Al Natali stood among the long rows of white and green chardonnay grapes blanketing parts of his vineyard in Cape May County and grew excited. It was last September, the start of harvest season.
He plucked a grape from its vine and popped it in his mouth. “Oh, it’s sweet!” he exclaimed. “And that is perfect,” he continued, pointing to tiny seeds that he’d spit back into his hand. “That’s the bit, the seed. Look at how brown that is.”
Known more for its beaches and Victorian-era hotels than for its wineries, Cape May, according to a growing number of devotees and wine experts, is a small and somewhat obscure treasure. Three miles wide and found at New Jersey’s southern tip, the peninsula has loamy soil and a relatively moderate climate, softened by the Delaware Bay to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the constant breezes that cross it.
This geography and its less extreme temperatures help Cape May produce one of the longest and best growing seasons for European vinifera wine grapes on the Eastern Seaboard, according to several winemakers who have studied the peninsula. Plump and redolent grape varietals capable of growing here include cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, among others.
“The central theme is that this is an undiscovered area; this is kind of like a secret,” Mr. Natali said of Cape May, where he bought a small horse farm and converted it into what is now Natali Vineyards in the early 2000s, after leaving behind a 19-year career on Wall Street. “On the other hand,” he said, “we’ve only been growing grapes on Cape May since the late 1980s.”
In the next year or so, Cape May may also be named an official winemaking region, or, in the federal government’s vernacular, an American Viticultural Area. There are 235 such areas in the country today, including high-profile regions like Napa Valley and the North Fork of Long Island. In 2014, Mr. Natali and others began collecting information from Cape May’s nine vineyards (one has since stopped producing grapes).
Mr. Natali then spent a year researching, writing and submitting a 16-page petition to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for American Viticultural Area status for most of Cape May County and a small section of Cumberland County. The land is already part of New Jersey’s larger Outer Coastal Plain American Viticultural Area. But vineyard owners in Cape May contend that it has maritime temperatures that distinguish it. The peninsula’s softer climate, for example, allow its vines to survive New Jersey’s winters better than some vines planted 30 miles north, they say.
If the petition is approved, vineyard owners will be allowed to label and advertise their wines as being made specially in Cape May. “It’s exciting,” said Darren Hesington, the winemaker at Cape May Winery & Vineyard, as he stood in black rubber boots covered in crimson-red pulp from recently pressed grapes. Mr. Hesington produced more than 20,000 gallons of wine last year from 26 acres “under vine,” the most in the vineyard’s history, he said. And now that May has arrived, he and the peninsula’s other winemakers are gearing up for the expected seasonal crowds.
Kevin Zraly, a wine-book author and a former wine director of the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center, said that during a 2012 tasting of wines from Turdo Vineyards and Winery, he discovered an “impressive” selection of grapes, including the varietals Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. “There are not many wineries in the U.S. that plant these grapes,” he said. Luca Turdo, the owner, said that Turdo is one of just a few vineyards in the country that grows the Nero d’Avola, a Sicilian varietal.
Cape May is already producing some wines on a par with those from the East Coast’s best-known regions, like Virginia and the North Fork, said John Mahoney, chancellor of the Dionysian Society. “Cape May is right where those places were 10 years ago,” he said. Both Natali Vineyards and Cape May Winery won awards at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, held in Rochester, N.Y., in March.
The peninsula has also been part of a statewide expansion over the past 15 years. There were about a dozen wineries in New Jersey in 2000, and today there are 53, according to the Garden State Wine Growers Association. The state’s winemaking industry brings in more than $40 million a year, the association reported. “It helps our farmers who have been struggling,” said Stephen M. Sweeney, president of the New Jersey Senate.
Several miles down the road from Mr. Natali’s vineyard, Kevin Celli, the winemaker at Willow Creek Winery & Farm, jumped behind the wheel of a bright red trolley used for vineyard tours and discussed the wine industry in Cape May. While steering the trolley, he told stories of dreamy summers spent in the Basque Country in Spain, where, he said, he fell madly in love with winemaking. He climbed onto the colonnaded porch of a mustard-yellow mansion overlooking the land. “In Cape May, we get the cross breeze, from the ocean to the bay, back and forth, every day. It keeps the canopy — the leaves of the vines — nice and dry, which is important for some of these specific Old World European grapes we are growing,” he said.
He then pointed to the fields, divided into endless rows by thick wooden posts. “For us winemakers, the grape growers, the beautiful thing is that we’re discovering our terroir.” If the federal designation is awarded, he said, it will be a timeless asset.
“The Bordeaux regions of France have been around for a long time,” Mr. Celli said. “We hope Cape May is going to be around for a long time too.”
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