Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved. ~ William Jennings Bryan
When deciding to follow his passion of producing wine, Anthony Vietri had to make a choice: give it a go in California, where the climate and soils are nearly perfect for wine production, or at his family farm in Avondale, Pennsylvania, where he had been told, Nothing good can come of mushroom soil. Vietri chose to go against the odds, but on the side of family, creating the winery we know now as Va La Vineyards.
The name Va La has multiple meanings. The Vietri family comes from an Italian village named Giusvalla. The phrase va la in Italian can loosely mean go there, but dialectically it can mean go away or take a hike, as in saying to the naysayers, including those in academia and the neighbors who were sure that quality wine could not be made in Avondale. Now producing around 750 cases, more or less, since 2002, Vietri has proved these cynics wrong and has created a successful family business without compromising his choice of making vins de terroir using Old World methods from the unlikely soils of Avondale, never submitting his wines to competitions or for ratings or scores. As per his tasting menu, he writes, We consider your decision to take our wines into your home a sacred honor; it is the reason that we can devote our lives to pursuing this thing we love.
The vineyards are comprised of four distinct soils types. Every year, Vietri makes choices about which vines are producing the best fruit. The best vines remain, while those that are not are removed to make way for ones that do. Today Vietri produces four estate wines from vineyard to bottle, almost always Italian field blends from his 6.73 acres. However, this was not always the case. In the beginning, he tried other varieties, but as destiny would have it, Italian varieties have manifested themselves as the best choice.
During my last visit on Sunday, September 6, 2015, I had the opportunity to taste the following four wines: 2012 La Prima Donna, 2013 Silk, 2013 Barbera Batch III, and 2012 Mahogany, presented to me by the lovely, gracious, and professional Cyndy Barrett. One thing one will immediately notice is the understated bottle labels. The name of each wine is printed on a simple, white label. One realizes that what is inside the bottle is most important, with no bottle or label distractions. The wines are meant to speak for themselves. The wines are also meant to pair with food, so with each wine, you are given a local cheese or chocolate as a suggested pairing, as well as meal suggestions on the tasting menu. Neither Vietri nor the staff will tell you what you should taste, but rather describe the production process and leave it up to your palate to decide.
The grapes for all four wines are hand harvested and the wine filtered, but not fined, so as to remove spoilage organisms, but retain maximum color, aroma, and flavor. Vietri chooses to use old Bordeaux isolate yeasts that date from the 1950s, as they provide neutral, consistent winemaking from vintage to vintage. As he told me, he is striving for consistency as much as the vineyard will allow.
2012 La Prima Donna (12th vintage)
With this offering, Vietri has chosen to make this field blend white wine in the vin orange style, the way white wines used to be made until the 1970s and 1980s, when it was deemed that we the people preferred our whites with more clarity and less color. As always, Vietri’s choice to go against popular belief has resulted in one of the most interesting wines you will ever taste. The blend is malvasia bianca, petit manseng, pinot grigio, and tocai from lower-yield vines, most which are 17 years old, and grown in Kennett Square basalt and stony silt loams. Batches are fermented separately with skin contact of 27-31 days, unheard of with most white wine producers. This skin contact allows more flavor, color, mouthfeel, and tannin components, especially from the petit manseng and pinot grigio, which have long hang times, thus more physiological ripeness. The wine is aged sur lie for 17 months in stainless steel, no oak. The resulting wine is fleshy and plush, with a balance of tree fruit flavors, rusticity, a round mouthfeel, and lively acid. It pairs with a variety of foods, from fresh fruits to mushrooms to pasta with white cream sauce, as well as fish, poultry, and pork dishes. The recommended decanting time is one hour. 207 cases produced. Flavor peak around 3-8 years.
2013 Silk (12th vintage)
Vietri’s Silk is his rosato, his single-batch, field blend made from free-run juice, no pressing, using corvina veronese, barbera, carmine, petit verdot, and nebbiolo from vines that are 5-17 years old in silt loam soils overlying gneiss and Mt Cuba schist. The grapes are fermented slowly at cold temperatures. The wine is aged for 12 months in oak barrels that were first used to make his Mahogany red blend. As Vietri told me, this wine is calling to go in oak. Silk is aptly named, as it’s silky on the palate, with rich, red berry flavors, noticeable spice and tannin, and great acid, which means one can age this a few years instead of drinking it immediately like many rosato wines. Suggested food pairings include chicken, pork, prosciutto, salmon, and veal, especially those prepared in red sauces. The recommended decanting time is one to two hours. 107 cases produced. Flavor peak from now until 2018.
2013 Barbera – Batch III (14th vintage)
This vintage, Vietri had higher barbera yields. He did not want to alter the blend for his Mahagony, so he decided to make three batches of barbera, each aged for different lengths of time. This last batch is a small-production, single cuvée barbera, aged 15 months in oak. It is clonally significant, comprised of five clones, including a clone mutation which is unique only to his vineyard, grown in the now (in)famous black mushroom soils from vines that are 8-15 years old. The finished product is deep garnet in color, as well as rustic and spicy, with more earthy than fruity flavors, and a backbone of acidity. It pairs best with traditional Piemonte fare, pork dishes such as barbecue, and spicy foods. The recommended decanting time is two to four hours. 110 cases produced. Flavor peak around 2-7 years.
2012 Mahogany (8th vintage)
This is one of Vietri’s crowning jewels, a field blend red of barbera, malvasia nero, charbono, petit verdot, carmine, teroldego, lagrein, and sagrantino coming from black mushroom soils and vines that are 10-17 years old. The yields are limited to produce the best, most concentrated berries that the vineyard can offer. The wine is aged in a unique combination of Burgundy and Pennsylvania oak for 27 months. This blend is named Mahogany, because it is a dark, bold, and luscious wine, in color, aroma, and mouthfeel. The mushroom soil terroir dominates the nose and palate, offering a plethora of earthiness and black fruits. This is the choice for meaty dishes such as lamb, prime rib, and meats prepared in reduction sauces. The recommended decanting time is four to twelve hours. 126 cases produced. Flavor peak around 4-10 years.
My visits to Va La, while always wine-centric, also allow me to capture the human and the family behind the bottle. Vietri is simply a delightful conversationalist and teacher. I discovered randomly that his favorite sports teams are the Knicks, the Raiders, and the Cardinals. I also learned that he has lived around the world, including Italy, Southern California, and Avondale, which indicates that he has come full circle, back to the family fold, now raising the fifth generation of the Vietri family, his daughter, Sofia, with his wife Karen (Ren).
For those who are interested in keeping up with Va La Vineyards, you will be happy to know that there is a newsletter, as well as a presence on Facebook and Twitter. The winery newsletter is purposeful, sent periodically to announce a new release, an update on wine availability, and to share some of the good press that the winery is receiving, all with a massive dose of humor. It’s not often I recommend newsletters, but this is one to which one should subscribe. Better yet, if you have the opportunity, please make the choice to va la, go there. A visit and tasting will remove any preconceived notions you may have about winemaking in Pennsylvania. Be warned, though: Vietri has set the bar high for producers, not only in Pennsylvania, but around the world.
You have to choose the best, every day, without compromise…guided by your own virtue and highest ambition. ~ Philippa Gregory