Take a drive on a weekend afternoon along the side roads that branch off north and south from U.S. Route 1 as it slices across Southern Chester County. From Glen Mills in the east to Oxford 30 miles to the west, chances are you’ll come across a winery tasting room—or signs pointing to one. Parking lots will likely be filled with customers coming to taste and buy locally produced wine. If the weather’s warm, you may even catch an outdoor concert on an estate’s patio.
In all, about 14 wineries make wine from their own grapes or those produced by localfarmers—and the selection continues to grow. Two decades ago, as the 20th century was nearing its finish line, there were only three local wineries, and two of those had yet to see if their glasses were half empty or half full.
Today, we have the luxury of debating favorites, and Chester County wines are popular at better regional restaurants. Even sommeliers from Philadelphia are making day trips into the countryside to pluck up prime local vintages, just as they look for locally produced meats, cheeses and veggies. The scene is similar to that of the San Francisco Bay Area 50 years ago, when its eateries began discovering local wines. Back then, Napa Valley was still a nobody, and West Coasters were happily drinking French and German when they dined out.
Typical now is the local optimism voiced by Brad Galer, a pharmaceuticals executive who, with his artist wife, Lele, took over Folly Hill winery behind Longwood Gardensin 2017, renaming it Galer Estate.
“We couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve built—world-class vineyards and a winery,” says Galer, citing their over 150 awards. “The most recent is a double gold at the most difficult wine competition in the U.S., the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. It’s a dream come true.”
Indeed, it seems almost quaint today that there was once a commonly held belief that premium grapes couldn’t be grown along the East Coast and that the only wine produced locally would be what the French call plonk. That doesn’t mean our region can’t make ho-hum or even bad wine. It does—largely because there’s still a market here for rustic wines, the sort of market that has virtually disappeared from the West Coast.
Over the past two decades, our region’s wineries—new and old—have begun to fall into three broad, often overlapping categories: the ones that strive to make only world-class wines; the ones that want to produce something for everyone, from classic wines to entry-level wines; and the ones that produce everyday vin de pays, which cost around (or under) $20 and are often sweet table wines and specialty bottles.
The gold standard for local wines remains Va La Vineyards, set amid the mushroom farms southeast of Avondale along Route 41. Here, owner and winemaker Anthony Vietri primarily makes four highly focused and structured field blends. Gleaned from a few dozen different, often obscure Italian varieties and clones— including Petite Manseng, Corvina Veronese and Lagrein—they’re grown on his six-acre plot, depending on how many vines are currently ripped up and awaiting replanting. Sommeliers from some of the finer Philadelphia restaurants must drive to the winery to buy his finished product. It’s the only place it’s sold.
Once an afterthought at Sweetwater Farm B&B, Grace Winery has now become the main attraction at the re-named Inn at Grace Winery. Under the tutelage of consultant John Irving Levenberg, Grace’s chardonnay, cab Franc and blends have been quite nice from the beginning. Recently, they hit a quality speed bump, but it now looks like improvements are being made—including planned replantings—to get things back on track. Like many local wineries, Grace is a popularvenue for weddings.
Galer Estate has been working toward making only estate-grown wines, primarily bordeaux reds, along with chardonnay, albarino, gruner veltliner and vidal blanc for the whites. As is becoming common, Galer has employed outside consultants and university-trained winemakers, resulting in excellent wines. If there is a caveat, it’s in the extra manipulations, like adding back sugar for a sweeter, fruitier wine with more mouth feel. As of this writing, the Galers were planning to put their winery on the market, due to Brad’s demanding travel schedule and Lele’s desire to concentrate on her art. But they’ll only sell to a buyer “willing to continue in our spirit and passion,” says Brad.
Perhaps the hardest get among local producers is a bottle from Mario Patone’s eponymous Patone Cellars, located on Route 841 near Wickerton. There’s still no sign outside the winery, and, although it is open weekends, you mayhave to pound hard on the large wooden doors to raise attention. But it’s worth the effort, as Patone now has several vintages behind him of delicious, well-crafted wines from local vineyards, especially merlot and sauvignon blanc.
Two budding wineries are also aiming high. Over the past five years, young Zachary Wilson has been working away on Wayvine northwest of Oxford on the family farm, planting 18 acres of grapes and already making some serious early vintages. He has a special touch with well-structured, flavorful whites, but he needs more experience with barrel integration for his reds.
Meanwhile, Ed and Adrienne Lazzerini are quickly developing Octoraro Cellars along Route 896 at Andrews Bridge. They’ve just opened a tasting room and released their first line of wines under the Vox Vineti label. “We’ll stay above the $20-a-bottle price point,” Ed says. “But we’ll have more options in the portfolio this year, including a sauvignon blanc.”
Penns Woods Winery makes everyday novelties like mulled wine in winter and sangria in summer. But it would be a mistake to dismiss owner Gino Razzi. An importer who produced highly rated vintages in Italy, he’s an excellent winemaker. His top wines can go glass-to-glass with anyone, and he likes to age them before release. The winery is in Eddystone, but the tasting room and vineyards are along Beaver Valley Road west of Route 202, just north of the Delaware state line. The old chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon vines have a fine heritage beginning with Trip Stocki, who planted them for his Smithbridge winery and made excellent wines here in the early 1990s, some still drinking well. Under the aegis of Razzi’s daughter, Carley, Penns Woods is also one of the most professionally run wine destinations in the area, hosting auto shows, yoga among the vines, and other events.
Pioneer Chaddsford’s early successes were fueled by chardonnay grapes grown by John Weygandt and his late wife, Alice, from vineyards they planted in 1979. In 1996, they started Stargazers Vineyard north of Unionville. In the years since, Stargazers has become known for its low-key table wines and light sparkling wines, the only bubbly made in the region. Along the way, the Weygandts have briefly taken on partners, but none of these ventures lasted. The somewhat remote tasting room is an ideal destination, like something one would stumble across in central France.
Located on an old hillside farm along Indiantown Road just outside of White Clay Creek Preserve, Borderland Vineyard has had an unfortunate run-in with tragedy. Senior siblings Kurt and Karen Kalb decided to plant vines and make wines on the family farm. Both died tragically—Karen of cancer just after the winery opened and Kurt in a freak accident last year. A cousin is now running the operation. Though Paradocx winemaker Gabriel Pedro Rubilar has been consulting winemaker, the results have been uneven—some quite promising wines, some ordinary.
Landenberg’s newest and fourth winery, 1723 Vineyards is located along route 896 in the village of Kemblesville. Although it just opened this spring, a taste of its first, still-unlabeled merlot foretells a good future. The owners,cyber-security expert Ben Cody and paralegal Sarah Daily Cody, both come from fourth-generation farm families—Ben’s in Oklahoma, Sarah’s in Indiana. While there’s no ostentation at 1723, the Codys aren’t scrimping. “I can farm with anybody,” says Ben, who’s nonetheless humble about his winemaking prowess.
In spite of some good high-end bottles, the passion seems to be fading at Paradocx Vineyard founded over a dozen years ago by two couples, all physicians. Although it’s still commercially run, with 30 acres of vines and multiple outlets (permitted for Pennsylvania farm wineries), the majority of its wines could use more character and finesse.
Chaddsford Winery is the granddaddy of the region, founded in 1982 by ex-owners Lee and Eric Miller. Eric is an excellent winemaker, and Lee an excellent marketer, so the winery thrived as a destination for good wine and good fun. Eric’s wines—his chardonnays in particular—were superb and primarily responsible for showing the region’s potential. He also made wines for every palate, including sweets and seasonal fruits. When the Millers retired a few years ago, the quality wines were dropped, and the grapes or apples started coming from elsewhere. There’s been a recent attempt to renew a quality line, but the results are still iffy.
Another legacy winery, Kreutz Creek Vineyards can be found in Wickerton, south of West Grove. Jim and Carol Kirkpatrick’s wines are easy drinking and quite quaffable, but they haven’t evolved from early vintages to become more challenging. And after a promising start, Black Walnut Winery, located along Route 30 west of Coatesville, has settled in with a line of wines that provides little inspiration.
But there’s plenty of inspiration to be had at the 10 or so wineries capable of some serious reds and whites. Our region seems well positioned to expand its repertoire and reputation in the coming years.