A Time, a Vine and a Place
by Emily Kovach
For Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards, wine has always been a family affair. Since 1928, they’ve owned the farm in Avondale, Pennsylvania, where Vietri and his wife currently live, grow grapes and make wine. It was started by his Italian great-grandparents; Vietri’s daughter now represents the fifth generation to live there.
As a child, Vietri would make wine with his great-grandfather and uncle from grapes they’d purchased from a vineyard in California. “We tried an experimental way of making wines, and it was cool to have that kind of freedom as a kid, and that served me well going into it commercially,” he says. His family also grew produce on the farm for their own consumption (the Vietris can trace farming through their family tree back to 16th-century Italy) and owned a mushroom business, Carozzo Mushrooms.
In 1995, after pursuing a career in the entertainment industry for over a decade, Vietri came back to the farm for a few months while traveling for work. He says he always planned to leave his industry at age 35, and he and his wife, Karen, were dreaming of a move to the Central Coast in California to open a small zinfandel winery. But, back on his family farm, he had a revelation, looking out over the fields and realizing how well wine grapes might grow there.
“I told Karen, ‘We can go to California and we’ll love it, or we can stay here and do it. We’ll be going uphill because Pennsylvania has a terrible reputation for wine, but we’ll be doing it with our families. It’ll be 10 times harder, but every little step will be more rewarding,’” he remembers. “I let her decide, and she said, ‘Let’s try it here.’”
The first step of their plan was to decide which varieties of grapes they wanted to grow and have the vines grafted. Throughout that time, Vietri worked with his family, researching the winery’s future, designing the buildings, getting permits and beginning the buildout. They planted their first vines in 1999, the grapes came in 2001, and they opened the winery in 2002, the same week their daughter was born. Vietri recalls how hard it was to convince a bank to give them a business loan, each one more confused than the last about the prospect of a profitable winery in their area.
“Finally, we secured a loan from a bank where the executive was a wine enthusiast, and she understood what we were trying to do!” he says.
Growing grapes on their particular hill on the East Coast meant a different kind of winemaking. Instead of following market demand for recognizable varietals such as merlot or cabernet, Vietri wanted to pursue vins de terroir, a 9,000-year-old method of winemaking. While vines at many vineyards are neatly separated into distinct plots, Va La makes field blends, with many varieties of grapes growing in their individual plots all mixed together in the rows. Hills require a nuanced understanding of how elevation and the angles of sunlight affect each grapevine. Vietri says his goal is to match each type of grape to the “language” that his hill is speaking.
“Instead of saying, ‘People want merlot and that’s what we should plant,’ our idea was to make wine special to this site, and that’s all we care about,” he says. “And that was about finding out what these soils want to grow.”
Vietri explains that America’s taste for single-variety wine goes back to the very beginnings of the culture’s introduction to the beverage as a commodity. European wine producers wanted to sell their wines to Americans, and realizing that these customers preferred to drink varietals, began to change their growing and marketing practices.
“Vins de terroir is actually a lost part of our culture… Italians planted vineyards in Napa in the 1800s, and I remember in the 1980s and ’90s, people were uprooting them because winemakers wanted control and wanted each style of grape separated,” Vietri says. He bought vinology textbooks and began to teach himself these techniques, many of which reminded him of how he’d made wine with his family as a kid.
“Wine science is very, very important, but sometimes we get too caught up in it… Just because you’re a chemist doesn’t mean you’ll be a great chef,” he says.
Va La’s first year in business was scary for Vietri, who was committed to making a different kind of wine, in ways different from what anyone else in the state was doing at the time (dry and Italian, versus sweet and French), and he was working with equipment on a scale he didn’t have much experience with. He just had no idea if anyone would accept it.
He recalls a day when they’d just done their first round of bottling. Karen came home from her day job and looked into the winery, entirely filled with cases of wine. “She walked in and sort of staggered near this pallet and buried her head in her hands and said, ‘Who’s going to buy all this wine?!’” Vietri says. “And I was used to talking her off the ledge, but this was the one time I didn’t have an answer.”
But with no advertising budget to speak of, relying solely on word-of-mouth and a loyal community of regular customers, Va La is still making its small portfolio of field blends in 2017. Each Spring, Vietri walks through his fields, trying to identify which vines are thriving or being rejected by the soil, seeking to improve his model. The vineyard is made up of four separate parcels, each one with a distinct personality, dependent on its soil composition and angle to the sun.
“Certain varieties excel in different years… We’ve gotten better at understanding each variety in each section, and when those years occur, and exploit them more,” he says.
This attention to the grapes and the winemaking process has earned Va La a stellar reputation in both the region and the country. Jon Medlinsky, owner of the restaurant Martha in Kensington, says Va La is the only real intersection of local and natural wines that he’s ever come across.
“Anthony Vietri’s dedication to showcasing the soil and climate of Avondale definitely comes through every sip of his complex, layered and thought-provoking wines,” Medlinsky says. “I don’t usually speak in superlative terms, but Va La wines are far and away the best wines we offer, and we couldn’t be more proud or honored to serve them.”
Vietri credits much of Va La’s success to its younger consumer base. “Millennials have been the greatest thing to happen to us,” he says. “Unlike the generations who may have more money, millennials have an open-mindedness to anything we do.” While he notices that some of the older visitors to the winery have preconceptions of how things “should” be done, most younger guests want to taste the wine first, and then decided if it’s good.
Without their unbiased patronage, Vietri believes his operation long ago would have been forced to go mainstream and rely more heavily on a wholesale model.
“What we have here is a tiny farm, but we are able to sell almost 100 percent directly to the public, to meet them and interact with them… As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest thing ever,” he says. “All of the info coming to us from these huge marketing industries was saying millennials would be terrible for the wine industry, but they were completely wrong. They didn’t get that this generation is really into how things are made and are open to all different kinds of food. They want to try things.”