Landenberg business: Putting down roots
09/15/2016 12:03PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
Ben Cody of 1723 Vineyard. Photo by Richard L. Gaw
The 1723 Vineyard began as a wish granted, though no fairy godmother was involved.
“One day Ben asked me what I would want if I could have anything,” said Sarah Daily-Cody. “I said, 'Oh, I’d like to own a vineyard.'”
Fast forward a few years, and her desire has become a reality. Tucked back off New London Road in Kemblesville is their new vineyard. The vines are in the ground, and the Codys are working with the township on plans for a tasting room and production facility that will break ground in the spring. “Everyone has been so supportive. The township people have been very helpful from the start,” Ben said.
There have definitely been a lot of steps involved, but Sarah and Ben never saw them as barriers. “If you just work with people instead of fight them, everyone gets what they want. The regulations are there for a reason,” he said.
Having the vineyard situated where it is holds great appeal for the Codys.
“We are all about being local,” Ben explained. “Even if I had millions of dollars, I would still build something that fits with the surrounding area. We want to make wine that people around here – our friends and neighbors – will enjoy. People can see the vineyard and feel they are a part of it. It’s great to be right here in town.”
Ben and Sarah especially enjoy when people stop in to see what’s going on and talk about the vines. They are both history buffs and wanted to incorporate area history into the name of the winery. Ben readily admitted that Sarah is solely responsible for the name, 1723 Vineyard.
“Sarah has a flair for marketing, and she knows if I were to name the vineyard, it would be something silly,” he said, laughing. The winery is located in Franklin Township, so the couple researched the area and found it was chartered in 1723 as part of New London Township. They believe that two acres of their vineyard were also part of Benjamin Franklin’s landholdings. They felt 1723 Vineyard would be a unique name and reflect the history of the area.
“Since we have a historical name, we were hoping to have an old barn or foundation on site as a tie-in,” said Sarah. Lacking that, the plan is to build a modern facility with architecture that reflects the agricultural community. The Codys have a clear concept for their tasting room. “We want an open, relaxing space, something that feels like you are in an older farmhouse,” Sarah said.
Both Ben and Sarah come from farming backgrounds. “We are both from fourth-generation farming families,” she explained. Sarah was raised in Northern Indiana, where the family farm grows crops and raises some pigs and cattle. Ben is from a cattle-ranching family in Oklahoma. Though farming is in their genes, neither Ben nor Sarah knew much about growing wine grapes.
“We did some peach farming in Oklahoma,” Ben said, “but growing grapes is a little different.” Ben met his mentor, Cain Hickey, at a viticulture conference shortly after Hickey received his doctorate in horticulture from Virginia Tech.
“Cain is a young guy at the forefront of a lot of research. He has some very innovative ideas around viticulture,” Ben said.
Sarah and Ben relocated from Washington, D.C., to Kemblesville to live closer to Ben’s two boys. Once settled, they started looking for a vineyard site. Sarah would drive past the former bean farm every day on her way to work. The lots were originally slated for development, but for some reason, the project was shut down. Before they made an offer, Hickey came and examined the property. He looked at the slopes to make sure they were suitable for a vineyard and took soil samples to see if grapes would thrive. With the test results in hand, Cain shared the good news that the vines would grow well at the site.
“Soils around here are well drained and that’s what a vine wants,” Ben said.
The first 3,000 vines were planted by hand, with the help of Ben and Sarah’s families. Five thousand vines were put in the ground later using some mechanization. “Tim Hosmer from Benchmark Custom Vineyard Planting has a great machine,” Ben said. “It digs a trench and you walk behind it and tuck the plant in.”
In Ben’s view, the planting method doesn’t affect how the vines grow. Having done it both ways, he explained, “It’s crazy to plant by hand, and the GPS-guided rows are super straight.”
The first planting included grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, and muscat ottonel. Next fall’s harvest will yield grapes from all the varietals and will include riesling, landot noir, and albarino to name a few. The couple will narrow down the varieties over time.
Initial tastings will focus on their white wines and possibly a rose. The red wines will roll out in the fall of 2017. The Codys are excited to see which wines people prefer. The vineyard will have a larger range of wines at the start, and the focus may shift according to consumer demand. Ben explained, “We are going to have premium wines, but it won’t be a pretentious place.”
Their goal is to have wines that are affordable to drink every day, as well as more expensive wines for a special occasion or for the collector.
Ben and Sarah reached out to other area wineries before planting 1723 Vineyards. “Doc Harris over at Paradox has been wonderful, just really supportive,” said Ben, “as has Zach Wilson of Wilson’s Vineyard in Nottingham.” Borderland Vineyard in Landenberg has also has been helpful to the new vintners.
Sara said, “We met with all of them before we planted a vine, and everyone made time to talk with us.” People may have the perception that it’s a really competitive business, but the Codys have experienced a warm welcome.
“Most people that are successful in this business know that we all share,” Ben said. “There may be some people who are less collaborative, and that’s fine, but you’ll find most of those people don’t come from an agricultural background. If you are a farmer at heart, you’ll absolutely collaborate.”
Growing wine grapes is labor-intensive work, and it is pretty much handled entirely by Ben and Sarah. Both are employed full-time, so the vineyard work is definitely a labor of love.
“We do as much as we can in two ten-hour days each week. I bet I’ve walked seven or eight miles today,” Ben said after working the vines. Ben is particular about the vine work, which is why he tends to do it himself. But he does foresee hiring some help in the future.
He reminisced about working in his father’s peach orchard. “Dad was so particular and wouldn’t let me prune. I’m sort of the same way,” he said, laughing. Occasionally his two sons, Alex and Daniel, help out, but they have other interests, which Ben understands because at their age he too was more interested in hanging out with friends than working on the farm.
Hickey continues to be an invaluable help. He has done interesting research on when to expose the fruit to sunlight for ripening. “We’ve implemented a lot of his research,” Sarah said.
Exposing the fruit means pulling off all the leaves around the young grapes so that sunlight can reach them. In addition, this allows the circulating air to keep the fruit dry, decreasing the chance of rot and disease, and increasing the fruit quality.
The fruit is ripening fast using Hickey's techniques of taller canopies that are more open at the top, with the fruit exposed. Cain’s research found that if fruit is exposed immediately after the little green berries come out, you can do so without sunburn, because the vine will respond by increasing the amount of chlorophyll and other compounds. It’s the same idea when a person slowly builds up a tan to avoid sunburn.
“Cain’s studies have shown that as long as you don’t have over 200 hours a year of direct sunlight exposure at over 95 degrees, you are golden,” Ben explained. “You couldn’t do that in Napa or Bordeaux, because they have a much more northern latitude, but it is key here for growing better fruit.” Sarah and Ben embrace the science of vine-growing. “In this industry, some people rely too much on folklore,” Ben said. “Or people follow techniques that were developed in other regions. You need to do what works in your area. We’re farmers, and farmers are all about science.”
Sarah and Ben’s families are extremely supportive of their new venture. “There is a lot of interest back home,” Sarah said. Ben’s father arrived to help prepare the land. He also built a sprayer. Both families arrived in large numbers to assist with planting the vines.
The Codys are expecting a baby girl in October. “I’m due during harvest season, so my sister will be coming in for two weeks,” Sarah said. “That will be a huge help.”
Even when the families cannot be together, they provide moral support. “My family likes to drink wine,” Ben said, laughing, “so they are super excited for us.”
With the arriving baby, Ben’s two sons, and 8,000 “teenage” grape vines, the Codys have a full plate. They are anticipating and planning the grand opening of their tasting room next summer.
“We are here, everybody knows us. I want everyone to feel very welcome and to come by any time,” Ben said.
Right now, the 1723 Vineyard is planning to hold daytime events, rather than large evening ones. “We are on friendly terms with our neighbors and want to keep it that way!” Ben said. “I love being part of this town. People say to me, ‘I drove by and saw your new plantings.’ I love when people come out and ask questions. It’s just super cool. We really like this area. It’s a beautiful place.”
1723 Vineyard is located at 5 McMaster Blvd. in Landenberg. For more information, visit the 1723 Vineyard Facebook page.