You can make a weekend of touring the wineries of southern New Jersey, which, legend holds, has been a grape-growing region since the time of the Vikings, who bestowed the name “Vineland” on it. Start at the bottom tip of the state, at the Cape May Winery, and work your way up to Egg Harbor, known, pre-Prohibition, as Wine City.
For more than 10 years, the tasting room of the Cape May Winery was the quaintly appointed basement of the vintner’s home, where the sounds of a child practicing scales on the piano upstairs accompanied tastings. Forty thousand bottles of wine produced from the grapes of several local vineyards were put up in the garage each year. This year, the winery, now owned by the Washington Inn’s Toby Craig, has expanded into a large building with more room for a vast collection of wine competition awards, and space to double annual production of winery favorites like the spicy merlot, buttery and well balanced chardonnay, and a thin but assertive chamourcin port, excellent for pairing with dark chocolate. Seagulls are the only reminder that you’re near the Shore during the extensive Wednesday afternoon tour of the vineyards and bottling facilities, complete with a vertical tasting of multiple vintages of the same wine ($20).
When you’re done sipping, head north on the Garden State Parkway to Renault Winery, the state’s oldest and, with a hotel, two restaurants, a golf course and a scripted tour, the most commercial. Arrive before dinner at the Renault Gourmet Restaurant for a complimentary tour of the winery, including the champagne-glass museum, with gold-embossed flutes dating to the 13th century. (Without dinner, the tour is $3; a free coupon for four can be found on the website.) The informative tour, delivered in a documentary narrator’s booming voice, explains how the winery survived Prohibition by selling 22-percent-alcohol Renault Wine Tonic. Unfortunately, the tasting room has the feel of a German beer hall, with wine served in plastic shot glasses. The pineapple-scented pinot grigio is better enjoyed over the restaurant’s Continental dinners. Spend the night at the Mediterranean-muraled Tuscany House, where rooms, starting at $149, overlook 11 acres of vines. The $18.95 Sunday brunch at the Renault Gourmet Restaurant features the winery’s champagne.
Sunday afternoon, meet Bojan “Bo” Boskovic of Balic Winery. Boskovic personally greets customers at his small roadside shop, offering tours of the winery. Working backward through the process, your visit starts in the bottling room, continues through the fermentation rooms, and ends as Boskovic proudly throws open the rear door to reveal his 57-acre vineyard, planted in the 19th century. In the tasting room, Bo steers serious wine drinkers away from the winery’s numerous fruit wines, including the popular new pomegranate—all appealing to the sweet American palate, the European-born vintner cautions—and toward the select chardonnay and smooth cabernet franc.
Cape May Winery, 711 Townbank Road, Cape May, 609-884-1169; capemaywinery.com. Open daily noon to 5 p.m. Tours Wednesday.
Renault Winery, 72 North Breman Avenue, Egg Harbor, 609-965-2111; renaultwinery.com. Open Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Balic Winery, 6623 Route 40, Mays Landing, 609-625-2166; balicwinery.com. Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.