Phase I- “The Diagnostic Biopsy”
As a wine-lover passionate about traveling to winegrowing areas around the world, I started thinking about establishing a vineyard and winery in 2005. I had recently purchased 20+ acres of sloped land adjacent to my own home, which had been untouched for several decades- home to deer, fox, wild scrub trees, thorn bushes, and the other “natural” inhabitants. It was then that I began thinking more about becoming a steward of my own land and that this site may indeed be the site for a premiere Pennsylvania estate vineyard.
Realizing that I knew absolutely nothing about grape growing and winemaking, I knew I had to do my research first. So the first thing I did was take a full -day course in Maryland, where I luckily met our Pennsylvania State University Extension Agent and “Wine Educator” Mark Chien.Throughout the day, Mark repeatedly tried to dissuade his class: (paraphrasing) “You better be sure you want to do this….it is NOT as romantic as you think.”
Not deterred, always up for the challenge and excited about the possibility, I ordered about a dozen books on Amazon related to viticulture and winemaking. I also invited Mark Chien to evaluate the newly acquired plot in Pocopson Township. Bushwacking through the briars and brambles, my wife Lele, Mark and I struggled to cut a path up the hill and explore the potential vineyard property. To our surprise, Mark was impressed with the altitude and slope of the property and urged us to move to the next step (if we really truly were interested). He suggested the next move was to hire a viticulture consultant. The first name uttered out of his mouth was “Lucie Morton” which was accompanied by “if you can get her….She trained in France, is world renowned, consults mostly for France and Sonoma and has just started consulting in this area.” I knew she was our gal….if we could get her.
The next morning I called this infamous “Lucie Morton” not knowing what to expect; actually I knew what I was expecting– a snotty wineperson with an academic attitude (I should know, I was an academic once!). Well, to my happy surprise, Lucie was and continues to be the most down to earth, sweetest, fun person. And, as Mark opined- she knows vines! Lucie has been and continues to be Galer Estate’s Chief Viticulture Consultant.
We arranged for Lucie to visit the jungle and she arrived with gusto. We had an introductory dinner at The Orchard Restaurant in Kennett Square. Lele and Brad were all dressed up and anxiously drank their favorite Napa Meritage, The Prisoner. Lucie got lost driving from her home in Virginia but eventually found her way. I waited outside the restaurant. Suddenly a large maroon Dodge Ram pick-up truck rolled in among the BMWs, Lexus, and Mercs. The license plate read “Vitivan.” It had to be my gal. Out she popped, hair astray and in overalls….my gal indeed!
We had a lovely dinner and learned more in those few hours than we had learned from all my attempts of reading those texts I received from Amazon. She again reiterated Mark’s words almost verbatim: “You better love this work….be ready to spend much money up front” and “only hire me if you are serious about growing A+ quality grapes.”
The next morning we brought Lucie up to our site. This time, as per her orders ahead of time, we brought Tim (you’ll hear more about him later) and his Kubota tractor. We were going into unexplored territory up on the hill and that tractor was needed to cut a path for us among those wild rose thorn “bushes” the size of trees. Lucie had Tim dig several pits to examine the soil and take soil samples. She joyously jumped into the newly dug holes and reminded me of my kids when they were young playing in their sandbox. We’ll always remember her first pit-jump, grabbing some soil in her hand, and then smelling the earth. She smiled and we knew the jungle had potential. We then sent the “soil samples” out to a Virginia lab for analysis.
Like a patient waiting for a biopsy, I waited nervously for the soil report. Several weeks later the results were in….Lucie’s interpretation and final recommendation: “A great site for a vineyard.”
Phase 2 – Two Years of Transforming the Jungle
“Great wine can only come from great grapes” and the contrary “You can’t make great wine from bad grapes,” kept reeling through my head and I soon realized there would be no rushing this dream. I needed to work slowly and mindfully through the steps and listen to the guru consultants that would be critical to my success.
So over the next 3+ years (2005- 2008), the following was done:
Hired Jan Grimes as Vineyard Manager- Without Jan, Galer Estate would not have happened. Jan is a family friend who has a background in agriculture and horticulture and a passion for plants and the great outdoors. Her unbound energy, willingness to learn and hard work have enabled us to launch this dream into reality. Thanks Jan!
Cleared 8+ acres of “scrub” jungle that were determined the best for grape vine growth -- Thanks to the excellent work of Tony Striedieck. Tony came with his TracCat and worked day and night to hyrdro-mow the multiflora rose, thorn bushes and scrub to the ground and cleared almost 100 perimeter trees to improve sunlight, increase the circulation, and minimize harmful pathogens, especially fungi.
Disked and ripped the soil prior to adding soil amendments such as lime, gypsum, phosphorus, potassium, lime.
Tilled in aged mushroom compost to further fortify the soil and increase microbe activity.
Planted winter cover crop of fescue, perennial rye and clover blend.
Bought our first vineyard tractor, christened “Berry” a beautiful Italian made New Holland TN75V vineyard tractor, i.e. extra skinny to fit between our tight rows.
Installed a 9 foot high deer fence around the entire 10 acre perimeter by the Amish!
Dug a new well to support drip irrigation system within the vineyard.
Enrolled in a 2 year Enology Certificate Course from Washington State University and have since graduated with a certification in Enology.
Phase 3 - Configuring the Vineyard- French Style Lucie Morton has some very strong ideas on the spacing between the vines and between the rows based on her vast experience of “what works” in the mid-Atlantic region. Lucie is a firm believer in “high density planting” to stress the plants so as to produce high quality fruit. You see grape vines are more likely to produce quality grapes if they are not happy and are struggling. (This concept was counter-intuitive to my basic understanding of growing green things.)
Thus, Galer Estate Home Vineyard is truly “high density” with 1600 vines per acre, 1 meter between each vine and 7 feet between each row.
Another strong conviction of Lucie’s is the trellis system on which the vines are trained- VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning). I have since learned that many, if not most, vineyards in California and Washington State are going back to VSP, tearing down their newfangled complex trellis systems.
Phase 4- Ordering Our First Babies
What a huge decision- what vines to order? Just imagine if you could pick what types of children you wanted. What eye color? Personality? Gender? Like your kids, you plant, nourish and watch them grow. You hope they grow up to be productive, healthy and to outlive you!
Of course, you can’t just pick anything. You need to know what grows best and produces the best fruit in your area. Considerations like cold hardiness, rainfall and number of days for fruit to ripen are very important especially in Pennsylvania.
Not knowing which varietals would do well here in the Brandywine Valley region, Lucie Morton was again invaluable.
Lucie’s first question: What wine do you like to drink? We love full bodied complex red wines. But in the Summer we also like to drink bright, fruity whites- chardonnay’s with good mouth feel and not too much oak (no “Oak Monsters”). And we, especially Lele, love well-made desert ice wines. So with these in mind, Lucie suggested these varietals:
Wines for a nice “Bordeaux Blend”
A French-American Hybrid for a desert wine
So far so good. But, it’s not that easy. We had other questions to answer: What clone of the varietal? (Different clones will not only ripen differently in different regions but also result in different flavors.) Onto what rootstock will the varietal be grafted? (Needs to be cold-hardy and phyloxerra resistant.) Who are reliable growers/grafters of vines? (Lucie’s experience and contacts.)
From varieties to rootstocks to clones, Lucie worked up a planting plan that would enable us to shoot for the best possible plant material for our vineyard. The plan was to start small – not plant the entire 6 plus acres at once and learn from each successive planting.
Phase IV Planting Our First Born
In April of 2008, we planted approximately 3 acres at the Galer Estate Home Vineyard. Hand-planting thousands of vines can be back breaking and very difficult, so we decided to have the “field laser planted” in order to maximize every possible square inch and set up our rows as straight as possible. Upon Lucie’s recommendation, we hired Ken Whitty of Ontario, the best specialist “vineyard laser planter” on the East Coast. Knowing that our vines are the foundation to our dream, we wanted to do everything right, even if it meant bringing down a Canadian with a “laser planter tractor”!
Phase V Planting Our Second Born
The next April of 2009, we brought Ken Whitty and his laser planter down again from Ontario to plant an additional 1500 vines at the home vineyard; a mix of Merlot and Cab Franc. Phase VI Planting Our Third Born (and last generation)
Our last vine planting for Galer Estate’s Home Vineyard took place Spring of 2010 - 1000 more Merlot vines to finish out the block and 600 vines of Albarino in a new block. Albarino is a wonderful white grape from Spain and Portugal and has one of Lucie’s vineyards, Black Ankle in Maryland, has recently won international awards with their Albarino. To our knowledge, Galer Estate will be the first in the Brandywine region of PA to plant Albarino!
HISTORY- GALER ESTATE- Red Lion Vineyard
Timing is everything. It just so happened that while we were building our Galer Estate dream, a well-established vineyard and “winery” was on the market in our area. The property itself was adorable and had almost two acres of Chardonnay and 2 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. We watched this property closely over the years and realizing it could be a wonderful addition to our dream. In March 2008 we jumped in and purchased it in March 2008.
After reviewing the state of the vineyard and winery with our consultants, we realized both were not up to our standards of producing the highest quality wine. So when we took ownership, we decided to “close shop” and to make the needed changes over several years slowly. With the motto of “do it right or not at all” we have thus embarked on a major transformation of everything within the vineyard and winery. We wanted to create something unique and special. We want to bring PA wine to a new level.
Lucie and another valuable consultant, Nelson Stewart, visited the vines and recommended “major viticulture rehabilitation”- retraining the vines from cordon to cane style, removing sick and poorly productive vines, and interplanting to increase the vine density. In mid-March 2008, Jan and her crew began pruning the 3+acres at Red Lion and retraining the vines for higher fruit quality. During our first growing season, Jan instituted sound “canopy management” principles to ensure shoots and leaves of each vine were equally distributed and well exposed to the sun, again improving fruit quality. And lastly, fruit was “dropped” (cutting of clusters of grapes) further enhancing grape and wine quality; decreasing the number of grape clusters helps concentrate the energy and thus flavors in the remaining grapes. “Do it right or don’t do it at all.”
The Tough Decision and a Rebirth
In 2010, we made the very difficult decision to pull-up all of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines. After several years of careful viticulture techniques and close laboratory analysis of these vines’ health, we became keenly aware that these Cab vines would not produce the quality fruit Galer Estate aims to produce. Thus, we decided to make Red Lion a 100% quality Chardonnay vineyard. To improve the health of the vineyard, we kept the soil fallow in 2010 and added particular minerals and additives that the soil testing stated were needed.
With Lucie’s advice, we planted six particular Chardonnay clones in Spring 2011. We once again used Ken Wittie’s fancy laser planter from Ontario. A total of 3500 new vines in approximately 2 acres are now growing at Red Lion Vineyard. Also, the orientation was changed to north-south, which will enhance even and more complete ripening.
In 2010 and 2011, we also cleared many trees from the perimeter of the vineyard, to enhance air circulation and remove shade, and thereby enhancing our fruit (and wine) quality. Our good Longwood Garden neighbors also completely cleared the east facing perimeter of Red Lion Vineyard. Thus, we now have dramatically improved the air flow and sunshine that will allow us to continue to improve our award winning Chardonnay wines.
GALER ESTATE WINERY HISTORY
The aim of Galer Estate was to grow premiere grapes and to build a premiere winery with state-of-the-art winemaking equipment. But not knowing the first thing about building a winery, I wasn’t sure how I would accomplish this goal back in 2005. And then as so often happens to me, luck came my way when I received a spontaneous email from John Levenberg, who was looking for consulting clients. We set up a meeting in 2007 at the West Chester Starbucks. And it’s been a great relationship ever since. John has been a godsend to Galer Estate.
Not only is John a master world renowned winemaker, he also has significant winery design experience (he helped design Paul Hobbs winery in Napa and several wineries in the Long Island and Mid-Atlantic region) and has wine equipment contacts worldwide. We spent several years designing multiple wineries at several different sites, but in the end decided the optimal place for the winery would be at the Red Lion site, using the old “event room” as the Fermentation Room and using the subterranean room below as the perfect barrel room, using gravity-flow techniques to minimize pumping our wine. We’ve also built-out adjacent buildings to house our Bottling Room and Case Storage areas. The vast majority of our equipment was specifically designed by John and Laurent XXX (of Vinquip Winery Equipment- South Africa) for Galer Estate. In fact, Laurent has travelled multiple times from South Africa to Galer Estate to install his personally designed equipment.
Well finally 2011 brought the completion of Galer Estate Winery and Tasting Room!! After many years of design and construction, we had completed this major multi-year task.
In addition, thanks to our contractor Finishes Inc (Michael Schultheis), we also have a reconstructed cleaner and more efficient subterranean Barrel Room as well as a fully dedicated Bottling Room, which is strategically located adjacent to our Barrel Room and next to our Case Storage area.
Also, our landscaping was designed by the world-renowned Michael Petrie.
We thank each and every one of these artisians for their creativity and skill, allowing Lele and me to create our unique Galer Estate spaces, which we hope all of our visitors enjoy.
2011 brought our first set of Awards- the first year we entered any Competitions.
International Women's Wine Competition- Awards
Judges consisted of 25 international women in the wine business- winemakers, sommeliers, wine critics and restaurateurs. More than 700 wines from every US wine producing state plus international entries from Canada, Greece, New Zealand, and others.
NextGen Wine Competition – Awards
The field of entries included wineries throughout the United States, including those in California, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, and New York, plus international entries from New Zealand and France. Our judges were comprised of the most experienced and unique pool of "next generation" wine industry professionals between the ages of 21-35. Wines were judged from a field of more than 767 entries.