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Cape wineries, oystermen ponder a partnership

Cape wineries, oystermen ponder a partnership

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Two of Cape May County’s gourmet industries are considering a partnership to expand their reach to customers across America.

The county’s wineries are so distinctive they’re pursuing their own regional brand called the Cape May Peninsula. Meanwhile, Cape May Salts and other county oyster brands are enjoyed on the half-shell by foodies as far away as California.

Freeholder Will Morey said he thinks the two industries — along perhaps with craft breweries and distilleries — could increase their reach through a marketing collaboration.

“There is a lot of synergy between them,” he said.

Morey met last week with about 30 industry officials to talk about pooling their marketing efforts.

One idea is to develop a new visitors center where tourists can see oysters being prepared for market and enjoy tastings of local wines or craft beers. Other ideas include ecotourism visits to see the vast mudflats where the oysters are grown.

“We’re a place where outstanding half-shell oysters are grown. The Cape May Peninsula is also a prominent place where outstanding wines are made,” he said.

Morey said local owners seemed receptive to the collaboration.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

Gustavo Calvo spent Monday morning making sure his oyster racks on the Delaware Bay survived the weekend’s coastal storm.

Calvo, of Vineland, is the owner of a small Delaware Bay operation called Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm, named for his daughter. He sells his oysters directly to Philadelphia restaurants.

At low tide, Calvo and about a dozen other oystermen from neighboring operations were busy tending their racks on the sprawling mudflats in Middle Township.

Twice a day at low tide, acres of mud are exposed on the bay. This gives the oyster farmers a chance to inspect their oysters, repair, adjust or replace their plastic cages or harvest those that are ready to be served next to fancy swan ice-carvings or as restaurant appetizers.

Farming oysters is a risky business. Calvo said he lost about 75 percent of his stock last winter to storm damage when a build-up of ice exposed them to the winter-dry air too long.

He said he is open to the prospect of working with other local entrepreneurs.

“It’s a good idea. They’re complementary businesses,” he said. “These are high-end products. These oysters are for the half-shell market and raw bars. I see a lot of growth potential.”

Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May has long recognized the county’s wines and oysters were a natural fit, winemaker Kevin Celli said. Celli sees the benefit of working together for the sake of the county’s farming future.

Every winter, Willow Creek hosts Fire Pit Fridays, inviting local musicians, chefs and oyster farmers to host an evening of food, music and wine. Hundreds of customers attend, he said.

The event introduces potential consumers both to the vineyard’s wines and the county’s oysters, he said.

“It’s a very similar customer. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We have higher-end products. There’s a niche of wine and oysters.”

Calvo’s wife, Lisa Calvo, works as aquaculture program coordinator for the Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Research Lab in Middle Township.

She said consumers are taking more interest in how and where their food is grown. As with wine, oysters have a unique regional flavor, she said. Food-lovers call this regional identification by taste “merroir.”

“You can sit down at an oyster bar in Philadelphia and try oysters from all over the country,” she said. “The flavors are very special and distinct as well as the way the oyster is presented. Some are meaty and buttery. Others are creamy. It really depends on where it’s grown.”

She said locally produced oysters and wines or beers are valued by the same customers. So marketing them together just makes sense.

“People have their favorite brands and still love the experimentation aspect,” she said. “There’s a real specialty there for local markets and highlighting our local products. I think it’s a perfect fit.”

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217

MMiller@pressofac.com

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