The Latest Atlantic City Gambling Victim

New Jersey's oldest commercial wine producer, files for bankruptcy protection during reorganization

by Linda Jones McKee
The chief operating officer of Renault Winery says he hopes to restructure the company’s finances to “ensure us being here long into the future.”
Egg Harbor City, N.J.—A year ago, Atlantic City, N.J., had 12 casinos. Today, four have closed and another one, the Trump Taj Mahal, may shut its doors in December. For years Atlantic City was viewed as the “Las Vegas of the East.” Tourists flocked to the casinos, then visited Jersey shore towns and beaches as well as other local attractions, including nearby wineries. However, casinos have opened in neighboring states, and in the past five years the number of gamblers and other tourists in Atlantic City has declined. When the first Pennsylvania casino opened in 2006, revenue at Atlantic City’s casinos was $5.2 billion; by 2013, that revenue had dropped to $2.86 billion.

The decline in tourism may have claimed a victim in the wine industry: New Jersey’s oldest winery, Renault Winery, filed for bankruptcy Nov. 13. Located less than 20 miles west of Atlantic City in Egg Harbor City, N.J., Renault was founded in 1864. The current owner, Joseph P. Milza, purchased the winery in 1977 and added a 50-room hotel known as Tuscany House in 2001; Vineyard Golf, an 18-hole championship golf course, opened in 2004.

The property was scheduled to be sold at a sheriff’s auction, but the sale was canceled when the business filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Camden, N.J. Milza plans to keep the winery and resort open while the company’s finances are reorganized. OceanFirst Bank in Toms River, N.J., has a $7.9 million mortgage on the property and foreclosed on Renault.

The winery’s chief operating officer, Dennis Del Vecchio, commented, “We have been here for 150 years, and our plan will ensure us being here long into the future. We’re not looking to sell the place. We’re looking to continue the legacy here.”

Renault Winery was founded by Louis Nicholas Renault, a “master vintner” from Rheims, France, who came to the United States after phylloxera devastated French vineyards. He first attempted to grow grapes in California, but his vines there succumbed to phylloxera as well. After learning about native American grapes that had a natural resistance to certain diseases and pests, Renault moved to New Jersey in 1864, purchased land near Egg Harbor, and planted native grapes varieties such as Ives and Catawba. He introduced his New Jersey Champagne by 1870, and the winery grew to become the nation’s largest producer of sparkling wine. In the late 19th century, Egg Harbor was known as “Wine City.”

Just prior to the start of Prohibition in 1919, John D’Agostino purchased the winery. Renault continued to operate under D’Agnostino during Prohibition, when all other wineries in New Jersey were closed, by selling three flavors of “Renault Tonic” in drugstores: Port, Tokay and Sherry. The recommended dosage was a “wine-glassful three times a day,” and consumers were cautioned, “Do not refrigerate this product…as it may turn to wine.” Chilling caused the medicinal elements to settle to the bottom of the bottle, resulting in a 22% alcohol wine.

The winery’s current owner, Joseph P. Milza, a local newspaper owner and publisher, purchased the property in 1977. Because the production of sparkling wine at Renault dates back to the 19th century, the winery can continue to use “Champagne” on its labels. The winery sells both an American Champagne and a popular Blueberry Champagne. According to Wines Vines Analytics, Renault Winery has 35 acres of vineyard and produces 12,500 cases of wine. In addition to the winery, hotel and golf course, Renault also has an events facility for banquets and weddings and two restaurants. There are a total of 54 wineries in New Jersey.

Posted on 11.29.2014 - 11:14:39 PST
I have a bottle of the Port Tonic from Prohibition. I do plan to open it someday. Sorry to hear of the bankruptcy.