By Richard L. Gaw
Within the framework of a hot afternoon spent at the Borderland Vineyard in Landenberg, one accentuated by a social gathering of live music, grilled food specialties and wine lovers, images as rich as the soil the nearby grapes were flourishing in popped into focus, one by one.
There were the sweat-embossed hands and arms of winemaker Kurt Kalb, who paused every so often to wipe his brow and marvel at the well-dressed patrons who were enjoying, literally, the fruits of his labor, from the ice-cold, unsoaked Chardonnay to the oaky merlots, to the dry Leaping Sheep Riesling. There were the conversations Kurt's sister Karen Anderson had with guests in the wine-colored wooden Adirondack chairs that overlooked a distant vista lined with row after row of vines, and beyond that, the rural Landenberg countryside. There was the fellowship of friends who tucked into roasted clams, herb goat cheese shooters and portabella sliders. There were bottles on display: seven varietals of whites and reds, sipped and tasted and purchased.
In looking at the big picture of Borderland, any one of these images could easily serve as the postcard of the newest member of the Brandywine Wine Trail, but perhaps the most lasting image would be of someone who, because of the hot weather, was not present at the party.
In between meeting and greeting, Anderson waved a deferential hand around the 25-acre, rural acreage of the Kalb farm, and said that the entirety of the dream she had with her brother Kurt – one that involved converting more than two acres of it into a working vineyard of several varietals – would not have been possible without their 91-year-old mother, Janet.
“If she had not dedicated herself to keeping this property whole, and hung onto it for years, we would not be in a position to do this without her blessing and support,” said Anderson, who grew up on the farm but now lives in Rochester, N.Y. “I used to call her The Landenbaglady. She held onto the property when it was the only asset she rally had, but look at what she's been able to allow us to do.”
As any winemaker will readily admit, the wine tastings and wine-pairings dinners with men and women dressed in elaborate hats beneath canopy tents may be the sexy side of the occupation, but that encompasses just a sliver of what it means to grow wine. For Kurt, who first cultivated the vineyard in 2006 and began planting vines in 2009, was given the inspiration to create his own farm from his own interest in learning about wines from Italy, France and Australia.
“I was an archeologist for 25 years, and was approaching retirement, and I didn't want to sit around watching television,” he said. “I grew up here. It's a beautiful place to work. I'm interested in setting goals and working toward achieving them, and I don't think one should be growing grapes unless you're willing to do that.”
In just five short years, Borderland has been able to produce its 2011 and 2012 unoaked Chardonnay ($20 and $24), which offers a wide range of floral notes and fruity flavor; the dryness of its 2011 Sheared Sheep Blush ($18); the soft Merlot taste of its 2011 Preminee ($24); 2011 and 2012 Merlot, aged five months in French oak ($26 and $28); and its 2012 Leaping Sheep Riesling, which offers a dry, crisp taste (limited supply, by glass only).
Borderland’s evolution from forgotten pasture to working vineyard has not gone unnoticed by its neighbors. Lauren and Bobby Rickard have lived on the other side of the Kalb farm for more than 20 years. For several of them, due to the overgrown weeds, they would not be able to see the house.
“We've seen the property totally change,” Lauren said. “When Kurt began working on this property, it was so overgrown, we didn't think he had a chance. We thought it would all grow back, but he's a die hard in terms of the time he's put in and the vision he has. The joy for us is knowing how much Kurt and Karen's mother wanted to conserve the land but didn't have the means to do it, and now we get to see her children make that dream happen.”
For as many dedicated followers of the Brandywine Wine Trail, it is said that there may be just as many pessimists, who claim that the quality of local wines don't come within the length of a thousand vineyards to the taste of a French Bordeaux, a California Chardonnay, or a Washington Riesling. Some say it's the quality of the soil and the temperance of the seasonal effect on the grapes; others simply remain tied to the world's more eloquent wine regions. For Tiiu Lutter of Kennett Square, she has and will remain a self-confessed “wine snob,” but said there are several wines along the Brandywine Wine Trail that she'd match up against any being grown anywhere.
“I had been turned off for years by the by Chester County wines, but the fact is, I've learned over time that a lot of the vineyards in the area have one or two varietals that are just shocking,” said Lutter, who pointed to Borderland's Preminee and the Leaping Sheep Riesling as a few of her local favorites. “Karen is chiseling way at me. Besides, I love how rustic this place is. It's not overdeveloped, and there's no high volume of traffic. This is like what you have in California, when you drive down some remote road and discover a vineyard.”
If Kurt's the roll-up-the-sleeves half of the Kalb team, then Karen is its marketeer. Since introducing its seven varietals this year, she's been hard at work promoting Borderland to the public. From her home in Rochester, she's developed a Facebook presence, become the newest member of the Brandywine Wine Trail, established an e-mail chain of addresses, and coordinated a presence at the weekly West Grove Farmer's Market.
“We'll never be the largest winery on the Brandywine Trail, but that allows us to make the kind of wines we want to make,” Anderson said. “I want to be able to recognize people, and know them by name. I want to see them at our events, and allow them to feel loved by us. It's community building.. Plus, I like to throw a great party.”
Right now, just under three acres of the Kalb property is devoted to vineyards, and is contracted for 2,000 more vines in 2014. Kurt does not envision Borderland growing to any more than eight acres.
“There's a lot of professionals who tell people who are thinking about doing this not to do it,” Kurt said. “I think it comes down to my love of this place, the outdoors, and the fact that I love good wine. We're working with something where each of these plants as an individual with its own characteristics...and there's something exciting and stimulating about being given the chance to do that.”
Borderland Vineyard is located at 322 Indiantown Road, Landenberg, Pa. To learn more about Borderland Vineyard and its upcoming events, visit its Facebook page.