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Wines and Wineries in Delaware

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Just a few minutes from U.S. 13, on the quaintly named Peach Basket Road, rests a rural oasis with rolling lawns, trees, a rose trellis and fire engine-red buildings. Ducks and geese paddle across a pond punctuated with a fountain, and guests watch the lazy action from the gazebo. They head back to the main building for a glass of wine—or two or three. And that’s part of the plan.

This is Pizzadili Vineyard and Winery in Felton. The dream of brothers Pete and Tony Pizzadili, the operation opened in 2004, making it Delaware’s second winery.

A new winery was a long time coming for the First State. Nassau Valley Vineyards, Delaware’s first winery, opened in 1993. “Wineries have been popular in other states for years—you needn’t look much farther than Virginia,” says Cindy Small, executive director of the Kent County & Greater Dover Delaware Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But Delaware has been behind the curve.”

That’s changing. Today, the state can also tout Fenwick Wine Cellars, which debuted in 2010. Harvest Ridge Winery in Marydel was scheduled to break ground on a production facility in October. Like Pizzadili and Nassau Valley, it offers spots where you can sip, savor the view and experience the local scene.

Indeed, the interest in local products is helping fuel the trend. Upscale tourists don’t want to visit Walmart or chains, Small notes. “You want to experience the local culture.” Recognizing that sentiment, the Delaware Tourism Office debuted the Delaware Wine & Ale Trail, a self-guided tour of 12 wineries and breweries. Since May, the revamped Web site has experienced 36,1240 hits. (Visit eight sites, log the information on a downloadable passport and you get a free glass or tankard.)

The sites offer a slice of area culture along with a glass of wine. Pizzadili Vineyard, a stop on the trail, began as a catering venue for Pizzadili Deli. Brothers Tony and Pete grew up around winemakers near Florence, Italy, and they helped their father, Salvatore, make wine. In 1956, Salvatore left a country still recovering from World War II to come to Delaware. “He wanted to give us a better life,” Pete Pizzadili says.

The U.S. government demanded that immigrants have a sponsor and a job. So the family worked at a deli owned by Salvatore’s brother in Felton.

The brothers bought property for the winery in 1992 and planted grapes. The rest of the winery developed slowly. “We weren’t in any rush,” Pizzadili says. “We took our time.”

Pete Pizzadili relaxes in his winery’s Bacchus Cave. Photo by Ron DubickThey added a gazebo for ceremonies and a pavilion for receptions of up to 400. Bacchus Cave, which seats 35, is located off the tasting room, where guests can sample such offerings as “Brothers’ Table Wine.” The dry red is now a bittersweet tribute. Tony passed away in 2010. “He was a major part of this,” says Pizzadili, who is still visibly shaken by his brother’s death.

The landscape and local wines make Pizzadili a popular tourist stop and a party place. Pizzadili gives credit to Peggy Raley-Ward of Nassau Valley for paving the way. “She is the one who laid the groundwork,” he says. “We are following in her footsteps.”

It was 1987 when Raley-Ward planted grapes on the land her father owned outside Lewes. At the time, Delaware prohibited wineries. “I had to lobby to change the law so I could open,” she says. The Legislature saw her side in 1991, and she opened in 1993. Situated in a pastoral section just off Del. 1, the winery has developed a reputation for quality products. As of August, Nassau Valley had snagged 17 medals in wine competitions just this year.

Nassau Valley, in turn, benefitted from Chaddsford Winery in Chadds Ford, Pa., cofounded by Lee and Eric Miller in 1982. The Millers initially were met with skepticism. “No one ever heard of making wine here,” Lee Miller says. It was “still a joke” laden with prejudice. Only French and Italians made fine wine. “You can’t make wine here, nobody will drink it,” people told them.

Anthony and Karen Vietri, who planted grapes on the family farm in Avondale, Pa., in 1999, faced similar challenges. “There was a negative reputation for East Coast wines,” Anthony Vietri says. “The was no national recognition, no real distribution opportunities, no restaurant support. This climate forced us to develop a business model that could educate and overcome these obstacles.”

Both wineries have become successful. Va La, which primarily focuses on northern Italian varietal blends, is praised for its esoteric creations, and Chaddsford in 2011 produced 30,000 cases of wine. The Millers this year stepped out of daily operations and sold their shares to their partner, Carl Petrillo in New York, who seeks to expand the brand along the East Coast.

Meanwhile, Chaddsford Winery has gotten some company. In 2003, Carole and Jim Fitzpatrick launched Kreutz Creek Vineyard in West Grove. Two couples, all of whom are doctors, joined forces to plant grapes on the farm they purchased in 1994, and Pardocx Vineyard was born. They built a winery in 2006. Also that year, Gino Razzi, a wine importer for 40 years, opened Penns Wood Winery in Chadds Ford. In 2011, Galer Estate Vineyard & Winery opened a tasting room in Kennett Square.

All the wineries are family affairs, and it’s no different in Delaware. Adrian Mobilia and his wife, Shannon Reilly-Mobilia, own Fenwick Wine Cellars. Mobilia grew up on a fruit farm in Erie, Pa., which sells grapes to wineries.

Delaware’s new kid on the block, Harvest Ridge Winery, is a father-and-son effort. Chuck and Chip Nunan last year planted five acres on land they’d purchased about eight years ago. They planted an additional 2½ acres this year. It might seem like an odd endeavor for the men, who also own SERVPRO franchises. Chuck Nunan, however, has made wine as a hobby for more than 15 years. “So we came up with the 300-year project, as my dad calls the winery,” Chip Nunan says.

Chaddsford Winery winemaker Jim Osborn. Photo by Ron Dubick

Grapes include Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec, Chambourcin, Landot Noir—reportedly good in the Northeast climate — and Cabernet Sauvignon.

A glance at area wineries’ labels shows that certain grapes must grow well in this region. You’ll see a lot of Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid. Vidal Blanc, a cross of white grapes, grows well in cool weather. There’s also a lot of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The North American Niagara and Concord grapes pop up, perhaps because many customers favor approachable wines. Along with using grapes, most wineries make wines with fruit to appeal to customers with a sweet tooth. “Our most popular wine is strawberry,” Pizzadili says.

It’s not unusual for wineries to purchase grape juice, especially during startup. Until its fruit grows in earnest, Harvest Ridge will buy grapes and a third party will make the wine under the Nunans’ specifications.

Va La, however, never buys grapes from other states, Vietri says. Pizzadili also sticks to its own harvest. “We are proud to say that we only sell wine from grapes we grow,” Pizzadili says.

Although the wine industry has been in the region for more than 20 years, that’s just a blip when you compare it with the industries in France, Germany, Italy—even California. “True grape knowledge is lacking in this area,” Rizzo of Penns Wood Winery says. “There’s no written history. We’re finding out as we go along.”

But with age comes wisdom, says Pizzadili. “As we’re getting older, we’re making better wine.” 

 

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