The email message was simple. It made me smile. Still does. The note was a response to an inquiry – my request to visit a Chester County winery I’d heard the good word on, repeatedly. It was 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 liked this winemaker. It was what he didn’t say in those three sentences. This guy was no absentee owner with a gilded checkbook. He was about action and the dirt.
I was thankful to find that, in person, Anthony Vietri was willing to talk about himself, his family and his history with the farm-vineyard tucked into a residential area of Avondale. He appeared 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 offered 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 walked amongst ranks of grapes and recalled the multiple generations of family who worked the farm, purchased in 1928, after immigrating from the tiny Italian village called Giusvalla. 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.
Many years on, Vietri came to the farm via celluloid. The transition says a lot about his conviction, sense of purpose and loyalty. He attended NYU’s film school in the Eighties and worked in the movie business with the likes of Bruce Willis before walking away, no looking back.
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 said 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 Petit Manseng. More than a couple staffers touted the terroir of the site that draws from the mineral riches and microclimates 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. It’s dubbed “the ghost” by the Va La crew and Vietri claims immeasurable benefit from its temperature-leveling effect. Case in point: The Nebiolo grape, a lover of slopes and fog, thrives at Va La. “Nebiolo 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).”
Stopping occasionally to clap away thieving birds that plague his vines, Vietri expounded on the winery’s portfolio. “We essentially make four wines [Silk, Prima Donna, Cedar and Mahogany]…and they’re made in different amounts which makes it difficult because we didn’t just divide the vineyard up four ways and said, ‘OK, equal parts.’ It’s about the soils, the declination to the sun, how the vines grow…They’re just 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 Tocai, 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.
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Contact Jeff Alexander at [email protected] / On Twitter: http://twitter.com/mainlinevine