In Search of Fine Wine and 'Cue on the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail
About a year ago, I came across an article about four friends who traveled to Texas with in search of great wine and great barbecue. It was an entertaining article, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Why I don’t have a job that allows me to to take wine and food tours?
Months later, when I stumbled upon the website for the 2009 Brandywine Valley Wine Trail annual July 4th “Big Bang” BBQ event, my thoughts drifted back to that article and my jealousy of its authors. Though I don’t have a job that will pay for me to travel in search of fine food and wines — I thought — my role at MLD (to call it a job would insinuate income) certainly affords me the opportunity to create my own mini-trek right here in Chester County. So, I recruited a few friends, called Frank at Secrets Limo to set up transportation, and planned what I hoped would be an exciting and envy-inducing day.
The Brandywine Valley Wine Trail, for those unfamiliar, is a group of small Chester County wineries located within a 50 mile radius, mostly clustered around Chadds Ford (where Chadds Ford Winery, the state’s largest, is located), and spanning up towards Gap to the northwest. The trail currently consists of seven wineries, with an eighth, Patone Cellars, opening in the fall of ’10, and another, Va La Vineyards, no longer officially on the trail, but still quite accessible within the region. For the most part, the climate in this part of the country affords winemakers good conditions for fruity, light wines intended to be consumed at a very young age. Even the grapes that traditionally make up some of the most robust, complex wines (Cabernet Franc & Sauvignon, for example), are light and fruity here. Though this might seem unappealing to Napa or Bordeaux lovers, fun, drinkable wines are plentiful.
Visiting all seven wineries on one afternoon seemed a bit presumptuous, so we eliminated a couple (Chadds Ford, being the Beringer of PA, and Paradocx, who did not have events on Friday), and mapped out a seemingly feasible circle of 4-5 to conquer. Our limo arrived promptly, and we began our journey towards Stargazers Vineyards. Unknowingly to us, the trip’s first leg would best represent colonial Chester County; our driver Dan was forced to maneuver a seemingly endless collection of narrow, windy roads that were clearly not built for the modern automobile (let alone a limo). Even so, the bucolic scenery and hair-raising curves heightened our sense of adventure and encouraged our growing thirst.
Inside the airy, bright Stargazers tasting room, we were greeted immediately by owner Alice Weygandt, who took us through a tasting of 5 wines (our choice from 9, $5). Weygandt, along with her husband John, started the vineyard in the late 70s, primarily as growers who sold grapes to other winemakers (most notably Chadds Ford). In the mid 90s, they decided to start crafting their own wine. Sustainability is a key ingredient at Stargazers — they use nearly all solar power and natural fertilizers — and nowhere is this more evident than with the “Solar Celebration” Chardonnay, a “100% sun, 0% oak” wine that tastes extremely crisp and citrusy, unlike most American Chards (that are commonly aged in oak barrels). On the red side, a rare German varietal, Dornfelder, was described by Alice as a “red for white drinkers”. I like to call these “gateway reds” — light, fruity wines (similar to Beaujolais) that are easy drinking and perfect for summer patio sessions. The Cabernet Franc was also delightful — fruity, with hints of strawberry up front, but also very earthy and the best example of the local “terroir” that we encountered. It was much lighter than one might typically expect from a Cab Franc, but still complex and flavorful.
Not to forget the other half of our mission, we took some time to sample Moonlight Catering’s baby back ribs with a pineapple rum bbq sauce. We weren’t in Texas, but the sweet and spicy combination of seasonings on Chef Richard’s ribs was delicious (though I found the ribs to be a tad tougher than personal preference) and gave us the energy to continue our tour.
We piled back into the limo, this time with a bottle of Dornfelder in hand, and headed for the trail’s newest winery, Black Walnut. The Walnut is so new, it turns out, that their 200 year old barn is not entirely renovated, so, although it looks like it will be an excellent space, we were relegated to the back lawn.
Just 8 years ago, 4 friends got together to make wine one weekend, in the shade of some Black Walnut trees. 5 years later, it had become an annual tradition, and progressed from a hobby to something to take more seriously. After 3 years of renovation, their old Chester County barn is nearing completion, and a grand opening is planned later this summer. Like many wines, Black Walnut may benefit from a few years of aging; though their space shows great potential, and the owners are extremely friendly, the event felt like an unfinished product in many ways. We weren’t allowed near the building, the food vendor wasn’t set up (though it was already mid-afternoon – our quest for good BBQ would not be fulfilled at this location), the wine glasses were disposable plastic, and the facilities were of the portable variety. In fairness, however, this winery isn’t officially open yet, and the owners all still have full-time jobs. In time, this could become a must-stop on the trail.
The Black Walnut tasting, like Stargazers, included a choice of 5 out of 9 white and red options, this time for $6. It seemed that there was a disproportionate amount of sweet wines on offer here, however that style does tend to work well with local grapes. From the white selections, I liked the off-dry Pinot Gris, which contains a small amount of residual sugar, nicely cutting the acidic flavor of the grape. On the red side, another slightly sweet wine — the Bank Barn Red, a light, drinkable Cab Franc blend — like the Stargazers Dornfelder, would make for a nice summer session companion. I was less enamored with the 2007 Amethyst, a Bordeaux blend that was rather thin. The 2006 version, which was not officially part of the tasting but available with a little schmoozing, was far more interesting, however, with a complex, earthy finish. Did more time in the bottle help this, or was the harvest just better that year?
Though we had some unanswered questions, we were running behind schedule and wanted to fit in at least one more winery before the day was done. We signaled for Dan and headed south towards the next location. As we rolled up the driveway to Kreutz Creek Vineyards, we were greeted by several acres of healthy-looking vines, staring eyes of more than a few customers (we did roll up in a stretch limo), and the smooth jazz sounds of “Swing Set”. Surveying the scene — the dirt driveway, the vines, the cellar tasting room — it felt like a winery. Perfect! We were greeted by several enthusiastic KC employees in the tasting room. “We thought at least 20 people were going to jump out of that limo!”, one said. Sorry, just the few of us.
The tasting at Kreutz Creek was the most expensive on the day – $7, but also probably the best value. The fee included a complimentary logo glass (which, of course, we forgot) that entitles the owner to free tastings in the future (doh!) and tastings of every wine the winery was offering that day – 12 in all! For the second time, we encountered Vidal Blanc, a popular grape in the northeast US (due to its ability to produce sugar in cold climates) but rare otherwise. Here it boasts citrusy, acidic flavors that are cut with just the right amount of sweetness. I enjoyed most of the Kreutz Creek reds, but found the “Proprietor’s Red”, a blend of the Charbourcin and Kordeaux (a Bordeaux Blend), to be the most interesting. The Chambourcin alone was jam-packed with berries, tasty but perhaps a bit overwhelming. When mixed with the drier Kordeaux, however, the sweetness was cut down to make for a very unique, drinkable wine. I’ve never been a port drinker, but must also note that the Ruby “K” Port, served with a chunk of dark chocolate, was quite tasty.
The food spread at Kreutz was less impressive, but serviceable. We indulged in a pedestrian cheese plate during our tasting, then grabbed some pulled pork, baked beans and mac & cheese out of the tasting room crock pots to enjoy on the patio.
We’d hoped to visit more than 3 wineries that afternoon, but by this point we’d run out of time — it was 6pm and the event was coming to a close. All in all, it had been a great day; we found some enjoyable wines and had a blast. As for the food, well, when I reread the Texas article, I discovered that they didn’t look for barbecue at the wineries themselves — they went to barbecue joints for that, in between wine stops. Why didn’t we think of that?
The good news for everyone who missed this event, of course, is that you didn’t miss much from the food standpoint, and that you can certainly put together a wine tasting trip any other weekend this summer with good result, or perhaps even better result if you bring gourmet food (or stop somewhere else between tastings). Though you won’t find the great wines of California or Europe here, you will find accessible, fun wines and friendly people pouring them for you, all in your own backyard!
We’d like to thank Frank, Jill and Dan from Secrets Limo for sponsoring this trip. They were very professional, responsive and helpful throughout the process. If you’d like to put a similar tour together, I highly suggest finding a designated driver or hiring a company like Secrets to take you around. Though the tastings are certainly not aimed at getting people drunk, it is nice to not have to worry about how that one extra glass is going to affect your drive home on narrow, windy ChesCo roads.
Links of interest:
- Brandywine Valley Wine Trail (Harvest events this Fall)
- The Ryder Boys’ Texas Wine & BBQ Tour
- Secrets Limo