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"You Americans have the loveliest wines in the world, you know, but you don’t realize it.  You call them domestic, and that’s enough to start trouble anywhere."

H. G. Wells, famous British writer


The Winery Snob

 Winery Insight Featured Article - November 2003 by Timothy O. Rice


We all know a Wine Snob.


You will find them at parties.  You will have them over for dinner, and they will know just what you should have served with that main course your wife slaved over.  You will go to their house and they will have a Merlot that’s just a bit more marvelous than the one you brought, or a Cabernet that puts yours to shame.  You will be in a restaurant and find them silently shaking their head at your wine selection.


I thought I was above that.  I enjoy wine.  I know a little bit about it.  I still try to take every glass offered as if this might be the best one I ever had, to view every bottle as an unopened treasure.  I never thought I would be a snob about wine.  But then I discovered I was wrong.


I made the discovery about a month ago.  We live in New Jersey, and on a sunny summer afternoon in September we were off touring a winery or two.  We were sipping the wine at a new winery when the winemaker came into the tasting room.  I was talking with him about wineries in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley.  We have been to almost all of them, and I was expounding on their virtues and failures (okay, I was droning on a bit) when I came to one in particular.  I said something disparaging, and the winemaker spoke up.  He said … well, let me give you a little background first.


Two of the oldest wineries in the United States are in the area we were talking about: Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, NY and Renault Winery in Egg Harbor, NJ.  I discovered I had become a Winery Snob about both of them.


Brotherhood is the oldest continually operating winery in the country.  Founded in 1839, it has survived through the Great Depression, recessions, Prohibition, wars, and changes of ownership.  When I was first sampling wine, Brotherhood was famous for the wine-tasting parties they threw in their marvelous underground cellars (tickets required, but there were lots of tickets available).  Then in 1987 a new ownership group came in, headed by Cesar Baeza, determined to improve the quality of the wines there.  The new ownership worked hard at it.  Then in 1999 a devastating fire struck, gutting the signature Grand Monarque Hall, and bringing financial crisis to Brotherhood.


In my mind, somehow, Brotherhood remained the same.  I always had a fondness for their Holiday Wine (spiced red, often served heated at Christmas) and I remembered their May wine.  But deep inside I thought of Brotherhood as a disappointing winery, the party place of the 1960s and 1970s.  I stopped by about a year after the fire, and the complex looked a bit bedraggled.  No crowds, where once they were common.  Tons of parking, because there were very few cars in the big lots.  Last Summer they started a renovation and I dropped by again, but they weren’t very far along yet.  The picture in my mind remained tattered.


Renault is almost as old.  In 1864, Louis Nicholas Renault bought the land to start Renault; by 1870 he had produced his New Jersey Champagne.  He had the credentials for it: he had been the master vintner at the champagne house of the Duke of Montebello in Rheims, come to America looking for a place free of the phylloxera bug.  Soon his wines were winning awards, and Egg Harbor was known as “wine city”.


I remember when we stopped at Renault.  An absolutely marvelous facility; our first reaction was very positive.  Gourmet restaurants, a beautiful reception hall, brand new hotel next door, golf course in the planning stage.  The tour was great: unique collection of glassware, another great collection of antique winemaking equipment, a knowledgeable guide who actually knew the history of the place, straight through the Pressing Room and Wine Cellar into the Wine Tasting Emporium.  That’s where we lost our enthusiasm.


None of the wines excited us.  They all seemed, well, alike.  After all that buildup, it was an anti-climax.  By the time they tasted the wine they are known for, their Blueberry Champagne, we probably weren’t disposed to give them a fair chance.  Ever since, I have had a bad impression of the place, disappointed that such a beautiful place with such a wonderful history did not somehow pour out the most wonderful wines for me. 


That gets us back to that visit to the new winery and the conversation with the winemaker.  Having talked to him for a bit, I can say that he knows more about wine than I do, and that he has visited more wineries than I have.  He had been to Renault and tasted their wine.  He had been surprised by their Blueberry Champagne, and he thought it was both interesting and good.


I can’t say I realized it right then, but I did later: I had become a Winery Snob.  The truth was that Renault’s Blueberry Champagne really is worth experiencing, but if anyone had asked me I would have said very little good about their wine.  I would have allowed my letdown from the big buildup to the winetasting to blot that out.  I wanted them to be better than they were, and I had over-reacted.


I can say much the same about Brotherhood.  I want them to be better than they are because they are the oldest winery in the country, and I am pretty harsh in my judgment as a result.  The truth here is that I have often enjoyed their Holiday wine at Christmas, and so have others in my house.  They make a lot of wines – too many in my estimate – but they are an important focus for the winery business in the Hudson Valley and along the Shawangunk Trail.  They are trying to revitalize their business.  They run festivals and promote the wine trail.  I should be encouraging and applauding their efforts, not disparaging them


Both of these wineries have garnered a few medals for their wine in competitions in recent years, so obviously some people have a different opinion than I do.  I notice that Renault is advertising for a winemaker position in Wine Spectator, so perhaps they are already attempting to change what I was bothered by.


Maybe I can change.  I see nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade, but that doesn’t mean I have to look down my nose at people who are trying hard to improve.  I think I’ll have to visit both of these wineries in the coming year to see where they have taken their wine


 Last modified: August 07, 2007