In 1758, Great Britain’s Royal Society offered £100 to any colonist who would produce red or white wine “of acceptable quality,” meaning the wine was of the same caliber as that being purchased from France. When no candidate accepted the challenge, the prize was raised to £200, and then two New Jersey residents came forward. Yes, more than 150 years prior to the era of “Boardwalk Empire,” New Jersey wine growers were already working an angle to get an advantage! The two residents, William Alexander and Edward Antill both succeeded in their efforts, and a Royal Society committee approved that they be given the prize. The history of the NJ wine industry had begun.
New Jersey wine flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Master Vintner Louis Nicholas Renault, a representative of the ancient champagne house of the Duke of Montebello in Rheims, France decided to settle and establish his own vineyard in New Jersey. In 1864 he purchased land in the Egg Harbor area, and by 1870 he had introduced his New Jersey Champagne. Renault Winery quickly gained notoriety, winning prizes for its wines and becoming the largest distributor of champagne in the United States. This winery’s success even earned Egg Harbor the moniker of “Wine City.”
Phylloxera, which took a toll on wine making throughout the United States and Prohibition (1919-1933), as well as a restrictive New Jersey law that only allowed one winery license for every 1,000,000 state residents, kept the industry from growing. This was repealed in 1981 with the New Jersey Farm Winery Act which allowed small growers to open new wineries. Since 2000 over 30 wineries have opened in the state.
By 1981, both had been remedied in the Garden State with the passage of the Farm Winery Act. As restrictions loosened and wine production was again economically viable, wineries and vineyards took root in all corners of NJ in the mid 1980’s and 1990’s.
The Hunterdon Grape Growers and South Jersey Wine Growers, both formulated in 1985, coalesced to create the New Jersey Grape Growers Association in 1987. Half of the original board are still active as members today in the newly minted Garden State Wine Growers Association. There are now more than 50 wineries, vineyards, grape growers and affiliated companies making up the membership of the Association.
Since 2000, the New Jersey wine industry has seen exponential growth, with new wineries and vineyards blossoming in four designated American Viticultural Areas: Cape May Peninsula, Warren Hills AVA, Central Delaware Valley AVA, and the Outer Coastal Plain AVA. A broad embrasure by the state government, NJ residents, restaurants and liquor stores have buoyed NJ among the ranks of the best wine growing regions in the country.
NJ’s watershed moment arrived in June of 2012, when a blind taste test between 10 NJ wines and French wines-5 from Burgundy and 5 from Bordeaux resulted in essentially a tie. The takeaway was that there was no significant difference between a NJ red blend and a first growth Bordeaux; a NJ Chardonnay and a premier cru Burgundy.
There are now over 50 wineries open throughout the state with a number of wineries slated to open in the next couple of years.