Having their way with wines

Nicholas and Athena Karabots with a bottle of their award-winning 2008 Meritage in the barrel room of their winery. There are 17 acres in vinifera vines - chardonnay, petit verdot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot - at Karamoor Farm.
Nicholas and Athena Karabots with a bottle of their award-winning 2008 Meritage in the barrel room of their winery. There are 17 acres in vinifera vines - chardonnay, petit verdot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot - at Karamoor Farm. (ED HILLE/ Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 12, 2013

The Wissahickon Valley spreads out like a rumpled quilt beneath the feet of Nicholas and Athena Karabots at their Karamoor Farm in Whitemarsh Township.

Nick Karabots made his considerable fortune in a variety of printing, media, and real estate businesses, and the couple are noted philanthropists, giving millions mainly to help inner-city children.

But Karamoor Farm, on about 240 acres bordering Skippack Pike, has never been about producing cash crops. "I like beautiful landscapes," he said simply last week, as the sun set behind a thick stand of trees at the edge of a field that has been farmed at least since the 18th century. Sheep graze in the meadow, swans drift in the pond.

"Here we were, doing all these crops and losing money hand over fist," Karabots said. "I decided that there aren't many good real Pennsylvania wines. Why not do a good Pennsylvania wine that effectively will mirror the European mode - the dry wines?"

Last week - less than 10 years after the Karabotses first hired a viticulturist, five years after the first crop was harvested, and less than a year after the first wines went to market - Karamoor's 2008 Meritage won the Double Gold, the overall top prize, at the 17th annual Farm Show Wine Competition at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, a more prestigious ranking with the number of state wineries growing to more than 100 in recent years.

The 2008 Meritage - a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc - also was awarded best vinifera and dry grape.

Not bad for their first competition.

"We can tell a bad wine from a good wine," Athena Karabots said. "But we are by no means experts," Nick Karabots added. "We know what we like," said Athena Karabots. "She's good at it," he said. (After 57 years of marriage, they complete each other's thoughts.) The couple have final say over the wines but leave the tough stuff to the experts.

Karamoor's oeuvre is a collection of voluptuous, Bordeaux-style cabernet francs, merlots, chardonnays, and the like. No fruit wines, no sweet wines.

Karamoor wines are sold in some Pennsylvania State Stores ($26.99 for the cabernet franc and merlot, $28.99 for the Meritage) and, through a marketing push led by the Karabotses' granddaughter Alecia Duloc and associate Victor Ykoruk, are served in a growing number of restaurants. The 2010 chardonnay is the house white and the 2010 petit verdot is the house red at Marc Vetri's bar, Alla Spina.

"The care and expertise they put into the project show," said Vetri, who runs four restaurants in the city with his business partner, Jeff Benjamin. He said the quality "rivals those of many of the other domestic wineries we feature."

"If you're going to do it, do it right," Nick Karabots said.

Karamoor has 17 acres in vines - all with vinifera grapes (chardonnay, petit verdot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot). This year, under new winemaker Kevin Robinson, 10 more acres will be planted with sauvignon blanc, viognier, more chardonnay, and more merlot.

For its first crops, Karamoor sent its grapes to Allegro Winery in York County for production. Since Nick Karabots owns a liquor license at his Jericho National Golf Club in Bucks County, he was unable to secure a state winery license until the law was changed. Karamoor obtained its limited license in May 2012, and one of its first hires was Robinson, a veteran California winemaker who last spent a decade developing and running Brassfield Estate in Lake County.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be going to Pennsylvania to be making wine," said Robinson, who answered an ad and was impressed by Karamoor's state-of-the-art grape-sorting equipment. "We want to set the bar high for this industry, and Mr. Karabots is behind us all the way," Robinson said.

And never in anyone's wildest dreams when Nick Karabots was a rough-and-tumble kid growing up in the South Bronx would vigneron be a career guess - much less businessman.

His father, a Greek immigrant, lost his restaurant in the Depression and the family scraped by. In 1942, at age 9, Nick built himself a shoeshine box and went down to Union Square. His day's take was $2, and his mother took $1.90 of it.

He learned the printing trade and got married in 1955. The couple moved to Southeastern Pennsylvania in the late 1950s when he landed a job with Polychrome, a manufacturer of printing supplies. In the 1960s, he began buying businesses, including Phota Inc., which made photographic chemicals used in the development of X-ray films and, with a partner, imported Fuji film. Today, he runs Kappa Media Group Inc.

The couple started acquiring the farmland in 1980. The name Karamoor is a portmanteau of their surname and Oxmoor, one of the parcels' previous names. Nick Karabots said Karamoor can be translated into Hara mou, which in Greek means "my happiness."

The Karabotses are rookies in a field in which a winery's success is determined by its ability to break even. That will happen, Nick Karabots said, when Karamoor's output reaches the equivalent of 70,000 bottles - or about 14,000 gallons. It can now produce about 6,600 gallons a year.

Winemaking for them is not about the money. The couple have been giving away bunches of it lately - $10 million to the Franklin Institute, $7.5 million to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, $4.5 million to the William Jeanes Memorial Library, which their three daughters frequented years ago when they lived in Lafayette Hill, and a grant to the College of Physicians for the Karabots Junior Fellows Program, which supports the development of high school students into health-science professionals. They also helped the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquire a set of early Renaissance armor and contributed $7 million to keep Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic in Philadelphia by forestalling its purchase.

"Maybe I'm naive," said Nick Karabots, who turns 80 this year, "but I believe that opening a young person's eyes can give him a better life."

The Karabotses plan to open what he described as a mini-mall, including a Karamoor wine shop, bread bakery, and Mediterranean food store, on the Butler Pike side of the estate. They have no plans to offer admission to the property.


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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