Lost in the Valley
Eric really should have told me to take a right in front of the Amish lass picking flowers. She was there every time I sped past. Eric Miller’s voice, recorded and replayed repeatedly over the feeble speaker on my cellphone, is calmly giving directions to turn right at Mansion street.
After a few more circles through the Brandywine Valley, I manage to accidentally turn up that correct street–Natmensing Road–and drive between a home that looked to be propped up by tall grass and a barn that should have been. So I turn up the hill and am suddenly –potholes be damned– driving into a hilltop vineyard at 40 miles an hour.
Into the Vineyards We Go
Hitting the brakes as the rows of empty vines flicker by, I tuck the car against the deer fence on the top of the hill. Getting out in a juggle of camera, notebook, and cellphone, I make a few stumbling steps until I can get myself in order. Calm and professional, I start walking into the nearest row of vines. Within a few steps, I lose my footing again. This time, it is not just my inherent clumsiness. It is pure amazement.
Eric, the (now former) winemaker & co-owner of Chaddsford Winery, had called me a few days before. There was a possibility of a ladybug infestation, and he had asked me to tag along as he inspected the vines. He was planning to harvest his Cabernet Sauvignon in a few days finally, but such an infestation would mean problems. If accidentally harvested with the grapes, the bugs would give the wine a nasty swampy smell.
I have known Eric and his wife Lee for years and even appeared on national TV with Eric on the Learning Channel some years back. After a few pleasantries, Eric & I walked into one of the few rows of vines that still held grapes. Most of the harvest had been completed weeks before. All that remained was the Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera. Most US winemakers with a grudge against the mediocre grow Cabernet. Very few grow Barbera. In fact, there are only a handful of growers in the states who produce Italian varietals such as Barbera or Nebiolo, or Sangiovese.
The school had a winemakers symposium with Chaddford a few years back, where Eric snuck me a bottle that hit me hard and squarely in the happy spot. A single-vineyard Barbera grown about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. It–like viognier from Virginia and Merlot from Long Island before–changed how I thought about East Coast wines. “It’s the grape we are meant to grow here,” he tells me.
PA Wine, Vintage 2007
The 2007 vintage –which is when Eric and I were in the vineyard together–was when I realized how great PA wines would become. The vintage had begun quite early. The weather was mild, but there was a hard frost in February. As a result, the buds were dormant, although possibly cracking open a few months too early. The frost killed half the buds, which would have been grapes come summertime, in a single night. Other vineyards suffered much greater damage.
The loss seems to have worked in the vineyard’s favor, severely reducing the crop come springtime. The rain came early this year but didn’t continue through the summer. Minor drought conditions and plenty of sunshine kept the grapes ripening. The sun kept shining, and the rain hit mostly at night. The warm evenings kept the grapes working up sugars and reducing acids.
PA Wine Harvest
Two weeks earlier than expected, the grapes were ripe. Eric didn’t pick. “I am greedy with this vintage,” he says to me as we are walking. “I’d rather lose it all than not take the chance.” He waited two weeks, then another two weeks without picking. The autumn sun kept on shining. He kept a close on the fruit, drastically reducing the canopy to let the grapes bathe in the autumn sun. It was October 15th in Pennsylvania, and we were wearing short-sleeved shirts out in a vineyard.
Eric stopped halfway down the row and pulled three grapes from a bunch: one from the bottom, another from the middle, and another from the top. I did the same and popped them into my mouth. Pushing the grapes against my hard palate, the pulp was sweet but just a touch tart.
PA Wine Grapes
Eric was doing the same and we both spit out the seeds into our palms. They were green-veined, nearly black at the heart. I then bit into the skins. They were bitter with granular & gritty tannins. As a wine grower, these are the only signposts Eric has. They are all he needs. The smile on his face is infectious. This is the harvest of the century. The first great vintage of Pennsylvania.
“We will pick the Barbera and Cab on Monday.”
For more, check out our list of the top wineries near Philadelphia.