Ever wanted to start your own vineyard? Welcome to wine camp

Husband and wife George Kelly and Melissa Volin, both wine lovers, did what many dream of, but never do: They bought a farm to grow grapes and bottle their own label in an idyllic, rural setting.

What they discovered, though, is that the grapes can deliver their own form of wrath. Of 1,000 vines they purchased this year, 200 of them died — all Merlot. Still, to them, it’s worth it.

“It’s a lot of work, but we love it,” said Kelly, of their new 27-acre spread in Mantua Township, Gloucester County.

Welcome to Wine Grape Summer Camp, where experienced and inexperienced grape growers like Kelly and Volin get a one-night crash course by a host of Rutgers experts — from trellis formation and pruning, to pest and disease control.

The Rutgers experts gathered in the early evening with Kelly, Volin, and about 20 others at the university’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Upper Deerfield, Cumberland County, set in the heart of the Garden State.

The university has taken an active interest in educating grape growers. In 2014, it established the New Jersey Center for Wine Research and Education.

Rutgers’ experimental vineyard lies within the Outer Coastal Plain, a federally approved viticulture area of about 2.2 million acres that includes all of Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic, and Ocean Counties and portions of Salem, Gloucester, Camden, Burlington, and Monmouth Counties.

The event was organized by Hemant Gohil, who earned his doctoral degree in California, where he studied grapes. Gohil, explained that the Outer Coastal Plain region is different from the hot, dry, mountainous West Coast and is more attuned to European wine regions. It has a relatively long growing season and flat, easy-to-work land characterized by sandy soils favorable to growing grapes.

Gohil led the campers on a golden afternoon to the experimental vineyard, where trellis systems were lined with Regent, Arandell, Marquette, Merlot, Casetta, and Schiava Grossa grapes.

“We want to show you our new variety block. … We have six rows of each variety,” said Gohil.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
Hemant Gohil, Gloucester County Agricultural Agent, addresses grape growers.

Regent is a top hybrid variety in Germany and thrives in an area with similar climate to New Jersey, he said, pointing to a row.

Dan Ward, the center’s director, also praised the Regent, a dark-skinned grape with fruity aroma compounds and high tannins. Not only does it offer a rich taste, but the grape is frost-resistant and, more important, resistant to downy mildew, a fungus that plagues grapes.

“What we’re doing is taking that variety and bringing it to New Jersey and looking at the different training systems,” Ward said.

Much of the camp revolved around fighting disease: when to spray, what to spray, and how to shield the vines. It’s more difficult to cultivate organic grapes in New Jersey because its high humidity fosters fungus so most farmers use some form of control.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
Daniel Ward, a Rutgers extension specialist in pomology, addresses grape growers.

Ward said Rutgers researchers are always on the hunt for varieties that will thrive in New Jersey, recalling one ill-fated expedition that included Lombardy, Italy, where they brought back vines that turned out to be “riddled with viruses.”

Schiava Grossa, he said, pointing to a different row, is a “light-colored grape that really yields well. … And now we have this virus-free version, and it’s the only place it is in the U.S., right here.”

Camera icon Tom Gralish
Public domain Merlot grapes brought to N.J. by Rutgers agricultural researchers over twenty years ago grow on the vines.

Next up, Thierry Besancon, a weed scientist from France who studied grapes in his native country, explained the importance of and precautions related to using pre-emergent herbicides.

When asked if grape growers have success using landscape fabric to block weeds, Besancon said they can work but are expensive and present their own set of problems.

“Mice get under there, and you have to control voles,” he said. “The fabric might work, but you might lose 10 to 15 percent of your vines to voles.”

Peter Oudemans, a plant biologist, was the last speaker of the evening.

“If you plant vines and they have a virus, there’s no cure for a virus,” he said. “So, really, prevention is the most important thing.”

He explained that one soil-borne bacterium will attack forcefully enough that, if you were to cut the vines in the spring when sap was high, you would see the bacteria oozing out.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
Grape growers walk the test vineyard as Rutgers University’s Agricultural Experiment Station holds a Wine Grape Summer Camp on Aug. 8.

Tony McDonnell, a winemaker at Terhune Orchards Vineyard & Winery just outside Princeton, said he attended the camp to see what Rutgers’ experts could teach him. The 67-acre Terhune started planting wine grapes in 2006. After four years, they began harvesting, and opened a tasting room in 2010.

“We do a lot of wine sales,” he said. “But we’re still getting our feet wet with grapes.”

Jim Quarella, who owns Bellview Winery in Landisville, was among the more experienced growers in attendance. He’s also president of the Outer Coastal Plain Vineyard Association.

Quarella said that one of the issues facing New Jersey wineries is that the state’s own residents don’t buy local wines, possibly due to prejudice from associating local vineyards with cloyingly sweet fruit wines. New Jersey wines have less than 2 percent of market share in the Garden State.

“People see the quality of the wines now,” Quarella said. “It was one of the biggest stigmas we had to overcome.”

The goal is to grow interest, and Quarella says it’s working. The association markets a red wine blend known as Coeur d’Est, made from Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Jim Quarella talks grapes with Melissa Volin  at Wine Grape Summer Camp.

There are about 53 licensed wineries and wine farm operations in the state, according to state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control data. But about 30 of them have started since just 2000, according to Tom Cosentino, executive director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association. Cosentino wasn’t at the camp.

In 2012, the state produced 402,339 gallons of wine. By the end of last year, it had produced 553,000 gallons, a record, Cosentino said. That’s roughly a 37 percent increase in just four years.

New Jersey’s wine growth began in 1981, after a regulation was lifted that limited the number of wineries to one per one million in population. Also giving local wineries a huge boost: the 2012 Judgment of Princeton. At the blind tasting, French judges preferred some New Jersey red wines over those from Bordeaux.

Cosentino said wine-grape growing can be tough at first, but ultimately rewarding.

“It can cost $15,000 an acre to start planting,” he said. “You’re really not going to make a profit for five to seven years. … You have to be in it for the long haul. But once you’re in it, you can turn a nice profit.”

Kelly and Volin, the couple with the new vineyard in Mantua, are part of the growth trend. The wine aficionados even got married in Napa Valley.

“We just planted our first grapes this year,” Kelly said.

The couple still hold down full-time careers, and Volin said a typical weekend might be two 12-hour days on the farm, but they’ve found a reliable community to get them through the first year.

“There are so many other vineyard owners willing to help,” Kelly said.

Camera icon Tom Gralish
Melissa Volin and her husband, George Kelly, tour the grape vines at Rutgers’ experimental vineyard. They have a new vineyard in Mantua.