Jersey is their inability to direct people to their facilities.
“The way the law is written now, you have to be open five days a week and be a certain distance from a roadway exit, and all these other limitations. Many of our wineries are open just on the weekends, so they don’t qualify,” Cosentino said.
What’s more, those that are located off an interstate or federal highway can’t get signs at all as the law prohibits signage on federal highways directing visitors to agritourism sites, including wineries and craft breweries.
The state Department of Transportation (NJDOT) offersfor highway signs related to businesses: the Tourist Oriented Directional Signing (TODS) Program and the Specific Service (Logo) Sign Program.
The TODS program is what a vineyard or winery would use for signage, but those signs are restricted to local roads and state highways and carry strict eligibility requirements that most wineries cannot meet. The Logo sign program is used for businesses dealing in gas, food, and lodging and can be placed on interstate highways and freeways.
To be eligible for a TODS sign, as Cosentino said, a winery must be within five to 10 miles of a state highway and must be open at least six hours per day and five days a week for at least 20 consecutive weeks in season. For many winery owners in the state, these requirements act as barriers rather than guidelines.
A bill () that would allow viticulture trail signs to be placed on all eligible roads, including state roads, currently is working its way through the Legislature.
While it didn’t get much attention in the recent budget talks — there weren’t any Agriculture budget hearings on the schedule — agritourism is a significant factor in the state’s economy and personality.
“In New Jersey, working agricultural landscapes reflect the efforts of generations of farm families and often provide a defining sense of culture, heritage and rural character,” Jeff Vasser, acting executive director of the state division of travel and tourism, said at the Amalthea Cellars hearing. Driving down the highway, you wouldn’t immediately realize the state’s rich agrarian history, he noted.
“The [Garden State] slogan has long confounded travelers whose only glimpse of the state is from the turnpike and its view of refineries and fuel tanks,” Vasser said.
According to Vasser, agritourism is a source of income for one in five farms in the state and New Jersey ranks ninth in nation in terms of agritourism income.
Wineries contribute in a big way to that total. In 2016, the wine and grape industry contributed $323 million in economic value to the state, an increase from $231 million in 2011. According to the latest, commissioned by the Garden State Wine Growers Association, 108,813 tourists visited New Jersey wineries in 2016; wine-related tourism expenditures were $19.99 million that same year. The number of wineries in the state is also growing. The latest data show there are 50 in operation, up from 38 in 2011.
Production is also increasing. In 2016, the state produced 702,671 gallons of wine, up 73.6 percent from 405,954 gallons in 2011.
And it’s not just quantity that’s trending upward. Experts say New Jersey wine can more thanagainst foreign competitors. Connoisseurs point to the , a 2012 “blind” wine-tasting competition organized at the American Association of Wine Economists conference at Princeton University where several Garden State wines beat some from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
But, as Cosentino said, “the public still doesn’t understand what they have here.”
To ramp up awareness in New Jersey of local wines, Vasser announced that the division of tourism has been in conversation with the department of agriculture to cross-market New Jersey wine and to secure a PR firm to promote state wineries.
The state already offers grants to support vineyards and wineries but Cosentino said much of the money goes to marketing materials, brochures for rest stops, and expensive billboards — leaving very little for the business itself. “It’s expensive to place ads. We took out an ad on the turnpike last year ... that’s $5,500 for the month,” Cosentino said. “Anything that the Legislature can do to make it easier to promote New Jersey wine is only going to be for the betterment of everyone involved.”
Larry Sharrott, who owns and operates Sharrott Winery in Hammonton, said signage could definitely be improved. “There are hundreds of thousands of vehicles that drive past us every week,” he said. “Imagine if we could get just 1 percent of those people to get off that expressway and stop at a winery… that’s revenue dollars that could come in to our state.”
Growers say that having signage in an area with one or more wineries would be an advantage to all of them, as visitors tend to enjoy hopping from one vineyard to the next when wineries are near each other.
“Clusters are a boon, not competition.” Cosentino said. “It’s an excuse to go to a rural part of the state and make it not a day trip but a weekend excursion.”
But ultimately, he said, without raising awareness for residents and out-of-state travelers crossing the state’s busy expressways, New Jersey’s growing wine industry may dry up.
“Signs capture your attention and you might think, ‘well, let’s go check it out’...You may travel that interstate every day of your life and not know there’s a really great winery right nearby.”