Borderland Vineyard continues what family founders started
09/21/2017 03:01PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
Fall Line Farm “has always felt like home to me,” Jay Penrose said.
The 66-acre Landenberg property, fronted by Indiantown Road and near the White Clay Creek Preserve, is a lush mix of fields, trees, soft hills and, most notably, grapevines. Penrose is president of Borderland Vineyards, which sits on the farm owned by his aunt, Janet Kalb. The business venture was started and maintained by his cousins, siblings Kurt Kalb and Karen Kalb Anderson.
Establishing a vineyard was Kurt’s idea.
“Kurt had a very strong interest in wines,” Penrose recalled. “He and his wife, Debbie, were really good at taking an unknown bottle of wine and analyzing it. We had a competition between them as to who could write down all the traits of that wine, and then look it up in [Wine Advocate magazine] and see who could come closest to all the published traits of that particular wine. And they were very good at it.”
Borderland is one of several local vineyards and wineries in the area, among them Paradocx, 1723 Vineyards, Va La and Kreutz Creek. But it wasn’t always that way. The land that George and Janet Kalb saw in 1946 was on a dirt road, “with a four-foot marsh down the middle.”
Penrose, who’s a nephew of the Kalbs, said he heard it like this: “When they came into the road, they proceeded to sink up to their hubcaps in mud. And my aunt took a look at the view, and from inside the car, said to my uncle, ‘I want to live here the rest of my life.’
“And the way my aunt tells the story, ‘Your uncle looked at me and said, 'Are you kidding? Look at this place!’” Of course, they bought it. For $8,500.
The farmhouse on the property was old, with no electricity or running water. Built in the 1700s, it shows evidence of its previous life as a log cabin in one of the walls of the master bathroom. The original section had been covered with stucco.
The Kalbs had three children: Kurt, Karen and Rob. George Kalb was a research chemist for DuPont. Also living with the Kalbs were George’s parents, Marie and John.
Janet Kalb found her own interests on the farm. “My aunt originally started raising Dorset sheep, at one point managing a flock of 88 head of Dorsets,” Penrose said. They also grew alfalfa to feed the sheep in the wintertime.
“All three of my cousins grew up on the farm,” said Penrose, whose late mother was Janet Kalb’s sister. “We lived in Wilmington, so I grew up here in the evenings, weekends and holidays. The farm has been a part of my life, all of my life.”
After George Kalb died in 1974, the responsibility for the farm fell on Janet Kalb’s shoulders. The children had moved away, although Kurt Kalb was living in New Jersey, working as an archaeologist for the state government. Penrose stepped in and aided his aunt. “So I'd come out in the summers, or mom and dad would bring me out in the evenings to help.”
Over the years, as the cost of living kept increasing and the taxes became more onerous, Janet Kalb’s biggest fear was that she’d be forced to sell her beloved farm. “She was bound and determined that no one would get the land,” Penrose said. She started cutting back on the number of sheep to save on feed and vet bills; she started doing less mowing to save on gasoline. Parts of the property became a tangle of unwanted growth.
But respite came in the form of an easement. Natural Lands Trust and the Farmland Preservation program of the Chester County Agricultural Land Preservation Board hold the easement that assures the land will remain agrarian and not subject to development. However, the family wanted to farm something different on the land.
“Kurt said there was a market for bulk grapes [used in wine making] in the area. He suggested if we turned the alfalfa fields into a vineyard, we could grow enough to turn a profit,” Penrose said.
Penrose said that getting more than five acres vine-ready wasn’t an easy task, but his cousin was determined. “It took quite a long time to cut back the field. Kurt spent innumerable hours, vacations, trying to get it reclaimed,” he said.
But in 2008, “We planted our first planting of grape vines – 1,200 vines. We were using a post-hole digger to dig each hole. I drilled quite a few of the 1,200 holes,” Penrose said. The grapes chosen were Cabernet Franc and Syrah, later Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.
Penrose noted that they wouldn’t have been able to get the work done if not for the generosity of others. “We had the help of community. We had neighbors coming to help us plant, we had friends coming to help us plant. Kurt had friends coming down from New Jersey. Karen had friends coming down from [her home in] Rochester, N.Y.”
He recalled with amusement how Karen’s son Eben, who was living in New York City at the time, would bring friends to help out. Some were native New Yorkers for whom a farm was a decidedly foreign environment. “We called them the Fresh Air kids,” Penrose said, riffing on the program that gives city children exposure to a country environment.
Normally, Penrose said, it takes about seven years for the vines to start offering a production crop, but 2011 produced a bumper crop of grapes. Some of the vineyard owners in the area suggested they start making wines.
So they did. Borderland’s first vintage was Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay. “We produced an unoaked Chardonnay,” he said. “It got a really good reception when it was released.” The enthusiasm for their wines encouraged them to continue and bring customers to the farm.
“It was in marketing our wines, it became the next logical step. We were doing the farmers markets; we had good response from Headhouse Farmers Markets in Philadelphia. People would say, ‘Where are you? Can we come and see you?’ The tasting room on the farm was just logical. We can do it rustically from our barn. It got a very big reception.”
There was another change added to Borderland that further established its brand. The Dorset sheep that had played such a prominent role in the life of the farm had not been replenished. It was Karen’s idea to bring them back.
“When the winery got into full swing and we got around to doing events at the farm, Karen thought it was a shame we didn’t have sheep here, since they were such a part of the winery itself – that’s how our Leaping Sheep Riesling was named. Karen came across some Babydoll sheep near where she lived in Rochester.”
The farm currently has 16 head of Babydolls, with various rams making occasional visits.
Penrose gives high marks to Borderland’s winemaker, Gabriel Rubilar, and his wife Alison Bucher-Rubilar, who is the winery tasting room manager. Borderland shares the winemaker’s services with nearby Paradocx Vineyards.
“Our tasting room is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and we invite people who stop there to unwind. A lot of times, if someone comes in the middle of the week, we’re more than happy to accommodate them. It’s always kind of nice to see,” he said of customers, new and returning, who feel comfortable to come and enjoy the wines.
Within the past two years, the family whose vineyard was started and carried on with such love and zeal was dealt two devastating blows. Karen Kalb Anderson, the business director who handled much of the paperwork and marketing of Borderland, passed away in December 2015 after a fight with a rapidly progressing cancer. Brother Kurt, “the farmer,” whose love of wine was the brainchild behind Borderland, died 15 months later after a heart attack and resulting fall.
The family was reeling. But again, the kindness of friends and neighbors helped Borderland Vineyards carry on, said Penrose, who is also primary caretaker for his 95-year-old aunt, Janet Kalb.
“I cannot say enough about the outpouring of help from [area] vineyards,” Penrose said. “If I had any questions, people could answer them.” And although he was involved in certain aspects of Borderland from the beginning, as president he’s been learning other points of the business.
“As wines are fermenting and going through the process, as Gabriel points this out and points that out, I am under his guidance. I do not have the palate that my cousin Kurt had,” Penrose admitted. “I enjoy all of our wine. I enjoy things both cold and warm. Both the whites and the reds. Our winemaker is Gabriel – I can’t take the credit for any of our end results. That is a complex and scientific process.
“If I am a vintner, time will tell. I can’t imagine ever saying that I am a winemaker. But I can say that Kurt was.”
Borderland Vineyard is located on 332 Indiantown Road in Landenberg. To learn more about Borderland Vineyard, visit www.borderlandvineyard.com.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com or www.DoubleSMedia.com.