Grapes and Ghosts of Chester County

This article, written by fellow wine writer and friend Jeff Alexander, was originally posted September 28, 2011 on the now-defunct Examiner.com. As I am currently working on an updated interview with Va La’s Anthony Vietri, it seemed a good time to resurrect this wonderful piece from failed website purgatory. Some of the details have changed but the essence remains the same… Enjoy! ~ MM

The email message is simple. It makes me smile. Still does. The note is a response to an inquiry – my request to visit a Chester County winery I’d heard the good word on, repeatedly. It is brief, honest and bereft of showbiz.

“My name is Anthony and I farm the wines here. We’re not really comfortable talking about ourselves, but I would like to meet you and say hello. I am unfortunately chained to my tractors most every day.”

Already, I like this winemaker. It is what he didn’t say in those three sentences. This guy is no absentee owner with a gilded checkbook. He’s about action and dirt.

I am thankful to find that, in person, Anthony Vietri is willing to talk about himself, his family and his history with the farm-vineyard tucked into a residential area of Avondale. He appears in the upstairs tasting room of the charming, homey barn that houses the public space of the winery, covered in black: Long sleeves, pants and broad rim hat despite the late summer heat. The infrequent breeze through the door offers a thick notion of manure from an adjacent lot. Welcome to mushroom country, home of Va La Vineyards.

Vietri is a benevolently intense grower whose passion for the business is palpable – as any observer to his 10-minute ramble about specialized row tractors can validate. Trailing his gently modulated voice, he walks among ranks of grapes and recalls the multiple generations of family who worked the farm, purchased in 1928, after immigrating from the tiny Italian village called Giusvalla (which is Liguria, northwest of Genoa near the Piedmont border). They were laborers who landed in the greater Wilmington area to risk their lives manufacturing gunpowder and, later, transitioned to mushroom farming, a heritage they imported from the homeland.

The tale of his teenage winery is one of trial and error. The first 15 years were dedicated to planting, cultivating and sussing out which vines were happy in specific areas of the vineyard. “The difficult part about this is it will never be finished in my lifetime,” Vietri laments when describing his experiments with a variety of grape clones, root stocks and approaches to planting. “You just keep getting better and better and refining it.”

Va La has six-plus acres of vines yielding about 25 different varieties including some uncommon grapes like Charbono, Malvasia and Lagrein. More than a couple staffers tout the terroir of the site that draws from the mineral riches and micro-climates blessing the plot. At the highest point, a hilly nob, the land drops off in four directions to constitute a geological booty of rock-filled clay soils well suited for grapes.

Another factor is the steamy fog that emanates from a compost lot next door and drifts over the vineyard. Dubbed “the ghost” by the Va La crew, Vietri claims immeasurable benefit from its temperature-leveling effect. Case in point: The Nebbiolo grape, a lover of slopes and fog, thrives at Va La. “Nebbiolo is planted all over the world and it fails everywhere. It doesn’t even work in Italy,” said Vietri. Almost disbelievingly, he confirmed, “It loves this soil, it loves [the manure-induced phantasm].”

vala anthony

Stopping occasionally to clap away thieving birds that plague his vines, Vietri expounds on the winery’s portfolio. “We essentially make four wines [Silk, Prima Donna, Cedar and Mahogany]… they’re made in different amounts, which makes it difficult because we didn’t just divide the vineyard up four ways and say, ‘OK, equal parts.’ It’s about the soils, the declination to the sun, how the vines grow… They’re separate personalities and they make four completely different wines.”

The serious, painstakingly honed wines are the primary draw at Va La, though the supporting touches shouldn’t be overlooked. Expect a cheery and knowledgeable staff with a flair for cheekiness (a once-over of the website illustrates this point). Food is a central theme and tastings are complimented by locally produced cheeses and chocolate. The Wood Fired Pizza Truck is a regular on site, with customized pies to match the wines. Overall, the apparent intention is to make the visitor feel welcome to relax with good eats, friends and the surroundings – even past closing time if there’s a sunset to ooh over or a bottle to tap. As a bonus, the winery steers busloads of bachelorette partiers – and others of that stripe – elsewhere.

Va La’s bottlings, available solely at the winery, are micro-produced – less than 750 cases annually – and made for food. I sampled them all and have chosen a couple to spotlight here. I’ll also note that my friend and I enjoyed the Cedar and Mahogany selections with our truck-fired pizza wedges, and I purchased a bottle of the latter to cellar at home – which I expect to enhance the payoff.

2009 La Prima Donna “White Label” I loved this zingy, delicious white. During fermentation, Vietri kept the skins – which are red – in the juice for about three weeks, which imbued a golden, almost orange hue he referred to as vin orange. “Makes a much more rich wine,” noted Vietri. “I grew up making whites that way…I don’t care that it’s not clear and white and all that.” This is a standout, an alive and invigorating wine that should appeal to anyone who appreciates a racier style or is looking to take a walk away from the mild side. A blend of Fruliano, Malvasia Bianco, Petit Manseng, Pinot Grigio and Viognier.

2008 Silk This barely tannic lovely is the beneficiary of a gentle process. The grapes – Barbera, Corvina, Carmine, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Nebbiolo – aren’t pressed. Rather, they’re allowed to crush under their own weight in order to minimize tannic infusion from seed and stem damage. The result is a complex wine with a rich aroma, spice and a slight, pleasant funk that will blow off with some air. Aged in stainless steel then briefly kept in oak, it’s smooth as advertised, light and nearly pink. Silk is best when slightly chilled and decanted for an hour or two. Its gentle acidity would fare well with a Thanksgiving spread, fried chicken or fish in a pan.

In spirit, Va La is about “passing it on.” It’s word of mouth, generation to generation. As the wine farmer said, “Everything’s just a constant improvement.” He bottles that notion, year over year, and the staff hand sells it, one on one, taking time to explain the off-color white and the esoteric grapes. Visitors can buy into it or not. It hardly seems to matter as demand outpaces supply. Anthony Vietri will continue to work his land, obsessing over the leaf canopy, fiddling with petite, jerry-rigged tractors and pacing the lanes between his vines. Look closely and you’ll spot him, the optimist man in black, lording over the grapes he knows are meant for Chester County.

vala vineyards

Photos via Va La’s Facebook Page