When Peggy Raley-Ward first planted grapevines in 1987 on her father’s farm outside of Lewes, it was still not possible to have a farm winery in Delaware that made wine and then sold it directly to consumers. At the time, all wines—local or otherwise— had to be sold through a retail wine store.
But Raley-Ward successfully lobbied the state legislature to correct that oversight and launched her Nassau Valley Vineyards in 1993 with the ’91 vintage, using the mature grapes she had planted four years earlier.
“Eric and Lee Miller of Chaddsford Winery were extremely helpful in getting me started,” she says of the founders of that pioneer Pennsylvania winery.
But unlike the area around the Millers’ winery in Chester County—where a dozen or so wineries have opened and flourished within minutes of the Delaware border—for a decade Raley-Ward’s Nassau Valley was the only Delaware winery to take root.
And nearby Maryland has also had a boom in new wineries with 12 on the Eastern Shore alone. Their quality varies widely.
Two new Delaware wineries have joined Nassau Valley since the turn of the century —Fenwick Wine Cellars in Selbyville and Pizzadili Vineyard and Winery in Felton—but neither has yet achieved the status of premium wine producer that Nassau Valley has enjoyed for almost 20 years.
Raley-Ward farms seven acres of vinifera, or classical European grapes, while buying hybrid French-American grapes from growers locally and elsewhere, including Virginia. Like the Millers of Chaddsford Winery, Raley-Ward has the marketing strategy of producing higher-price premium wines while also offering slightly sweeter wines as well as fruit wines. In other words, make something for almost every taste. Regardless of their levels of sophistication, all are made well by the current winemaker, Mike Reese.
The tasting menu for Nassau Valley wines ranges from $13 for a lightly sweet Meadow’s Edge, a blend of Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc, to $30 for Indian River Red, a well-balanced blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon aged in oak.
“I had wanted to have a Riesling,” Raley-Ward says, “but it doesn’t grow well here, and the Meadow’s Edge fills that niche.”
As far as the classical vinifera wines are concerned, she likes to tell the story about being one of several American wines invited to participate in an event held by the French government and afterward being told by a French dignitary, “Thank you for making a wine that the French understand.”
And the Nassau Valley wines are French in style, partly as a result of wine making techniques, but also because of the wetter, cooler East Coast climate that most resembles that of France. California wineries, by contrast, utilize the state’s heat and sun to make bigger, fruitier wines.
Nassau Valley, just off of Del. 1 north of Lewes, is open year-round for free tastings and self-guided tours. It boasts special facilities for events, included the ever-popular weddings in the vines.
But, as with her wines, Raley-Ward believes in a balanced story. “We’ve also hosted one divorce party,” she says.