Pavlis helps guide vineyards’ evolution across state
MONROE TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Dr. Gary Pavlis, the organizer of this year’s annual Grape Expectations conference at Forsgate Country Club, said he always knew he wanted to be working outdoors.
He got that wish, as an Extension agriculture agent, shortly after he got out of Rutgers’ Cook College armed with his Ph.D.
He quickly took a job as an agent in Atlantic County because he knew a lot about blueberries and grapes.
Over time, as wineries became a fast-growing segment in New Jersey agriculture, Pavlis’ job morphed into assisting vineyard and winery owners, and that was a good thing, he said, as his own fascination with wine began in earnest while he was in graduate school.
Pavlis was raised in Upper Saddle River in Bergen County but moved south to New Brunswick and Rutgers for his undergrad education.
He attended the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, for his Master’s degree. There, he studied plant breeding, genetics and spent a lot of time evaluating strawberries, grapes and blueberries.
He learned to breed grape varieties for Southeastern states.
“We’d give our selections to local wineries down there and they would make wine, and we’d evaluate them on a one to 20 scale,” he recalled recently.
“All that time I had thought wine was just for drinking. After I went back for my Ph.D. at Rutgers, I discovered all my professors were wine nuts. My main professor was Dr. Paul Eck. He would invite grad students over for a barbecue and he’d say, ‘It’s Riesling night.’ Everyone would bring over a Riesling in a paper bag and somebody would bring one for $5 and another one would be $25. That was eye-opening because often times everybody liked the $5 wine best. You realize, cost is not exactly an indicator of quality.”
How did Pavlis decide on a career in agriculture?
“My father loved to garden and he taught us all about the outdoors. My brother and I just loved being outside, so when it came time to attend college, I knew being a doctor or a lawyer was just not in my cards,” he said.
He attended what was then Cook College [of agriculture] from 1969-1973.
He already had a background in blueberries when the Farm Winery Act passed in the early 1980s in the Garden State, “and it was perfect timing because the winery owners came to me and said, ‘Nothing is being done at Rutgers with regard to wine and vineyards,’ so that’s when we put a grape variety trial up at the Rutgers research station in Cream Ridge.” He acknowledged most of the wineries around the state were born in the Atlantic County Ag Extension offices.
The Grape Expectations began 34 years ago at a restaurant at Forrestal Village in Princeton, and Pavlis co-founded the conference with Rudy Marchese from Alba Vineyards, who has since moved to Oregon.
This year’s conference, usually held the first Saturday in March, drew expert speakers from all over the United States and even a panel of wine researchers from Italy.
Guest speakers included Lucie Morton from Virginia, a busy international viticulture consultant, and Pennsylvania-based wine consultant Dr. Denise Gardner.
This year, winery owners could receive plants from Italy being propagated at Double A Vineyards in New York State, “so vineyard owners had a chance to sign up and receive these exciting new Italian varieties.”
One especially enjoyable part of the conference every year is the “mystery wine challenge,” held right after lunch, where all patrons are asked to stand and are asked a series of questions by Pavlis: “Is it red or is it white? Is it Old World or New World? Is it from Spain or Portugal,” and so on, until just a few people are left standing. Those one or two people then receive a complimentary bottle of one of many fine New Jersey wines available for sampling during the day. This year, red and white mystery wines were Italian, out of deference to the guests, wine researchers from Institute Trentino, a wine research organization in northern Italy. Wine can be more profitable in the long term but is more risky in the short term.
“The ones that survive seem to be ones where family is involved, the fellow that’s in his 50’s or 60’s gets it started, but hopefully he has children that are going to pick up the reigns at some point,” Pavlis said, citing examples like Terhune Ochards’ Pam and Gary Mount and Bill Heritage and his sons and Tom Sharko at Alba Vineyards and his sons.
“With vegetables, you don’t determine the price, you’re totally market-driven,” Pavlis said, “if one state near you had a really big crop, your price is going to drop.”
But in New Jersey with grapes you can pretty well depend on a price every year, just because New York has a big crop that doesn’t mean your price is going to go down, he said.
“Very few of the wineries here are at capacity, almost all of them would like to be growing more grapes and many of them wish they didn’t have to bring in grapes from California,” Pavlis said.
Pavlis recommended farmers thinking about converting part of their land to grape growing operations should consult with an expert first.
Aside from throwing his well-crafted sense of humor into his talks and his role as moderator at the annual Grape Expectations conference, Pavlis is also a champion for New Jersey wines.
At past conferences, he has pointed out that wine growing regions in France have very similar climate and many similar soil characteristics to parts of New Jersey. Give New Jersey wineries another 30 or 40 years — coupled with advances in technology for vineyard owners — and New Jersey wines will be right up there with the best French wines in the near future.
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