MAYS LANDING, N.J. — On the electronic marquee in front of Balic Winery, along busy Route 40, drivers are beckoned to stop in and "meet Mariah" after they try some local wines in the vineyard's tasting room.
"One guy who stopped actually thought we were talking about meeting Mariah Carey," Bojan Boskovic, Balic's owner, says with a laugh.
The meet-and-greet was not for the pop star, set to perform this month in nearby Atlantic City. Mariah is the winery's 3-year-old Golden Retriever, who hangs out most days near a gazebo on the 57-acre vineyard. Visitors are welcome to sit with Mariah as they take in the view of the rows and rows of vines after they sample the wines in the nearby tasting room. Dog owners may also bring their own pet — on a leash.
"I wouldn't necessarily call it a strategic marketing tool, but I think that people do enjoy hanging out with Mariah. We have people who come in and the first thing they do is ask for her," said Boskovic, noting that the dog is so popular among winery regulars that he put a photo of her — taken when Mariah was just a pup — on the label of a new seasonal pumpkin wine. A large display of the wine bears photos of the dog.
But as a trend continues to evolve involving winery dogs — canines that populate wineries across the United States either as greeters or guests — the phrase and concept is capturing the attention of everything from rock bands (the Winery Dogs, formed in New York City in 2012), new blogs (Cork-Hounds matches dog lovers with dog-friendly wineries), a series of West Coast coffee-table books (of Napa Valley and elsewhere), and affecting the names of wineries (Working Dog Winery in Robbinsville among them). The American Wine Society, however, says it's impossible to track just how much "winery dogs" are influencing the $220 billion-a-year industry in the United States.
"I think wineries and dogs really have a long tradition, because vineyards are actually agricultural businesses that have always utilized canines in their operations," said Barbara Whatley, who worked with local photographers in Washington state to capture the images and write stories for her books, Winery Dogs of Walla Walla and Winery Dogs of Washington.
Whatley's self-published books are among a series of similar tomes published in California and Oregon that feature color photographs of winery dogs and accompanying stories. Some of the proceeds from the publications have been donated to local canine shelters and animal rights groups.
That's the idea behind Working Dog Winery in Robbinsville, where a dispute over trademark infringement on the vineyard's original name — Silver Decoy — led to its five owners in 2001 deciding on its new name. The name not only describes how each of the partners retains a 9-to-5 job while operating the business together — there are teachers, tradesmen, and real estate agents among them — but the group's philosophy of making the 110-acre property pet-friendly. Dog owners may bring their pets on a leash just about anywhere on the site. Though owners have their own pets — there are probably a dozen dogs among them — none of them acts as an official greeter or regularly hangs out on the property.
"It's a special thing to be able to offer a chance for dog owners to sit back with their best friend on a nice Adirondack chair with a view of the vineyard and sip on some wine," said one of Working Dog's owners, Mark Carduner. "If you want to walk the trails of our 18-acre vineyard with your dog, you can do that, too. It's all about allowing people the time and place to sit down and spend some time with their pet and enjoy some wine."
Carduner said Working Dog hosts a 5K run annually called "Hair of the Dog," which attracts as many as 1,500 humans and 300 dogs and raises money for a local animal shelter.
"We've just always been dog-friendly from day one, and the trend seems to be really growing, with more and more people bringing their pets with them to the vineyard all the time," Carduner says.
The philosophy is the same at Southwind Winery & Vineyard in Millville, which is listed on a number of websites as a pet-friendly destination. Three winery mixed-breed rescue dogs roam around the four-acre vineyard to keep rodents and deer at bay.