Fish on the line and grapes on the vine draw tourists to the Garden State

Tourists took a boat ride from Point Pleasant Beach to cast a line and harvest a crop that swims just off the Jersey Shore.

This is a different kind of harvest tourism trip because most folks already know about you-pick farms, corn mazes and cut-your-own Christmas trees, right? We joined about 60 folks on the 85-foot Queen Mary. It’s one of about 100 party boats that work out of about a dozen ports along the Jersey coastline. Adults pay $69 for a six-hour trip.

“It’s about enjoyment. It’s about sport, but ultimately I’d like to come home and you know, cook fresh fish to eat. There’s nothing like it,” said Monroe Township resident Bruce Mishkin.

“Good, clean fun. I grew up fishing with my father,” said Brett Viers, from Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania.

“I been doing it since I was 12 years old, and I just love it — deep sea fishing. I enjoy catching the fish,” said Dave Dugan from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Kids pay $39 — and a lot of kids came out to fish with their families. Grandfathers advised their grandsons.

“I love fishing. I love to eat fish. I love every bit about fishing,” said 10-year-old Nicky Horvot.

“It’s really an important part of the tourism industry in New Jersey. We bring people from Pennsylvania, Ohio. They come down to fish for scub, black sea bass, summer flounder.”

Horvot wants to work on the Queen Mary, for Captain Dave Ribick. It’s where Ribick got his start.

“I started on the Queen Mary when I was 16 years old in high school and worked through college as a deck hand,” Ribick said. “And then after college I got my captain’s license and ran the boat full-time at night.”

Ribick eventually bought the boat, which runs fishing or whale watching trips seven days a week. Following the captain’s lead as he scoped out schools of fish, other party boats worked next to the Queen Mary — the Jamaica, the Golden Eagle and the Belmar Princess — but far fewer than back in the industry’s heyday. Recreational fishing currently supports 20,000 jobs and pumps $1.3 billion every year into New Jersey’s economy.

“It’s really an important part of the tourism industry in New Jersey. We bring people from Pennsylvania, Ohio. They come down to fish for scub, black sea bass, summer flounder,” Thomas Fote, the legislative chairman of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, said.

Mates on the Queen Mary help bring in the fish, supply rods and reels, bait hooks, and cast out and untangle lines. Anglers pulled in bluefish, fluke, mackerel, bonito — even a cownose ray. On this trip, we caught sea robins, which look like flying fish, and a black sea bass that was way too small to keep.

In fact, the size and number of fish caught has steadily declined, along with the number of fishing trips made by charter and party boats from 633,000 trips in 2006 to 466,000 in 2015. That’s a 26 percent drop. Some longtime fisherfolk claim stocks are simply depleted and conservation quotas are restrictive.

“A few years ago, I caught 22 fluke in one day. But I had to throw every one of them back, because they were all undersized. When I was a kid, you could catch a 14-inch fluke. Now it’s up to 18 inches. So fish you could normally keep, you can’t keep anymore,” Mishkin said.

“We need to do realistic regulation. People go out to fish, paying $80, $65 for a ticket on a party boat. They need to come home with a reward for their efforts and for the money they spent, ” said Fote.

A controversial bill pending in the U.S. Senate would abolish quotas for some species. Meanwhile, this trip produced one big fluke that was a definite keeper. Most people caught several blues.

“I usually do fresh water and lakes, but this is something I’d definitely do again. It’s pretty neat,” said Phillipsburg resident David Trible.

What is big, and growing, is New Jersey’s winery tourism industry. It’s another agritourism business that’s off the beaten path. Vineyards like Unionville, located in the rolling Sourland Mountains of Hunterdon County, showcase a vintage venue: the 1858 estate with an updated tasting room and several wines made from locally-grown grapes that offer visitors an opportunity to sip and savor and buy by the bottle.

“It’s beautiful. It’s like a different state,” said Leslie Heymann, a Jersey resident. “It’s full of greenery — so many plants and beautiful farms — and a lot of Jersey that doesn’t get the good press, so it’s almost like a hidden gem which is nice. The wine’s the best part, it’s delicious.”

“To be a New Jersey winery and get 89-point scores from the Wine Advocate? I mean, it’s fantastic. You can’t lie, it’s a good feeling, and hopefully we’re only climbing from there,” said winemaker Conor Quilty.

When chardonnay grapes fully ripen in the East Amwell sun — high on a hill above Unionville’s barn — Conor will work with the intensely flavored juice and then let it age in oaken barrels.

The vineyard now boasts almost 40 acres, planted with 17 different vinifera grapes. So where’s the buzz about Jersey wine? All you hear is Napa and Sonoma.

“We’re kind of in that 1950s California state where the world doesn’t really know about it. And eventually, at some point, if we work hard enough, I sincerely believe we can get there,” said Jason Diaz, a farmhand at Unionville.

Diaz works in Unionville’s newest vineyard at Coventry Farms — training one-year-old vines to grab the wires. It’s a good metaphor for the Garden State’s wine tourism industry, which saw the number of Jersey wineries boom from 38 to 50 since 2011. Most of them bottle just 5,000 cases or less per year, but a recent study showed, production swelled by almost 300,000 gallons, going from 405,954 to 702,671 gallons, from 2006 to 2011. Close to 109,000 wine-loving tourists visited a couple years ago, but like these tendrils of Chardonnay grapevines, the industry’s still reaching for the sun.

“I actually encourage the wineries I work with to fly the Jersey flag. I think there are enough people in this state that are proud of New Jersey, proud of where they come from, that when they learn there’s great wine being made here, they’re not afraid of the words ‘New Jersey’ on the bottle,” said John Cifelli, the executive director of the Winemakers Co-op.

But finding Jersey vineyards — they can’t post signs on Interstates — can be problematic. One couple from Wayne, the Bellomo’s, googled to locate Unionville. But during a recent visit to the Amalthea Cellars Winery in Atco, Gov. Murphy announced a brand-new program to promote Jersey wines. It features a toolkit on the state’s Find Jersey Fresh website — that now helps tourists map a winery trip.

Betsy Alger, a tasting room associate at Unionville, poured the Bellomo’s an ounce of each variety — there’s a $10 tasting fee, per person. She told them how to look for color, how to swirl the wine and inhale its aroma and what kinds of flavor they could expect as she guided them through the different varieties.

“You know, some people come in and they’re a little bit shy about tasting wine. Maybe they’re new to wine and haven’t been to a tasting room before. They’re afraid they’re going to be talked down to. And we go out of our way to eliminate that pompous buffoonery that can surround wine,” Alger said.

Striving to boost tourism, wineries want the state to loosen regulations and pump up promotion. Five wineries started their own co-op in 2015.

“The idea is to have our own marketing campaigns, hold tasting events where you’re specifically tasting wines grown from New Jersey grapes,” said Cifelli.

New Jersey’s total tourism revenue in 2017 topped $45 billion last year, yet only about $20 million of that flowed from tourism at New Jersey wineries. But, they’re diversifying. Many now host events, like weddings.

Leslie Heymann got married at Unionville five years ago.

“We just thought it was so beautiful and peaceful and the perfect place, so we wanted to come back and share it with our boys and pick up some wine and enjoy the day,” she said.

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