Photo courtesy Jeff Alexander
“Tastemaker” is a term typically used to describe a person — either a sommelier or writer in the wine world — who decides what is good, cool or otherwise interesting. With my new #Tastemaker profiles, I’ve decided to usurp the term to mean someone who actually makes the wines, ciders, spirits, etc. that we love. A “tastemaker” should make something, after all.
I spent the first 20-plus years of my life living in Pennsylvania. I was born there in one of Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs, went to college in a small town called Meadville, PA and then went to graduate school back in Pittsburgh before work brought me to Long Island. I was only a wine drinker for a sliver of my time back home, but I never cared for any of the Pennsylvania wines I tasted. They were mostly hybrids and the winemaking wasn’t quite where it needed to be.
When I got into regional wine and started to explore wines from Maryland, Virginia, Michigan and Ohio, I always found something compelling. At least a wine or three that I’d gladly buy and drink again. It just never happened for my home state though.
Then Anthony Vietri from Va La Vineyards in Avondale, PA sent me a message on Facebook, offering to send me some of his wines to taste, even though at the time I didn’t really have anywhere to write about them.
Vietri’s wines — all field blends from his small vineyard about an hour outside of Philadelphia — are unlike anything I’ve tasted not only from Pennsylvania but from the East Coast. Maybe even in the United States. His wines are made with grapes like tocai, malvasia bianca, barbera, nebbiolo, corvina, lagrein, teroldego and sagrantino and the blends center on the different soil types found in his vineyard.
The La Prima Donna is made from fruit grown in the stony soils in the southeast corner of his vineyard. Silk — a dry rose — is made from grapes grown on the vineyard’s eastern slopes. Mahogany comes from the black mushroom soils in the center of the hill. Cedar is made primarily from the five clones of nebbiolo Vietri grows on the western edge of the field.
I’ve long said that good wine can be made in any state — it just takes the right grapes in the right places handled by the right people. From my first sips, it was clear to me that these grapes, in this field, with Vietri growing them is one such confluence of people, place and thing. These wines — and this man — are two of the reasons I wanted to expand beyond New York’s borders.
Get to know Anthony Vietri just a bit. He’s modest almost to a fault (which I think comes through on occasion below) but he’s also sincerely humble and focused on his land and his wines.
Location: Avondale, PA
Current Job: Farmer and winemaker, Va La Vineyards
Wine of the moment: Just something from the backyard.
My winemaking style in 1-5 words: Northern Italian field blends.
First bottle of wine I remember drinking: Well, when I was a boy on this farm, one of my jobs in the cellar was punching down the cap on the white wines (they were smaller batches then). My great grandfather gave me tastes from his bottles for a job well done. It was made from old vine zinfandel grapes which we contracted for from a vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga each year.
How I got here: In the early 1990s my wife and I were living in California and talked about starting a small winery in the Templeton area to make zinfandel. At that point we had to come back to Pennsylvania for a temporary job, as our families lived here and it would be nice to be back home for a bit. I was hanging out at the family farm in Avondale, and started to get the notion that our little field might be a good place to grow vinifera. Eventually, we had to make a choice — Go to California, make zin in a beautiful, established and respected wine region, but not be able to share our moments with our family. Or, try to make a winery in a state with an historically bad reputation for wine, knowing that it would take a generation to reverse, but also believing that every little triumph would be deeply rewarding because we would be sharing those moments with our family.
So, we of course chose the harder road.
My winemaking style — in more words: Nothing special. We have a way of doing things, and we just try to keep our focus on that.
Mentors: My great grandfather and great uncle, whom I was blessed to learn winemaking from as a child.
Music playing in the cellar right now: In the winery I mostly play old school dub, Glenn E. Williams and Italian baroque.
Favorite thing about the Pennsylvania wine industry: Being in a wine region when it starts to take off, and begins to realize its potential.
Least favorite thing about the Pennsylvania wine industry: Cold snaps in December. Tropical storms. Wine festivals.
One surprising thing that I’m really good at: The Dewey decimal system.
What I drink: Mostly Northern Italian wines.
My “Desert Island Meal” — wine included: Roasted pheasant from our neighbor’s field. Avondale oyster mushrooms, sautéed. Chestnuts from our trees. Dandelion salad from the yard. Gaja.