Associate Professor, Rutgers University & Extension Agent, Atlantic County, New Jersey
Gary Pavlis is a leading authority on growing wine grapes in New Jersey. He has been helping growers produce grapes and improving grape varieties since 1984. Dr. Pavlis earned his bachelor degree and PhD in plant phsysiology at Rutgers. He is a long-time wine enthusiast with a 3,000-bottle wine cellar.
I work with blueberry growers and wine grape growers in New Jersey. There are more than 8,000 acres of blueberries within a 20 minute drive of my office in Atlantic County. Elizabeth White, who started the blueberry industry in New Jersey is one of my heroes and in the 1950s she spoke to the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture and became a member.
Years ago, I attended a wine festival at Tomasello Wineries in Hammonton and Charlie Tomasello came up to me and said “Rutgers does nothing in the grape industry here in New Jersey.” In 1981, New Jersey passed the Farm Winery Act. This was pushed through by Art Brown, the Secretary of Agriculture and wine growers. It said that if a winemaker uses New Jersey fruit, he or she is permitted to sell the wine. There were seven wineries in 1981. We have 62 now. Because of the Farm Winery Act, the industry grew rapidly. Farmers who were not making much money on lima beans, apples, corn and other crops switched to wine grapes.
Most of the wineries that started in the last 20 years started in my office. Only about one out of four farmers that talk with me about starting a winery actually do it. In 2012 we had the Judgment of Princeton. This was fashioned after the famous judgment of Paris in 1976 where California wines were judged alongside French wines and as many people know, the California wines won…even though the judges were European. Of course, it was a blind tasting.
George Tabor, who reported the Judgment of Paris in Time magazine worked with us to set up the Judgment of Princeton in which New Jersey wines were judged alongside French and German wines. The judges were from France, Belgium and prestigious restaurants in New Jersey. In the white wine category, a French wine placed first but New Jersey wines placed second, third, fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth out of the ten wines tasted. In the red wine category, French wines placed first and second but New Jersey wines placed third, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth. If you look at the wines in terms of value, there is no comparison. With the French wines in the tasting costing up to $650 a bottle, the New Jersey wines are a clear value winner.
New Jersey produces about 1.5 million gallons of wine a year. New Jersey is number one in wine purchased for more than $25 per bottle. Only one to two percent of the wine sold in New Jersey is produced in the state. That is low. In Virginia, four percent of the wine sold in Virginia wine. In Maryland, it is three percent produced in the state.
So there is great potential for growth in New Jersey wine production. And, New Jersey has without a doubt some of the best sites in the Eastern U.S. for growing wine grapes, particularly in the Southern counties of Cape May, Cumberland and Salem. They are favorable for wine grapes on a number of fronts including winter temperatures, summer climate and soil types. Currently the state’s 62 wineries grow 1,800 acres of grapes. Seventy-five percent of the producers are increasing production.
I teach a wine course at Rutgers and it is the number one over-subscribed course at the university. Two kinds of people come to me about starting wineries. The first is farmers who grow other crops and are interested in switching to wine. The other are people who are tired of commuting to work and their dream is to own a winery. There are several kinds of grapes suited to New Jersey wine. Of course, a lot of people grow native grapes such as Concord but you can’t make wine suitable to most tastes with those. The number one thing that delineates what you can grow is winter temperatures. Wine grapes can be very profitable, selling for as much as $2,500 per ton and good growers can often harvest four tons per acre. However, it is critically important to grow the varieties of grapes that are suited to your land. People come to me saying they want to grow Merlot but Merlot is a very tender variety that is vulnerable to winter kill. Folks in the Northern counties cannot grow it. Cabernet Sauvignon is another grape that’s highly vulnerable to low winter temperatures.
New Jersey has multiple growing season zones. The growing season in Suffolk County, for example, is 60 days less than Cape May County. Cabernet Sauvignon needs 182 days to ripen. The climate has warmed in the past 20 years and that increase in the length of the growing season has opened up new possibilities for growing wine grapes in the New Jersey. We can now grow Cabernet Sauvignon where we couldn’t years ago. Many growers produce French hybrids with are crosses between French varieties and hardier American varieties. A study we did showed that 87 varieties of grapes are being grown in New Jersey.
In order to make money, vineyards have to be uniform. Empty spaces on the trellis mean lower profits. The key to avoiding empty trellis space is matching the variety to the site where it is grown. Soil is important, particularly the level of acidity (Ph) and fertility. Grapes do not like fertile soil. They like to be “held down” in terms of fertility. Many growers do not fertilize for five or six years. Grapes also do not like a high water table, so where the water table is a few feet below the surface, grapes can’t be grown. Nematodes, the microscopic organisms in some soils are bad for grapes as they eat the roots so it is important to do a nematode test before investing in wine grape production. It costs about $12,000 an acre to plant grapes and establish a trellis system. You also need irrigation.
In New Jersey we get 24 to 26 inches of rain in the summer so fungal diseases are a problem unlike in drier climates such as California. Fungal diseases such as bortrytis, black rot, and downy mildew must be controlled if one expects to make wine from grapes grown in New Jersey. This is why wine grapes cannot be grown organically here. If not controlled with fungicides, these diseases will ruin a grape crop by mid-June.
Phylloxera is a small aphid, native to North America that destroys the roots of grape vines not resistant to it. A phyhlloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe. Phylloxera was introduced to Europe when avid botanists in England collected specimens of American vines in the 1850s. Because phylloxera is native to North America, the native grape species here are at least partially resistant. The European wine grape vitis vinifera is very susceptible to the insect. The epidemic devastated vineyards in Britain and then moved to the European mainland, destroying most of the European grape growing industry. The answer to this problem was to graft the European varieties onto American roots and so today, European vines are all grown on resistant American root stock.
Successfully producing wine is a lot of work. You need a lot of labor, particularly at harvest time when the ripe grapes have to be harvested all at once. It is, after all, farming — but in addition it requires a winemaker’s skills and of course, a sizable investment. In spite of all that, New Jersey has developed a thriving wine industry that produces world-class wines.
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