By JUDITH W. WINNE
Like most farmers, grape growers know what it means to reap failure.
Eight years ago, when Bill and Joan Hayes of Lower Township were new to grape growing, they waited for the arrival of protective nets to shield their vines from hungry birds.
The nets didn't arrive on time, but the orchard orioles did.
"We lost 75 percent of our fruit harvest in 24 hours," says Bill.
Today, the Cape May Winery & Vineyard is thriving, and visitors can savor the fruit of the Hayeses' vines, and, of course, their efforts.
The Garden State Wine Growers Association is touting wine trails throughout the state.
There are eight wineries now open in South Jersey, a similar number elsewhere in the state, and more are expected in the near future.
In fact, two wineries - one in Harrison Township, one in Franklinville - plan to begin pouring for customers next month.
Wineries often welcome guests with tastings, gift shops and more.
The wine association, an organization of vineyard owners in the state, estimates more than 140,000 gallons of wine are bottled here annually, with more than 40 varieties offered.
Logan Brown, a marketing specialist with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, says the state's wine industry is small but one whose output is "improving in quality."
Gary Pavlis, Atlantic County's agricultural agent, notes that South Jersey's mild winter climate favors the growing of grapes.
"You have to have a season that's long enough to ripen them," says Pavlis.
Fortunately, much of South Jersey does. And some growers in vegetable farming, an arduous way of life, are transitioning to grapes.
At Bellview Winery in Buena Township, north of Vineland, the Quarella family is in its fourth generation of farming. Recently, the farmers moved into grape growing.
Nancy and Jim Quarella sell more than a dozen different wines - including whites, reds, fruit and sparkling wines. In their more traditional area of farming, they specialize in Asian vegetables.
"Right now, we're doing both," says Nancy Quarella. "The plan is to phase out of the farming and have the winery take over full time."
Bellview produces about 30,000 bottles annually. Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the winery offers tastings, as well as tours of the fields and production area.
Day-trippers can easily drive from Bellview in Buena to Cape May Winery (which is not a member of the wine association.)
On Townbank Road in Lower Township, the Hayeses provide tastings but no tours - they're too busy growing, producing and bottling - but they will show their full operation to visitors who sign up to visit the winery Sept. 24 as part of the Cape May Food and Wine Festival. Call (800) 275-4278 for more information.
Informal tastings are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
John Zagiel, whose relatives have a house in Lower Township, sipped wines at a recent tasting.
"The wine that really impressed me the most so far was the merlot," says Zagiel, who lives near Pottstown, Pa. "It was more full-bodied than most I've tasted. It had a lot of texture."
Zagiel dubbed the blush "surprisingly good."
Dottie Schaefer of Ocean City is also a fan of the local winery.
"We like the chardonnay," says Schaefer. "We like the Victorian blush. That seems to be our favorite flavor. We like the merlot. The merlot was good."
Meggan Engelke-Ros, who has a summer house in Lower Township, enjoys the local winery's Victorian white and pinot grigio.
Is wine from a small vineyard as tasty as wine you might buy in a traditional store?
"Sometimes, it's much better," says Engelke-Ros.
There is also the experience.
"We like going to little vineyards," she says. "We drive by here a lot and think it's beautiful."
Penny Pagano, who has a summer house at Cape May Point, stopped in recently to the Hayeses' tasting room.
"We tried the Riesling, which we thought was great," says Pagano. "It was very, very nice. It was just fresh and light. It went perfectly with our summer dinner (flounder and vegetables)."
The Hayeses invite visitors to see their vines, just a short walk from the tasting room.
Trained to grow as tall and straight as ladders, the vines feature the tight, green, perfect clusters.
What may be the toughest time of the year begins in late August.
"I think the hardest part is the harvest," says David Bwana, a part-time vineyard worker who emigrated from Uganda. "You're racing against time."
Pick too soon, and the grapes aren't sweet enough. Wait too long, and they rot.
How to know what to do when requires discipline and training, not unlike that required of the vines.
Bill Hayes, a retired commanding officer of the Coast Guard's electrical engineering center in Wildwood, learned by reading, taking workshops and consulting with Rutgers agricultural agents.
"It's something Bill always wanted to do," says Joan Hayes. "Bill is a farmer at heart so the growing came easy to him. He knows his vines. He knows his wines. It's been a learning experience for both of us. It's been a labor of love."
Wineries in N.J.
In addition to Cape May Winery & Vineyard, wineries in South Jersey include:
Amalthea Cellars, Atco. Call (856) 768-8585. Open for tours and tastings 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., every Saturday and Sunday. Closed Aug. 24 and 25.
Balic Winery, Mays Landing. Call (609) 625-2166. Tours and tastings 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, until 5 p.m. Sunday.
Bellview Farms, Buena. Call (856) 697-7172. Tastings and tours 1 to 6 p.m. Fridays; 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call for weekday appointments.
Heritage Vineyard of Richwood, Harrison Township. Plans to open late September for tastings and sales. (856) 589-6090.
Renault Winery, Galloway Township. Call (609) 965-2111. Tours and tastings, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Sylvin Farms, Galloway Township. Call (609) 965-1548. Call ahead for tours and tastings. (609) 965-1548.
Tamuzza Vineyards, Franklinville. Call (800) 362-0309. Expects to be open in September for tours and tasting. They also sell personalized bottles of wine as wedding favors.
Tomasello Winery, Hammonton. Call (800) MMM-WINE. Tastings 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p. m. Sunday. No tours. Also has several retail outlets, including two at Historic Smithville.
Valenzano Winery, Shamong. Call (609) 268-6731. Tours and tastings 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Monday through Friday you must call for appointment. (609) 268-6731.
If you go
Cape May Winery & Vineyard, 709 Townbank Road, Lower Township. Tasting hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday through mid-December.
The vineyard is open for sales Monday through Thursday but call first, (609) 884-1169.
To reach the winery, take the Garden State Parkway south to end. Bear right at traffic light (Route 109) and follow signs to the ferry. Make right on Seashore Road and a left on Townbank. Winery is on the right. From Cherry Hill, it's less than two hours to Lower Township.
For information about New Jersey wineries, visit www. newjerseywines.com - Garden State Wine Growers Association.
For information about the Cape May Food and Wine Festival, call (800) 275-4278.
Reach Judith W. Winne at (856) 486-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org