RIPENING The regions wines, and wineries, are coming of age.

Posted: November 25, 2007

The distinguished Italian man's words have become such a part of the lore of Va La wines that they are printed on every bottle:

"No grapes can grow in Avondale," pronounced Giuseppe Toto, a local mushroom grower, who had pulled up in his white Cadillac just after his neighbors' Chester County vineyard had been planted. "You people crazy!"

Eight years later, with virtually every bottle of his high-end wine sold, owner Anthony Vietri remembers that day with a smile.

"To go somewhere that's so looked down on [for wine], and make a name for yourself, that's a turn-on for me," says Vietri.

Local winemaking, long dismissed as underwhelming, is entering a new era with ambitious vintners like Vietri, who represent not only dramatic growth in the regional industry but a surprising step up in quality and respect.

Aided by new technologies to maximize harvests on limited acreage, better European vine stock for our climate, and a promised bump in Pennsylvania marketing money, the industry is also gaining momentum as a profitable way to preserve small family farms.

With a growing national interest in both wine and all foods local, the timing of the surge makes sense.

In Pennsylvania, the number of wineries has nearly tripled since 1999, from 42 to 115, says Mark Chien of the Penn State Cooperative Extension. At least four more are on track to open next year in the Philadelphia region, adding to the 48 established in the southeast part of the state.

South Jersey's winemakers also inched toward legitimacy in March by winning federal American Viticultural Area designation for the "Outer Coastal Plain," which covers 16 wineries in the southern half of the state. Not unlike a French appellation controlee, AVA designation has also been granted to Napa and Sonoma, among other regions.

No doubt, much of the local wine is still plonk, crushed from American hybrid grapes like sweet Niagara or chambourcin. Casino-bound tourists still buy bottles of insipid blueberry "champagne" and treacly Pink Lady by the busload on their way to Atlantic City. And most of Pennsylvania's grapes - 12,000 of 13,000 acres - are still used to make Welch's jelly, Chien says.

But an increasing number of classic vinifera grapes indigenous to Europe, including cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and chardonnay, have shown serious potential here. And experimental winemakers are in hot pursuit of other grapes to unlock the mystery of our region's "terroir," with its cool climate, relatively short growing season, and humidity that constantly threatens rot.

"You are not going to find a big, fat, low-acid California-style cabernet here," Chien says, "but we can make a refined and elegant Bordeaux-style wine."

Crossing Vineyards, a five-year-old Bucks County winery, has won high marks for its chardonnay, which is served at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City.

Local pioneer Chaddsford, in its 25th year and the state's largest winery, is making a few more impressive high-end reserve bottlings, including an intriguing Italian blend called Due Rossi that Vetri co-owner Jeff Benjamin says "is right up there with some of the best barberas I've tasted from California."

Of course, the relatively steep price of producing good dry wine on the East Coast - due to the cost of real estate and the economies of scale - can dampen the enthusiasm. Due Rossi costs $29.99 a bottle.

But when the wines are good enough, boutique wineries like the seven-acre Va La, which produces barely 1,500 cases a year of bottles costing $20 to $40, have found an audience.

Tom Petro, president of Fox Chase Bank and a collector who has a cellar of 3,000 bottles, was impressed enough by Va La's wine to present 140 bank customers with bottles of Il Rustico, a Rhone-style red made from carmine.

"To be honest, we first went to Va La with fairly low expectations," Petro says. "A lot of Pennsylvania wines are OK, but they lack a depth of character. These wines were not like anything we expected from Chester County."

He says his cellar now holds a case of every wine Vietri makes.

Iconoclast in the field

Dressed in a rubber winemaker's smock and a weather-stained fedora, Anthony Vietri moves briskly through the narrow rows of barbera.

The bottom leaves have turned golden, a visual clue to their ripe senescence. So he tests the tenderness of the grapes between his fingers, then tastes their purple flesh for the perfect balance of juicy sweetness, acidity and spice. It was a good hot summer, with just the right spritz of rain. They are ready to be picked, he notes in mid-October.

Vietri, 45, is clearly something of an iconoclast among local winemakers. He grows more than 30 varieties of largely Italian grapes (inspired by his family's Piedmont heritage) for signature blends that are less familiar than Bordeaux grapes. He makes no sweet, inexpensive starter wines - a core of safe sales for even the state's better winemakers. He doesn't do self-promotional competitions. And his "dream" is to see his wines on BYO tables at authentic Mexican taquerias in nearby Kennett Square.

His winemaking techniques, some of them unconventional, are inspired by childhood experiences making wine on this farm as a hobby with his great-grandfather Matteo Carozzo and great-uncle Harry Carozzo. But he is largely self-taught.

Vietri abandoned a frustrating film-writing career at 35 to convert his grandparents' long-fallow mushroom farm into Va La: "Here, I get to write, produce and direct," he says. "I put it in a bottle on the counter of our tasting room, and people will dig it or not. I can live with that."

Much of Vietri's story is shared, though, by many of his new colleagues in the region - in particular, the discovery that winemaking has become a viable way to keep small farms in agriculture.

The Carroll family's 20-acre plot at Crossing Vineyards, carved from what was a 160-acre dairy farm near Washington Crossing, is an island of vines ringed by McMansions. The Patrono and Hauser families broke ground this fall on a $2 million winery near Gettysburg - Hauser Estate - in response to the sagging market for their orchard's apples. In 2000 in Landisville, N.J., Jim Quarella converted 30 acres of exotic Asian vegetables at his fourth-generation farm into the Bellview Winery.

"It's a whole lot more fun talking to customers about wine than talking to vegetable wholesalers," says Quarella's son, Lee. "We're a destination now."

The draw of agritourism isn't lost on the Pennsylvania Winery Association, which hopes to double the state industry's estimated $615 million annual impact by 2012 with a new $2 million fund for education, research and promotion.

Chaddsford Winery draws 50,000 visitors a year to its tasting room, owner Eric Miller says. After moving to Chadds Ford from his father's winery in New York, he became one of the first in Pennsylvania to attempt serious wines from vinifera grapes - as well as lighter-hearted wines, such as Niagara and Sangri-La Sangria, to pay the bills. Chaddsford spent $75,000 last year, he says, on research and development.

Four years ago, when he saw several wineries opening nearby, Miller invited representatives of all of them to dinner at his home: "I told them, 'We can slug this out, or we can work together.' "

Within a month, the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail was established. And those in the new generation of winemakers almost unanimously credit Chaddsford as the pioneer that made winemaking in Southeast Pennsylvania seem feasible.

"It's nice to have an iconic winery to anchor to this region," Vietri says.

Whether local winemakers can agree on an iconic grape or style - like pinot noir in Oregon or Riesling in New York's Finger Lakes - is less likely.

Red or white?

On the whole, Pennsylvania's white wines, including chardonnay, viognier and vidal blanc, have been more successful than its reds, which, with a few exceptions, have tended to lack depth and balance.

In the slightly warmer microclimate of New Jersey's Outer Coastal Plain, vinifera veterans such as Frank Salek at Sylvin Farms in Atlantic County and Louis Caracciolo at Amalthea Vineyards in Atco have gotten more intensity and polish from Bordeaux reds. Amalthea's 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, in fact, bested Napa Valley's Stags' Leap and a young Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in a recent blind tasting.

Lucie Morton, a Virginia-based vineyard consultant known as "the vine whisperer," is working with several upstart local wineries and expects the quality of Pennsylvania reds to improve dramatically in the next few years.

The introduction of European clones better suited to our cool climate (compared with previously planted California stock), along with denser vineyard planting, she says, are producing reds just going to barrel that have a "roundness and elegance I'm excited about."

Chaddsford's Miller, who has experimented with dozens of grapes, says he believes that barbera, a Northern Italian red used in his Due Rossi, is particularly well-suited to the climate of the Brandywine Valley, where the growing season is short but grapes ripen 24 hours a day.

Barbera has consistently been one of the best wines at Va La. It is also at the core of a plush and powerfully intriguing blend called Mahogany, which is to be bottled for the first time in March and which Vietri says is the culmination of his efforts in the vineyard.

Morton and Penn State's Chien are dubious that a lesser-known Italian grape has much marketing potential compared with the more familiar French wines. But Vietri has heard the doubters before, and his winery is so small anyway, "we can just do stuff that appeals to us."

"We want to make wines from this site that taste like a certain piece of dirt at a certain place in time," he says. "Something different."

And - contrary to Giuseppe Toto's prediction - the grapes are growing in Avondale now, quite nicely.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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