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Wine Sales at NJ Vineyards Could Dry Up Without Legislative Action

The Assembly has until tonight to act, or direct wine sales could shut down Friday.

June and Tom Dvorak shake their head in amazement and disgust.

The can't believe New Jersey legislators have not assured that wine sales will keep flowing at places such as Renault Winery Resort & Golf.

The couple from Levittown, NY, come to the Galloway Township winery at least six times a year and spends more than $700 annually on wine that they take home to Long Island.

If the New Jersey Assembly doesn't act before Friday, they'll have to buy Renault wine from a wholesale distributor—not that there is a distributor carrying Renault any where near where they live.

The same goes for Gloucester County vintners Heritage Vineyards in Mullica Hill, Cedarvale Winery in Logan Township and Wagonhouse Winery in Mullica Hill.

The problem is the Assembly is playing chicken with shutting down direct wine sales at New Jersey vineyards and up to six additional retail outlets for each winemaker.

That was the distribution system New Jersey created to help foster sales for its small but growing wine industry.

But due to a legal challenge that overturned the state's standing direct wine sales regulations, the state has until just Friday to pass a new law allowing direct sales to continue.

The new law would also have to allow out-of-state wineries to sell directly in New Jersey. Direct sales by out-of-state winemakers was barred formerly, but that's the provision that was ruled unconstitutional last December by a federal appeals court.

The court remanded the case back to a lower court with the option to allow for direct sales by all wineries—or to ban direct sales by all wineries.

But the court has not ruled, giving the Legislature the chance to fix the law before the court mandates a specific change.

Action to remedy the situation had stalled until now because liquor store owners and wholesalers are opposed to direct sales by wineries.

While the law was in limbo, the state stopped issuing permits for new wineries and additional distribution sites. Current distribution licenses expire at midnight tonight, meaning direct wine sales would be illegal beginning Friday.

A bill passed the Senate by a 25-10 vote Wednesday afternoon, but it remains unclear if–and when–the Assembly may take a vote on the revised law.

Joseph P. Milza, owner of Renault, and Paul A. Verdi Jr., the general manager, hopes there is no delay. But Verdi said Thursday that he has yet to confirm that a vote will be scheduled before the midnight deadline.

Milza already has three new distribution outlet applications on hold. They haven't even bothered to file for the additional three they were allowed because of the eagle and legislative uncertainty.

Not being able to sell directly to consumers would cripple their business, which attracts busloads of visitors and thousands to weekend festivals, said Verdi.

"We're unique here, in that we are a vineyard, a winery, and a golf resort and we sell that as a package. The common thread is the wine, that you can buy a bottle of wine and enjoy it by the pool or take it back to your room," said Verde.

The story will be updated if the state Assembly votes on the proposed law Thursday.

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