I like telling people that the quality of a winery is often inversely proportional to the size of the tasting room. All too often visits to larger wineries are more about the experience than the wine. While I want a good day trip, I want the wine to be the main event, not a sideshow.
But tiny wineries on old farms? Places where the owner is the winemaker? Somewhere that limits the size of your group? Those are something special. At 5 acres of vines and a production of 750-1000 cases/year (all estate), Va La is the definition of an artisanal winery.
Owner Anthony Vietri is a local boy who in the 1990s decided start a winery. But he and his wife were faced with two choices. Option A was to purchase land in California. Option B was to set up a vineyard on his family farm. Unfortunately for Option B…Pennsylvania wasn’t exactly known for its wine. Since vinifera had a limited track record in the state he’d be starting basically from scratch.
Thankfully they chose Option B. Va La experimented with different varietals and growing techniques until they found the right mix, including a trellis system that’s only 48 inches high (!). While Anthony knew his well-drained knob of land had certain advantages, he probably didn’t fully understand the farm is located in a sweet spot for vinifera. Option B turned out to be a better deal than they realized.
I met Anthony upstairs while his associates put out quite a spread. Va La goes all out in their tastings, including using Riedel glasses for their wine and pairing them with an assortment of local cheeses, olive oil, and his mom’s bread. Here, even the food is local or homemade. Heck, even the oak barrels are from Pennsylvania.
Va La typically only has 4 wines at any time, most if not all of them field blends. I emphasize the word ‘blend’ here, because the vineyard has well over 30 varietals planted – and Anthony uses them all. That’s right; over 30 varietals of grapes going into only a handful of wines. ‘Blend’ is an understatement.
Most of the grapes are northern Italian varietals, including ones I’ve never heard of. Pignolo? Sagrantino? Cascetta? I mean seriously – how did he find these? Maybe the real question is how does he blend such a diverse assortment. As someone who got a C+ in high school chemistry, the science of it all astounds me.
Now…the main event!
2017 Silk (Rosato; aka Italian Rosé): This is one of the most complex rosés I’ve ever tasted, made with Corvina Veronese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Petit Verdot, Langrein and others. I’d never had an Italian Rosé before so this was a huge treat – and I promptly purchased a bottle.
2016 Prima Donna: Whatever you do, don’t call this an “orange wine” despite its amber hue. Tangy, with apricot notes. Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng and others.
2016 Barbera: A rare 100% varietal. Light colored, with a combination of being both gamey with sour cherry notes. Compares well with what I’ve had from Italy.
2016 Cedar: Nebbiolo heavy, but likewise a blend. Tastes like earth and spice and everything nice. I tasted this one with some chocolate which soften the subsequent sips.
Va La is yet another demonstration that the east coast can produce world class wines as long as you do your homework; proper care is done in selecting the vineyard site, vineyard management, and of course the right winemaker. I suspect I’ll be back next time I’m in Philly.