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Chester County Press

The invisible winemaker

09/17/2015 10:14AM ● By Richard Gaw

Matt and Kristin Shelly of Downingtown enjoy a wine tasting.

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

"...the highly unorthodox quintet that issues from two dozen (mostly Italianate) cépages (largely in field blends! ) on six acres set just back from the main drag of tiny Avondale... is worth a detour; Vietri is passionate, experimental, articulate, and focused on vineyard excellence..." 

"Best of 2012" David Schildknecht, The Wine Advocate

Years ago, when Anthony Vietri first began cultivating the 6.73 acres of Avondale farmland that would eventually become Va La Vineyards -- land that once belonged to his great-grandfather -- he encountered a man who was driving by the farm on Route 41.

The man pulled over to the side of the road, saw Vietri and others digging into the southern Chester County earth and, in the clipped syntax of the English language tinted with an Italian dialect, asked Vietri what he was planting.

"Grapes, for a vineyard," answered Vietri, who had just left California for a new life on the same farm he remembered as a child. He was exhausted from the work and frightened over the prospect that becoming a winemaker could be an extremely risky career choice -- and that was putting it mildly.

"Are you kidding me?" the man responded. "No grapes can grow in Avondale...You crazy..."

The tasting room at Va La is located in a period-style barn, where guests can sample wines at a serving bar, an upstairs tasting room, or outside on decks that overlook the vineyards.

 Undaunted by the fair warnings from the roadside soil advisory committees that drove by, Vietri persisted in his original mission -- to produce small quantities of the finest wines possible and, in the process, avoid the pat-ourselves-on-the-back competitions that far too many wineries are all too consumed with. And out of that self-imposed workshop, Va La Vineyards became a shining star of the burgeoning growth of vineyards in Chester County, and out of that process, Vietri became an artist -- the Invisible Winemaker.

While quietly avoiding the limelight and the glad-handing pomp and circumstance, Vietri has toiled on his tractor and in his cellars for more than 15 years in an attempt to make a better wine. It's not difficult to understand his reason to conduct his business out of the radar; the Vietri family traces its roots to Northern Italy, where making wine was, and remains, a work of art, and whose winemakers considered it a scared honor to have one of their own grace the dining table of the families it served.

Made in the ancient methods of vins de terroir, Va La has concentrated solely on a few select varietals, the grapes of which are all tilled in four separate Avondale soils:

The Silk, now in its 12th, is made from corvina veronese, barbera, carmine, petit verdot and nebbiolo.

The La Prima Donna, now in its 12th vintage, is made from a batch blend of malvasia bianca, petit manseng, pinot grigio and tocai.

The Barbera, now in its 14th, is a blend of fives clones of barbera.

The Mahogany, now in its 8th vintage, is a blend of barbera, malvasia nero and several other kinds of grapes.

The Cedar, now in its 11th vintage, is a blend of five clones of nebbiolo lampia & michet, corvina veronese.

 "We have been blessed by being able to grow our grapes in a very unique geographical location, which allows us our vineyard to receive drainage of water and air in four different directions," Vietri said."We're trying to express what's happening on this one particular place on the planet, and our philosophy has always been that we want the vineyard to decide the wine, not us.

"Each one of those four plots decides which grapes are to be grown in it, a process that will never be completed in my lifetime, and each year, it gets more complex," he added. "It's a yearly, continual process, focusing on those four main wines, because of those four different soils."

If his or her product is good, however, a winemaker can hide for just so long before the secret is out, and now, Va La Vineyards is not just known to the local oenophiles, who stop by the vineyard's tasting room to pick up a bottle or a case, but by an entire nation of wine lovers.

For the second year in a row, Va La Vineyards was named among the "101 Best Wineries in America" by The Daily Meal, an online resource for recipes, restaurants, chefs and food trends. This year, Va La Vineyards finished at No. 85 – and not just the only vineyard in Chester County to crack the list – but the only one in Pennsylvania.

The judging was not based on all of the ancillary attributes that often judge a vineyard, the Daily Meal said, such as architecture or a beautiful setting. “Is is a dependable veteran, tried and true?” the article read. “An audacious innovator? Does it specialize in just one or two grape varieties, or do a sterling job with 20? Is it representative of its corner of the wine country? Does it help, in one way or another, enhance the reputation of its region, and/or of American wine in general?

Panelists who took part in the judging were also asked to step outside of the box of the usual places where wine is grown in the United States, such as California, the Pacific Northwest and New York State. Although two-thirds of he list were from California, the list also included wineries from Virginia, Texas, Maryland, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan.

The Daily Meal praised Va La Vineyards for its originality.

"Anthony Vietri is one of the more original winemakers in America,” the online source said. “Over the past decade, he has cultivated more than two dozen French and Italian varietals and their clones in...his 'little vineyard' of slightly less than seven acres located amid the area's mushroom farms. They are unusual wines, to say the least, benefiting from long aeration and tasting unlike anything you've ever tried...There is no reference point for these wines – but they are remarkable, and, yes, quite delicious."

"It's kind of embarrassing but its also absolutely wonderful, especially for my family," Veitri said. "I feel very good for them, because they've sacrificed and worked so hard and put so much into this business, so to receive recognition like this is an honor."

In a list dominated by vineyards and wineries from California, the Pacific Northwest and New York State, Vietri is proud to add 'Pennsylvania' to that list.

"One of the things we decided a long time ago was that we don't submit the wines into competitions, so we are limited in terms of how we can help Chester County on the national level," he said. "Because its not something we are not normally able to do, it just makes it that much sweeter."

Va La Vineyards is at 8820 Gap Newport Pike, Avondale. For more information about wine tastings and special events throughout the year, visit www.valavineyard.com or call 610-268-2702.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com.

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