Where oh, where has the WINEDAR brought us? Oh where, oh where can we be?
New Jersey, NEW JERSEY!
Egg Harbor to be precise, Silverton yachts, and the faltering lights of Atlantic City on the horizon. We are at Renault Winery, one of America’s oldest continuous wine producers specializing in bubbly wine since 1863.
Our story begins in France during the mid-1800’s. Our hero, master vintiner Louis Nichols Renault, has very big problem. He is the representative for the well established Champagne Houses, Duke of Montebello, in Rheims France. You see, Renault’s big problem was a little bug, Phylloxera, and it had killed most of their vines. No vines, no grapes, and with no grapes, no bubbles.
In 1855, Renault immigrated to the United States with some cuttings from his vineyard, and went to California. The vines promptly died. He next read of a East Coast Grape that was resistant to Phylloxera, so he moved to Southern New Jersey where the grape was said to thrive.
The grape is called Noah, like in the Ark. The wine term used to describe the Noah grape is “Foxey” which is not to say it looks good in lingerie. Foxey in wineo means a wine that has a musty animal smell, or an odor of an old fur coat, acceptable to a point and that point for most people is reached rather quickly. Most people are put off by “foxy” wines as they are very sweet; think the sweetness of Welch’s grape jelly.
The Noah is a white grape, sweet tasting, with a light straw color. I can see how this grape would make an acceptable Champagne. As a still wine, it doesn’t fare as well, but for me it made an acceptable dessert wine, served with apples, pears, and cheese. The aroma was, well, “foxy”.
Renault selected Egg Harbor because the terroir was similar to Rheims: rich with chalk and minerals, with the sea near by and the Gulf Stream flowing offshore to the East bringing warmth. He had an environment perfectly suited to grape cultivation. He planted his Noah grapes in 1863, started bottling in 1870, and soon after both the United States and the world loved his New Jersey Champagne. Not long after, people were calling Egg Harbor “Wine City”.
In 1919 Prohibition hit and the winery was purchased by John D’Agostino. It operated with a special permit to make wine for religious and medical purposes. I love this, they made a “wine tonic” which sold only in drug stores with a special warning “do not chill the tonic because it will turn to wine which is illegal.” Elliot Ness must have spit!
John passed away in 1948 and his sister Maria took control. She had a eye for design and constructed many of the building you see today at the vineyard. She even had a wineglass museum. In 1968 the winery was purchased by Universal Foods. In 1974 the property was purchased by MCC Presidential, an investment company, who sold it to the present owner, John Milza, in 1977.
Milza was a former newspaper publisher and he took control with his eye on the wine. Today the Milza family has returned the winery to a thriving enterprise with wine as the focus, and today is a popular tourist attraction. The new additions to the structures built by Maria are the Tuscany House, a 25 room hotel, and an 18 hole golf course.
So if you go, look past the tourist trappings, give a smile and an a thought to Renault, who on the sands of New Jersey contributed his drop of wine history.