WHEN IT comes to making wine in North America, New Jersey was an early adopter.
Before wine trails and growers' cooperatives, William Alexander and Edward Antill set out to prove that New Jersey wine could stand up to a bottle of vin from across the pond. The year was 1758, and a wine smackdown was issued by Great Britain's Royal Society: Any colonist who could produce a red or white as good as a French vintage would win 200 pounds - the equivalent of some 32,000 pounds today, or more than $49,000. That's a lot of coin.
Alexander and Antill got busy, and the New Jersey wine industry was uncorked. The partners earned the prize, setting in motion a cottage industry that was eventually shut down by both Prohibition and the phylloxera aphid, which devastated vines all across America and Europe. Advances in pest control and winemaking took root in the late 1980s, and by the 1990s, winemaking was again flourishing in the Garden State.
There are more than 40 wineries all over New Jersey, and a respectable cluster are located on the way from Philly to the Shore and near the beach in Cape May County.
Paul Tonacci, owner of the Atlantic City Bottle Company and The Iron Room, a package store and restaurant/lounge on Albany Avenue, is a huge fan of local wines and has made it his business to visit every winery in the state. Up front, in the smartly curated shop, Tonacci carries a dozen New Jersey wines. The Iron Room also has partnered with six wineries for chef's tasting dinners.
"There are some New Jersey wines that deserve a place in any discussion of fine wine, alongside wines from Western Europe and California," Tonacci said.
Consider taking a detour on your way to the beach to check out one of these wineries, or add a sipping diversion on a rainy day during your vacation.
SEE A MAP OF THESE WINERIES HERE
An hour into your drive to the Shore along Route 55, Bellview is known for its Coeur d'Est, a dry red made from a blend of grapes that grow in the Outer Coastal Plain of South Jersey. It's berry forward with a caramel finish - one of Tonacci's faves.
The family owned winery, in business since 2001, offers a bright, airy tasting room, a cadre of two dozen dry and specialty wines to sip, along with a shady grove for picnics and a lively schedule of family friendly events, like a seafood festival and concert series. The Querella family has been farming these fields for a century; the fifth generation is overseeing the vines.
150 Atlantic St., Landisville, 856-697-7172, bellviewwinery.com.
Cape May Winery
An institution in the area, this winery in North Cape May was first planted in 1992 and opened to the public in 1995. The signature white is a barrel-fermented Chardonnay aged in French oak for more than 16 months. It has been touted as a tasty pour with lots of buttery notes and a hint of vanilla. The winery produces 20 different styles, from dry to sweet; taste six for $8.
Tonacci suggested making it a point to ask for the winery's all-New Jersey wine, since some of the vintages are made with California grapes.
Cape May Winery's picturesque gardens offer a fragrant retreat from the heat. Gourmet buffet meals are offered weekly all summer long.
711 Town Bank Road, Cape May, capemaywinery.com, 609-884-1169.
Hawk Haven Vineyard & Winery
This farm-turned-winery is a labor of love in the hands of Todd Wuerker, the third generation in his family to work this soil, and his wife and partner, Kenna Sitarski. Opened for tastings since 2009, the winery produces award-winning vintages, including a cellared 2008 Quill - a classic Bordeaux with plenty of cranberry herbal notes that earned a gold medal in the World Wine Championship.
Stop by for a sampling or reserve a more in-depth tour through every step of the winemaking process, from the vineyard to the vast steel tanks and French oak barrels. This $25 experience includes a selection of cheese and a glass to take home.
There's live music from 2 to 5 p.m. every Saturday through October, with local singer-songwriters and wine sipping, if you need a break from the beach.
600 S. Railroad Ave., Rio Grande, 609-846-7347, hawkhavenvineyard.com.
Jessie Creek Winery
Another Cape May County winery tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, where grapevines flourish in the region's sandy soil and salinity.
Jessie Creek's rustic setting also produces award-winning wines. Its merlot earned a bronze medal in a state competition and its cab sav snagged a silver.
At $7, the wine tasting is a bargain. It even comes with a souvenir glass. Feel like drinking more than a few glasses? Book a room at the charming circa 1846 farmhouse B&B, a cozy setting complete with vineyard views and starry nights.
1 N. Delsea Dr., Cape May Court House, 609-536-2092, jessiecreekwinery.com.
Engineer-turned-winemaker Al Natali purchased this former horse pasture on Route 47, in 2000, intent on making wine from French, Italian and Spanish grapes.
The Philly native, who spent childhood summers in Wildwood and Atlantic City, harvested his first grapes in 2001 and continued learning the ins and outs of winemaking, along with partners Ray Pensari and Tony Antonelli.
Natali Vineyards opened its tasting room in 2007. Now home to 20 different labels, Natali has won 22 medals in competition. The winery includes a tented patio for summer events and a rustic tasting room. There's a menu of fruit wines - including banana - that are worth a sip.
221 N. Delsea Dr., Cape May Court House, 609-465-0075, natalivineyards.com.
The oldest active winery in the state, Renault (pronounced re-NALT, not re-NO) has a French chateau setting that includes a hotel, several restaurants and an 18-hole golf course with vineyard views.
The 1,400-acre property has a colorful history, too, dating back to 1864, when Louis Nicholas Renault planted his first vineyard using vinifera grapes from Europe. Formerly a winemaker in the Champagne region of France, Renault soon became the largest producer of champagne in the United States.
The winery has changed hands several times, with current owner Joseph Milza, a former newspaper owner and publisher, overseeing 48 cultivated acres that produce 15 different varieties and about 20,000 cases of wine. Berries grown on-site add a fruity note to the winery's blueberry champagne. Combine an informative 40-minute tour with a tasting for $10.
72 Bremen Ave., Egg Harbor City, 609-965-2111, renaultwinery.com.
Situated halfway to Atlantic City in the Blue Anchor section of Winslow Township (Exit 33 on the Atlantic City Expressway), Sharrott is home to a line of dry white wines sure to appeal to Riesling fans. "They use a hybrid grape called vignoles, known for its juicy acidity," said Tonacci, who likes Sharrott's award-winning Vignoles so much that it's his restaurant's white wine by the glass.
The winery has a tented patio with bistro seating, an excellent cheese plate and, of course, plenty of wines to try. There's also live music every weekend.
Sharrott has a personal, intimate feel that larger properties can't match. Try a taste of Sharrott's Wicked port, best enjoyed with a room-temperature Gorgonzola.
370 S. Egg Harbor Road, Hammonton, 609-567-9463, sharrottwinery.com.
Willow Creek Winery and Farm
This West Cape May winery was formerly a produce farm, with grapes supplanting the veggies in 2005. Opened to the public in 2012, the 50-acre vineyard is strikingly beautiful, with a romantic, European-style villa that hosts special events and weddings, comedy nights, festivals and the like.
Thanks to a micro climate of warm days and cool nights reminiscent of Bordeaux, grapes grow well here, and there are close to a dozen wines to try. The tasting room, notable for its outdoor brick patio and fire pit, is the place to savor varietals, including pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc, as well as a bright-tasting sangria perfect for summer.
This is an easy bike ride from downtown Cape May. Yoga in the vineyard is sometimes on the schedule if you are so inclined.
160-168 Stevens St. (County Highway 607), West Cape May, 609-770-8782, willowcreekwinerycapemay.com.