Well-bundled against the 30-degree chill and ready for a day’s work, Anthony Vietri emerges from the pre-dawn darkness through the small orchard that separates his family farmhouse from the glow of the parking lot. His signature working fedora traded for a hoodie, Vietri pauses, turns around and gives a sharp whistle. Suddenly, his calico cat comes out of the shadows and into view. “Cali must have gotten distracted by a mouse or something,” he laughs. “She’s usually on my heels.”
Vietri unlocks a door to what had once been his grandparents’ barn and lets himself into a room full of oak barrels, steel tanks and the welcoming aromas of young wine in the making. Grape harvesting typically happens between August and October in this part of the country, but winemaking doesn’t pause for seasons. Here inside the barrel room, winter is a quiet time mainly interrupted only by the need for occasional racking to remove unwanted sediment that’s drifted down to the sides of the barrels.
Outside, rows of dormant grape vines draped over cordon wires need pruning. It’s reset time in the vineyard. Everything that can be done in preparation for the 2021 vintage at Avondale’s Va La Vineyards begins in the early light of January. “Actually, I kind of look forward to pruning every year,” says the 58-year-old Vietri.
And that’s comforting, because he’s been doing it for now for more than 20 years. In France, “vintner” is a term used to describe someone like Vietri, a solitary grower who works a small farm with its few acres of vines while also making the wine—perhaps only with family help or that of a hired hand. Among the about two dozen Chester County winery owners, no one is more devoted to his craft than Vietri. His mother’s family had previously owned this small hillside farm along Route 41, just outside Avondale’s east end.
They came from wine country in northern Italy, and Vietri himself began making a homemade version with an uncle as a teenager. Back then, he used grapes picked in California and sent east by refrigerated railroad cars for mainly Italian-American winemakers in Philadelphia and Chester County.
After years of working as a writer in the film industry, the University of Delaware grad and his wife, Karen (now a teacher), opened Va La Vineyards on the family farm, with the first wines coming from the 2001 and 2000 vintages. About the same time the winery was opened, the Vietris had a daughter, Sofia, now a student at Elon University in North Carolina.
During those almost 20 years, Va La has gained a strong following of fans, including restaurant owners and sommeliers at some of the Philadelphia regions’s best dining spots. They’re eager to purchase his cases of red, white and rosato blends. Vietri makes less than a thousand cases annually from almost seven acres of severely cropped vines. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan calls Vietri’s wines “some of the most unconventional and refined bottles of East Coast vino that I’ve tasted.” According to cookbook author and former Saveur editor Colman Andrews, “Anthony Vietri is one of the more original winemakers in America.”
Although Vietri seldom strays from Avondale and what he calls “the little vineyard,” he has vast professional contacts around the world.
Unlike many of the lush, fruit-forward wines of California, Vietri’s are more in the Italian or French style, with elegant, intense, restrained fruitiness, a disciplined textural structure, and a long, crisp finish with sufficient but not overwhelming acidity. They’re the kind of wines that, for centuries, have been made to take to the dinner table.
Alberto Acuña, Vietri’s assistant of several years, comes into the winery a few minutes after Vietri, and the two go over the day’s plan. Acuña will work on pruning the more forgiving pinot grigio vines, while Vietri will focus on the pride of the winery—the truculent yet rewarding nebbiolo. “They’re in their 23rd leaf (years of growth),” Vietri says. “These old guys take longer to prune, so I have to give them four minutes a vine.”
If it seems like Vietri is being fastidious with his minutes, he is. “I have a goal date of when I first have to weed the vine rows in the spring so I don’t have to use a herbicide,” he says.
His meeting over, Vietri goes back outside and opens another door, puts on a tool belt and knee pads, and sharpens his pruning shears. By 7:15 a.m., he’s ready to begin a new row of pruning. In the adjacent row he’d worked the previous day, there are small piles of vine clippings that will eventually be removed. “The first thing I look for is praying mantis nests, which I take off and then put back out in the spring,” he says.
In addition to that beneficial insect, he also looks for an unwelcome one—the spotted lanternfly, a recent arrival from China that has quickly spread from Berks County, where it was first noticed a few years ago attacking a variety of regional crops. Those nests are destroyed.
Vietri addresses the first vine. “I’m looking for two canes—one to tie down on the wire and the other to grow straight up,” he explains, glancing at the dormant branches. “An early frost would kill the one closer to the ground, but probably not the one growing straight up. That one is my insurance policy.”
Vietri is through in under four minutes, and the 23-year-old vine looks like it’s just received a winter shave and a haircut.
In some ways, being a winemaker is not that dissimilar from being a football coach. After the season is over, each first assesses what went wrong the previous year. For a winemaker, it’s frost, diseases, and predators large and small. During a pause in October 2020’s harvest, I joined Vietri as he cataloged an array of problems that resulted in too few grapes for that vintage. Regardless, a locally assembled picking crew would be coming through later that October morning to find what they could.
Like other businesses in 2020, Vietri had to cut back the hours guests could enjoy wine on Va La’s back patio and lawn at widely separated tables. The tasting room closed when the pandemic hit in March. “The birds this year have just been ravenous,” noted Vietri as he walked through the rows of vines, some with only a few grapes left per bunch.
In some ways, being a winemaker is not that dissimilar from being a football coach. After the season is over, each first assesses what went wrong the previous year. For a winemaker, it’s frost, diseases, and predators large and small.
The usual netting couldn’t totally stop the damage. “They’d come down in flocks, and they just wouldn’t be scared away,” he says.
The vineyard itself begins near the highway, climbs up a gentle hill, then spreads out behind the winery across the breadth of the property, which is perhaps 200 yards wide. The vines then goes back over the crest and continue for a short distance. Vietri has portioned off the property into four parts according to soil types. He makes a wine blended from the vines growing in each section, occasionally producing an additional vintage.
The La Prima Donna is an amber-colored white wine blend of tocai, malvasia bianca, fiano, pinot grigio and petit manseng grapes grown in the stony soils that make up the southeast area of the field. Silk is a dry rosato or rosé made from the corvina veronese, barbera, nebbiolo, carmine and petit verdot grapes from the eastern slopes of the hill.
Among Va La fans, there are frequent arguments as to which is the best red wine made at the winery: Mahogany or Cedar? The former comes from malvasia nera, barbera, sagrantino, carmine, lagrein, charbono, teroldego and petit verdot grapes grown in the black mushroom soils of the center area of the hill. Cedar, meanwhile, is a blend of nine nebbiolo clones that come from the red earth of the field’s western edge. At any one time, Vietri has dozens of different varieties and clones.
Although Vietri seldom strays from Avondale and what he calls “the little vineyard,” he has vast professional contacts around the world. When it comes to accessing a new variety or a new clone, he calls on the research experts at the fabled University of California, Davis, who often find a new prospect in their massive list of vines kept in quarantine, waiting to be proven disease-free.
Although he’s not a certified organic farmer, Vietri tries to control weeds by mechanical methods. During the summer, he frequently dons his “space suit” and mounts a tractor to spray approved organic compounds to control mildew. It’s the bane of humid Eastern American vineyards, among other diseases of the vine. A rabid baseball fan, Vietri loves analytics. He keeps meticulous records, whether it’s the weather or when vines go through the maturation process of bud break, flowering and fruit set. For the reds, it’s veraison—or color change.
In the end, Vietri’s aim is to accurately translate into wine what the vineyard soils and multiple vines give him. “For me, I really see it as farming,” he says late one evening after a long, cold day of pruning. “I try to take whatever wonderful things that were in this little field that year and put it into the bottles.”
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