New Jersey Uncorked

By David A. Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 17, 2002

The New Jersey Pine Barrens go on for miles -- more than a million acres of anonymous pines sliced by the Garden State Parkway. They're famous for blueberries. They're not famous for wine. But on a recent trip to Atlantic City, I was lured into the Pine Barrens by a rumor of a little bit of Napa Valley in the middle of Jersey -- a piney winery. Influenced, probably, by the casino atmosphere, I imagined a Garden State counterpart to John Huston's orange grove in "Chinatown": rural yet edgy.

That's how I ended up in Egg Harbor City, about 45 minutes west of Atlantic City's boardwalk, on a tour of the Renault winery. Even more surprising, I found that Renault is not alone. It's one of four stops on a South Jersey wine trail. All told, New Jersey has more than a dozen wineries that together made about 140,000 gallons last year.

Egg Harbor City is a misnomer. For one thing, there's no city, and for another, there's no harbor. The crossroads was named in hopes of a canal that never materialized. Maybe that prepares you for the fact that wine country in South Jersey has a different flavor than other wine regions. No pretensions, no fancy talk of a vintage's nose or bouquet. The 10 of us on the Renault tour stood around a counter in the dimly lit tasting room, each with two small plastic cups before us, the kind the dentist gives you and says, "Spit."

And that may be your instinct when Leslie Laurito, the guide, first pours the house specialty: blueberry champagne. "It's really good," the man to my right insisted. He and his wife had come just to purchase the bubbly for their son's graduation.

From the start, Laurito had signaled that this would be no highbrow tour. She said a French-Canadian visitor had once insisted that Renault should rhyme with Jello. "Here in South Jersey, we say Renault," Laurito said, and it rhymed with salt.

Renault claims to be the country's longest continuously operating winery, begun in 1864. Winemaking here dates to 1858, when someone discovered that grapes thrived in Atlantic County's well-drained sandy soil and temperate climate. The news drew German winemakers and then Louis Nicholas Renault from France. Renault left a Europe whose vineyards were being ravaged by grape-killing bugs and started fresh in Atlantic County, planting European grapes supplemented with North American varieties like catawba, which Renault still grows and uses in its wines. Many Italian family vintners soon followed. The Renault family ran the winery until 1919, when the founder's son, Felix, with Prohibition looming, sold the place.

Who would buy a winemaking business on the brink of a nationwide alcohol ban? A man with pull, that's who.

John D'Agostino wangled a special dispensation for the winery to stay in business by making sacramental wines for church use. D'Agostino also started a line of tonics that happened to be 44-proof alcohol with the addition of a sour-tasting ingredient called peptone. Renault's warning label made the sales pitch: It cautioned consumers not to refrigerate the product or else it would become wine. When chilled, the peptone separated out and voilĂ : vino.

After relating selections of this history in a cask-lined meeting room, Laurito led us past an indoor arbor (a popular setting for weddings) to the Antique Equipment Room. It was cool and damp and full of interesting old gizmos. The dosage machine -- this she pronounced with a French accent -- looked like a spinning wheel, with six bottles held by their necks radiating from a hub. Laurito wouldn't touch the ominous-looking guillotine grape press, but she did demonstrate the cork-inserting device.

From there we moved to the modern working winery, where the white grapes are piped to one press and the red grapes go to a machine for hot fermentation. Hot fermentation is important for red wines like burgundies, Laurito said. Parked right there was a white 1954 Bentley, one of two belonging to the current owner, a former newspaperman from Toms River.

Beyond, we entered a colder storage room with empty barrels made of white oak. Through a wall-length window Laurito pointed out the bottling facility. Champagne bottles are first chilled to 32 degrees, because champagne bottled at room temperature turns flat and foamy. Renault also makes a full range of red and white wines, and boasts that its American White was served at President Kennedy's Inaugural Ball.

Not everyone has the good taste to ask for wines from the Garden State. "I don't bother too much with Jersey wines," said Don Rickles, who was performing at the Tropicana the weekend I was in Atlantic City. "Why taste that when you can go to Tuscany? But I don't want to sound like some negative pain-in-the-neck," he added, for maybe the only time in his life.

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