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Hopping from one vineyard to another on the ‘Coastal Plain’ of South Jersey

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Decades after Cozy Morley crooned his anthem “On the Way to Cape May,” South Jersey boasts a whole new crop of roadside attractions.

Owner Frank “Booper” DiMatteo and server Desiree Feltes at
the tasting counter at DiMatteo Vineyards, Hammonton, N.J.

More than 30 wineries and vineyards operate in the region’s officially designated American Viticultural Areas, which include Burlington, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Cape May counties. Some vineyard owners refer to this area as the Coastal Plain, and within it are several regional wine trails visitors can explore.

My day-tripping partner and I made five stops along a loop I charted for our excursion, leaving Philadelphia at 10:30 a.m. and returning home at 7 p.m. I purposely chose wineries with Italian names, history or vintners.

The dynamic Greek and Italian duo behind Blue Cork Winery and Vineyard are husband and wife Angelo and Michelle Tantaros.

As the first customers to arrive at Plagido’s Winery, Hammonton, N.J., we were greeted by co-owner Candice Tomasello and wine-ista Katie Bridel. We learned the two main factors making this small-batch vineyard unique: its basket-style press and its soil.

“You can go across the road in Hammonton and have completely different soil,” Tomasello said. “Our property sits on sandy loam which helps water filter out, especially during heavy rains.”

Owner and winemaker Adam Pipitone and frontman
A.J. Mendolera set the tone at Terra Nonno Winery, Millville, N.J.

The vineyard’s basket press is gentler than others, resulting in lower tannins in their wines. We sampled Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin and Coeur d’Est. The latter two are seeming staples among the wineries we visited. Tomasello’s husband Ollie is a generational farmer and the vintner.

Tomasello schooled us on another fun fact – there are more breweries than wineries in the region, making southern New Jersey an emerging area for agritourism. As such, she founded the Wine and Ale Trail of Southern New Jersey, (www.wineandaleofsj.com) a membership-based organization established to help spread the word.

Our next stop was DiMatteo’s Vineyards, tucked off a service road in Hammonton and difficult to track on GPS. We met vineyard owner Frank “Booper” DiMatteo and tasted his Jersey Red, a wine made from chancellor grapes that reminded me of Lambrusco. Our server, Desiree Feltes, said many people like to drink it chilled. DiMatteo makes several dessert wines, including one called Black Eye which screams (in a good way) Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak Soda, sans the carbonation, for those old enough to remember it.

Next, we headed south to Cape May Court House to our third stop, Natali’s Vineyards, named after the property’s previous farm owner. Rich Caplan, current owner, and Level 4 sommelier, Jennifer Arcolesse, were delighted to share the history of the 23-acre winery, its unique Spanish and French wines, and prestigious awards. Turns out, Philadelphia sports radio host, Mike Missanelli is another partner. Caplan affirmed the region’s short tourist season presents some challenges but revealed plans to expand into year-round business ventures. There is no shortage of entrepreneurship on the way to Cape May. Besides that, the grounds at Natali are lovely.

About 35 miles later, we reached our fourth and favorite stop, Terra Nonno Winery. It’s hard to avoid absorbing the jovial breezy vibe upon arrival, and seconds later, the enthusiasm of frontman A.J. Mendolera. A high school history teacher by day, Mendolera provided a quick narration of the family ancestry, specifically paying tribute to his grandfather, Adamo Natale Pipitone, the patriarch from Sicily who started the family farm in the early 1900s.

Terra Nonno’s owner and winemaker Adam Pipitone joined us and shared his mission: to create a Napa-style vibe inclusive for everyone. With wine and fruit slushies on the menu, alongside their serious dry wines, the cousins have achieved that. Last stop was Blue Cork Winery and Vineyard in Williamstown, a pristine operation on 45 acres (with 10 dedicated to grapes). Authentic French oak barrels, Greek winemaking know-how and Amphora clay vats, combined with Italian agricultural skills, produce an impressive menu of wines made in the European tradition. Husband-and-wife team Angelo and Michelle Tantaros and their children operate one of the most beautiful vineyards I’ve seen. There was no better place to end a gorgeous spring afternoon than at Blue Cork with a glass of Petit Verdot.

Three things became clear on our South Jersey sojourn: southern New Jersey has the ideal climate and soil conditions for European and hybrid grapes to thrive. Local winemakers, mostly generational farmers, have every ounce of passion and knowledge of winemakers anywhere else and are producing award-winning wines. They were able to gracefully pivot to winemaking when fruit and vegetable farming became too difficult to sustain financially. And, the region’s vineyards are artisanal, operated by families who each have a great story to tell. 

Natalie Pantaleo, a resident of Haverford Township, Pa., is a marketing communications consultant, brand strategist, and consummate storyteller. In addition to being a published features writer, Natalie is the author of “Lying Down with Dogs,” a novella globally released by The Awakened Press in September 2022.

FIVE ROAD SIDE ATTRACTIONS

Plagido’s Winery
570 N. First Road,
Hammonton, N.J. 08037
plagidoswinery.com

DiMatteo Vineyards
951 Eighth St.,
Hammonton, N.J. 08037
dimatteofamilyvineyards.com

Natali Vineyards
221 Route 47,
North Cape May Court House,
N.J. 08210
natalivineyards.com

Terra Nonno
370 Garrison Road,
Millville, N.J. 08332
terranonno.com

Blue Cork Winery
and Vineyard
1093 Blue Bell Road,
Williamstown, N.J. 08094
bluecorkwine.com

Natalie Pantaleo

Natalie Pantaleo, a resident of Haverford Township, Pa., is a marketing communications consultant, brand strategist, and consummate storyteller. In addition to being a published features writer, Natalie is the author of “Lying Down with Dogs,” a novella globally released by The Awakened Press in September 2022.

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