It’s harvest time in Cape May. Not tomatoes, corn or lima beans but grapes. Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, White Rieslings, Merlots. Grapes from which fine wines are made.
Vineyards are popping up in Cape May County. The look is unmistakable. Rows and rows of wooden framed wire fencing with green vines stretching across them. You can see them driving along Seashore Road, Townbank Road, Jonathan Hoffman Road and Railroad Avenue in Rio Grande.
It all started in the late 1980s, according to Bill Hayes, of Cape May Wineries, when Dr. Joe Fiolla from Rutgers University’s Cook College presented findings that the soil in Cape May County tested well for suitability in growing a variety of grapes. “I had already retired from the Coast Guard,” said Hayes, “and we owned Howey’s Nursery in the Villas.” Looking for another challenge, they sold the nursery and started planting grape vines on their 10-acre Townbank Road property.
“We started out with 7 rows of experimental planting and opened up July 1st, 1995 as a commercial winery.” Currently, 8 of the 10 acres of land are planted. “It costs $20,000 to plant one acre of grapes and that’s just getting it into the ground. Then there’s the processing.”
“It’s a labor of love,” said Joan Hayes, “And a tough way to make a living. It took six years before we realized a cash flow on the positive side.”
Recently, recognition is flowing their way. Cape May Winery’s 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon took the gold in the 2001 New Jersey Governor’s Cup competition. Their wines have been lauded in Forbes Magazine and the National Public Radio broadcast of “Splendid Table.” They are not daunted by competition as new vineyards crop up. “We’d like to seem more vineyards come here and use the land for agriculture not condominiums,” she said. “There’s plenty of room for all of us. Wines are distinctive. Some may like the taste of ours and some the taste of someone else’s. We’re glad to see the other growers are planting grapes to make premium wines not hybrids.” In other words, a cheaper and mass marketable brand.
Such is the case with Sara and Salvatore Turdo, who just harvested their first crop last month. In 1999 they cleared 4.5 acres. That translates to 4,500 vines of the finest European grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Viognier (a grape similar to Chardonnay). He has also planted grapes from his native Italy – Nebbiolo and Dolcetto from Northern Italy and Sangiovese from Tuscany.
Unlike Cape May Winery, their site at Jonathan Hoffman Road will not have a tasting room. “We are really interested in wholesaling our wines to local restaurants. We’ve planted fewer grapes in the hopes of making a name for ourselves and to produce the finest wine possible.”
Having recently received their winery license, the Turdos will market their wine under the name “Turis.” The Chardonnays should be ready, he said, by early June. The aging process will require another 18 months for the reds to be saleable.
An electrical contractor in Bergen County, NJ, Turdo hopes to retire to Cape May in two years and devote all his energies to making wine as his father did before they came to America.
“You know,” he said, “when you get to be 40, the taste of beer becomes boring. I started to long for the wines I grew up with. I remembered a lot from my childhood and started making wine at home. But to grow your own grapes and make a vintage wine. That’s a goal!”
As it is now, he admits “It’s a challenge. It’s just me and my wife coming down on weekends, mostly and looking for help for the harvest. Mr. and Mrs. Hayes have been very helpful.” As Sara Turdo gets on the bullhorn announcing to the grape pickers that lunch is served, her husband looks over his vineyard. “It’s very hard down here because the state of New Jersey doesn’t offer the help that other states like New York and Pennsylvania do for their wine makers. I know for a fact that New York offers grants. We seem to be on our own down here.” The Turdos picked Cape May County over Long Island because of the extended growing season here and an already entrenched tourist trade. “Right here in Cape May,” said Turdo, “you have the longest growing season in New Jersey with temperatures that don’t drop below freezing until November. It’s perfect for a large variety of grapes.”
Arthur “Toby” Craig, owner of the prestigious Washington Inn Restaurant, already known for having one of the largest wine cellars in Southern New Jersey, has also planted a vineyard this spring. Five acres of Chardonnay and Merlot are already planted with plans for other varieties of French and Spanish grapes. “Really,” said his son Michael Craig, “The vineyards [act as] an ambiance for the grounds which we intend to use for catering weddings and other functions. We’re about two years away from our first harvest. We haven’t really decided which direction we’re going.”
Acres of vineyards stretch along the back of the Craig property. A large barn was built on the site to accommodate gatherings. A small pond and herbal garden separate the grounds providing guests with a bucolic backdrop for mingling, strolling and enjoyment. Craig also agreed that although Joan and Bill Hayes as well as the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agency have been helpful, “You are out there on your own,” when it comes to information and advice in deciding how best to proceed.
One of the reasons for this isolation is that there are so few vineyards compared to the number of vegetable farms, according to Russell Blair, the Cape May County Extension Agent. The research, therefore, tends to be in the area with the largest concentration of farms. “In New Jersey’s case,” he said, “that would be vegetable crops. Pennsylvania research specializes in field crops, and yes, New York has a very large concentration of vineyards and commercial wineries, so they offer far more resources in that area.” Additionally, when someone leaves a position, Blair said, it takes a long time to replace them. “My own position,” he said, “was open for two years”.
In the case of finding a wine specialist or small fruit researcher, the position could take even longer to fill. Dr. Fiolla has since left Rutgers for a position in Maryland. The closest wine specialist today is Dr. Larry Pavlis in Atlantic County. “As it stands now,” said Blair, “the only winery in Cape May County is the Hayes’ Cape May Winery. Another one is scheduled to come on board soon in Green Creek. I believe the Turdos just received their winery license and three other vineyards are being planned.”
“That’s another reason why we’d love to see more vineyards come to Cape May,” said Joan Hayes,” or, for that matter, the state of New Jersey. As we grow, so will the dollars spent on research. The vineyards in New York are well supported by Cornell University and we hope someday we’ll have the same relationship with Rutgers here in Cape May County, but that takes time.”
Pointing to the lush acres of grapes before her and the tractor pulling a wagon filled with buckets of White Riesling grapes, Joan Hayes, says, “Shouldn’t we do everything we can to encourage use of the land for agriculture? Don’t we have enough condominiums?”
If you go…
The Cape May Winery and Vineyards are located at 709 Townbank Road in North Cape May. Phone: 609-884-1169. The winery is open Monday though Saturday from 11am – 5pm for sales. Wine tasting hours are Friday and Saturday from 11am – 5pm. Please call ahead if you are inquiring about sales.