Historic New Jersey winery works to stay open

The 50-room hotel and banquet facility at the Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City, N.J.

EGG HARBOR CITY, N.J. - Renault Winery is one of those unexpected kinds of places surrounded by deep southern New Jersey's rolling farmlands and thick pine forests.

The winery - the second oldest in the nation - with a golf course, two restaurants, and a 50-room luxury hotel tucked away on a country road off Route 30, is more reminiscent of an Italian locanda than a Jersey Shore roadside attraction.

It has survived the cultural feasts and famines of the eras - wars, economic downturns such as the Great Depression, and even Prohibition - since it was founded by French immigrant Louis Nicolas Renault, who planted the first vineyards on the Atlantic County property in 1864.

Now it is trying to pull through a crisis that some feared would permanently shut down the historic winery after its now former owner filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2014. But last month a judge agreed to allow the bank which held a $7.9 million mortgage on the property, OceanFirst Bank of Toms River, N.J., to continue to operate the entity under a new corporate name, Tuscany Resort, while trying to find a buyer over the next year.

The resort had been set to close in November after Renault's longtime owner, Joseph Milza, found himself juggling about $8.6 million in total liabilities, including property tax liens totaling more than $1 million. Experts have said the financial problems at Renault may have been the result of the downturn of the economy in the Atlantic City region, which meant fewer visitors to the winery. Others said high property taxes on the site's unused land may have added to the woes.

Closing the landmark would have put about 80 permanent employees and 70 seasonal workers out of jobs, adding to the devastating unemployment numbers in the region after four Atlantic City casinos closed in 2014.

"It's a nice feeling that we have been able to bring that stability back to the community . . . both for our employees and for the customer base that has had a longstanding emotional connection to Renault Winery," said Patrick Sheehan, executive director of Tuscany Resort.

OceanFirst Bank brought Sheehan in last month to run the operations, although Milza and several members of his family continue to work in various positions they held on the property before the takeover by the bank.

Milza could not be reached for comment, but Sheehan said the former owner, who had operated Renault Winery for 38 years, continues to be a highly regarded member of the staff in his new consulting position because of his innate understanding of the 1,400-acre property.

"We revere him like a king," Sheehan said. "He really understands the place like no one else can."

Renault Winery produces about 30,000 gallons of wine a year, with about 30 different varieties offered to the public. On its golf course, about 30,000 rounds of golf a year are played. About 300 tour buses a year from throughout the region arrive with visitors who learn how the wine is made and dine at one of the restaurants. And about 300 private events - including weddings, corporate dinners, private banquets, and parties - are held in the property's 14 distinct venues annually.

On a recent weekday afternoon - when the parking lot was packed with cars belonging to golfers taking advantage of the unseasonably mild weather - Sheehan noted how well-functioning he has found the entity to be since taking over.

The 225-acre Vineyard golf course, designed by noted course architect Ed Shearon, opened in 2004 and received international acclaim when it was ranked by Travel and Leisure Golf magazine as one of the 30 best courses in the world.

"For me, it's been very exciting to see how these four very distinct businesses operate to make one extremely unique entity that has come to be so beloved by both the local market and by people who come from all over the East Coast, and the nation really, to be here," Sheehan said.

Recent events - a murder mystery dinner, breakfast with Santa, a holiday wine dinner - were all sellouts and brought thousands of people to the Renault property, which also includes the Tuscany House Hotel and the gourmet Italian restaurant Joseph's, which is overseen by executive chef Joseph DeGennaro.

With Mediterranean marble, handmade tile, and antique woodwork and furnishings, both the hotel and Joseph's have an old-world feel. The front door of the hotel opens into a lobby designed like an elaborate Italian-style courtyard.

Kevin P. McCarty, a spokesman for Renault, said the biggest challenge facing the winery over the next year, as the bank continues to position the property for sale, will be to convince brides, businesses, party-givers, and others that they will be safe booking an event on the site. Such events have long been a huge part of Renault's business.

"In this market, we will be fighting to make people understand that we are here and we are here to stay and we are committed to delivering to them the same high quality service we always have," McCarty said.

On a recent afternoon, Lauren Manno, 27, a nursing student from Manasquan, said she was touring the property to decide whether she and her fiancé want to hold their 200-guest wedding there in the summer.

Asked whether she was concerned about Renault's financial troubles, Manno said she wasn't.

"I've always dreamed of having my wedding here since I was a little girl," said Manno, who was recently engaged. "The grounds are so pretty and the banquet rooms are so beautiful. If they can make the commitment to us that they will be open, then I feel confident they will be."

jurgo@phillynews.com609-652-8382

@JacquelineUrgo www.philly.com/downashore