New program in NJ seeks to boost state's wineries

7/20/2014 12:45 PM
By Associated Press

EAST AMWELL TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — A program aimed at raising awareness of New Jersey's wine industry is welcome news to David Wolin, owner of Old York Cellars in East Amwell Township.

"The key is to get people here," he told The Express-Times of Easton, Pennsylvania (http://bit.ly/1tmWLjJ).

Gov. Chris Christie recently signed into law a measure promoting agricultural tourism on preserved farmland. The state's Agricultural Development Committee will now establish a 44-month pilot program that allows special events on preserved farmland at wineries.

State officials did not immediately know why the trial period was set at 44 months.

"With this law, farmers will now have the ability to promote their operations without conflicting with the spirit of their farmland preservation," according to a statement from Assemblyman Ron Dancer, whose district includes portions of Middlesex and Monmouth counties.

Dancer co-sponsored the bill with Assemblywoman Alison Littell-McHose, a Republican whose district includes portions of Hunterdon and Warren counties.

"If we don't allow farming to evolve, farmers will disappear even though their land has been preserved," McHose said in a statement. "People look for special places to hold their special events and this will allow New Jersey farms to meet that demand. It's a win for the consumer, a win for the farmer and for our wineries. It benefits everyone."

Special events would be allowed on preserved farmland at wineries provided they take place on Fridays, weekends or holidays and make use of the winery's grapes to promote agricultural tourism. The law — S837 or A1272 — also dictates that events use existing farm buildings, open-air pavilions or buildings used in winery operations.

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said hosting a wedding or a charity event maintains the intent of preserving farmland, while allowing wineries to generate income directly related to the business.

Organizers of the Last Fling Pumpkin Sling held last year in Harmony Township, for instance, ran afoul of preservation restrictions. The farmer said he grew pumpkins for the event on his farm, but the Agricultural Development Committee said organizers added parking, portable bathrooms and commercial food vendors to accommodate guests.

Tom Sharko, owner of Alba Vineyard in Pohatcong Township, expects the pilot program will have little effect on his business and questions how effective it will be. He explained that he had already set aside acreage to hold the events that the pilot program allows and that he's been holding events for years.

"All of the guys that took the (preservation) money didn't set aside acreage," Sharko said, adding that others could have taken less money and exempted a portion of the land from the preservation program like he did.

Sharko said selling wine is where he generates the vast majority of his income.

"If I do a wedding, I do a wedding," he said. "If I don't, I don't."

Sharko noted that at some wineries in the state, beer and imported wine are served during functions, which he feels betrays the spirit of the program.

"We grow the fruit right here," he said.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno visited Alba and Old York Cellars earlier this month.

In addition to promoting the pilot program, her visit was part of her summer "Tourism Tuesday" initiative. Officials created the campaign to help promote the diversity of New Jersey's tourism industry during the summer season.

"There are a lot of other things to do than go to the New Jersey Shore," she said. "Wine is a growth industry in New Jersey."

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Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com


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