Each year at the start of the holiday season, a myriad of local attractions suddenly spring to life like locusts emerging from their underground slumber. Holiday markets packed with popcorn tins, red and green scarves and snowflake ornaments fill to capacity with crowds humming along to the endlessly looping soundtrack of Christmas carols playing in the background.
And then, as soon as the holidays are over, POOF! It all disappears.
But one spot in South Jersey has found a way to celebrate not only the holiday season, but the entire season of winter – Renault Winery. For the second year in a row, Renault is hosting their Vintner Wonderland, a celebration of snow and ice and everything nice that is unlike any other in our area.
Set against the gorgeous backdrop of the winery and its grounds, Vintner Wonderland runs through Sunday, Feb. 27, and is as enchanting of an experience as you will find anywhere this winter. Vastly expanded since making its debut last year, it’s a whirl of rustic beauty matched with approachable elegance, an icicle-laden utopia of skating rinks and firepits, horse and carriage rides, twinkling lights and warm nightcaps; a dream-like realm where the cupcakes and landscapes both come heavily frosted. And, more than anything, it’s a true testament to the human ability to adapt to a challenge, to make lemonade out of lemons … or mulled wine out of grapes for that matter.
“Last year when COVID happened we knew we had to figure out a way to do something outdoors for our guests, so we came up with idea to do an outdoor winter wonderland,” says Renault Vice President of Hospitality Rob Patillo. “(Owners) Josh and Melanie McCallen actually worked in a hotel in Austria when they were in college and had seen similar winter wonderlands there, and they were very inspired to bring that concept here. So that’s where the idea for our Vintner Wonderland came from. It was originally just planned to be a one-off for last year, but it was so successful that we decided we absolutely had to bring it back. And we will be doing so every year.”
A beautiful sight,
we’re happy tonightThe truth of the matter is that Vintner Wonderland is so gorgeous and so perfectly themed to the season that you really need to see it with your own eyes in order to appreciate it, as no written description is likely to do it justice, but we’ll give it a shot.
As you enter, the grand centerpiece stands before you: A massive tower of wine casks decorated tastefully with lights and garlands. It is to Vintner Wonderland what Cinderella Castle is to the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Breathtaking and iconic, it sets the tone for the experience. To the right is Vintner Village, an area of small shops where local and regional vendors and artists sell various goods Fridays through Sundays. And no matter what day you visit, The Village Bar is there serving up the kind of drinks that warm you from the inside out – think mulled wines, hot apple cider and what can only be described as the world’s most delicious cup of hot cocoa, an endlessly rich chocolate dream that absolutely no one should skip.
Beyond the bar sits the Sweet Shop which features cupcakes, cookies, brownies, macarons and fun, sharable items like Elf Crunch (caramel corn drizzles with dark chocolate) and Reindeer Munch (Chex and chocolate cereal coated in peanut butter, chocolate and powdered sugar) as well as a giant white chocolate-covered Rice Krispie Treat with rainbow sprinkles that is far better than it has any right to be.
If you are looking for a bit more physical activity, the outdoor skating rink makes for a great way to burn off a few calories after plowing through a bag of Elf Crunch. This year the rink’s size has grown to accommodate more families as they glide across the ice — or fall on their butts — whichever the case may be.
While simply skating around is fun enough in its own right, the rink is also used for other fun, special events such as their weekly Movie Nights, which take place every Friday at 5 p.m. featuring such winter-themed titles as “Ice Age” and “Frozen”; or the Silent Night Skate, a Friday night tradition from 5 to 9 p.m. where skaters are given their own pair of headphones with various channels to select from while they skate.
Later on, we’ll conspire …
as we dream by the fireIf all of this sounds like a recipe for frostbite, think again: There are more than a few ways to warm up amidst the frozen fun at Vintner Wonderland. You can enjoy everything from Champagne Bubble igloos to splurge-worthy cabanas that offer luxurious space to sip wine, have a bite and lounge for up to six guests.
But one of the simplest and best ways to defrost is at one of their many firepits, some of which also offer food and beverage service and can be reserved for groups up to eight people looking to cozy up and get warm next to the enchanting flicker of flames. Guests can select from rink-side firepits situated next to the ice, patio firepits that boast views of the pond or the stage firepits, which feature up-close seating just feet from the stage.
Oh, that’s right, we almost forgot to mention that Vintner Wonderland hosts some of the top bands in South Jersey on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with everything from piano duos to party bands and country acts, depending on the day. For the full schedule of acts with times and dates, check their website.
Between the ice skating, the Disney movies, the hot chocolate and the candy shop, Vintner Wonderland offers a surprisingly family-friendly atmosphere for a winery, while still managing to feel grown up and sophisticated. But somehow it all falls in line with the philosophy at Renault.
“Josh and Melanie have 10 kids, so family is really important to them,” Patillo says. “And, because of that, having great family experiences here is really critical to the business. That’s the kind of hospitality company they wanted to create.”