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After slow start, Delaware wineries gain momentum

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By Roger Morris
Special to Delaware Business Times

Wine regions, like grape varieties, blossom and mature at different rates. While some spread their vines quickly, others are much slower to develop.

The latter scenario has been the case with Delaware’s budding wine-producing industry. Even though the state’s first winery – and still its biggest – was launched in 1987, only three other wineries have emerged in the 30 years since, with a fifth planned to start up this fall.

By contrast, neighboring Chester County, Pennsylvania, Maryland’s nearby Eastern Shore and southern New Jersey across the Delaware Bay have all had multiple successful wineries for more than a dozen years.

Maryland has been especially booming, growing from almost zero presence in 2000 to at least 15 operating wineries along the eastern edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

According to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, there are now about 45 acres of wine-producing vines in Delaware, with four more to go in production next year. Currently, four Delaware wineries are producing wines and are open to the public.

Nassau Valley Vineyard in Lewes was started by Peggy Raley and her father, Bob, in 1987, and it is now known for its well-made wines from classic European grapes. “We have eight acres in vinifera grapes,” Raley said, “and we buy some hybrids and other grapes from nearby Maryland and Virginia.” Average annual production is between 3,000 and 5,000 cases.

Pizzadili Winery in Felton, which planted its first grapes in 1993, today makes less than a thousand cases annually from its own grapes and from various purchased fruits for its non-grape wines. The Pizzadilis are also in the catering business.

Harvest Ridge Winery, located in Marydel but straddling the border with Maryland, was opened in 2013 by Chris and Chuck Nunan. “We make about 4,500 cases of wine and 3,000 cases of cider,” Nunan said, “and we expect to grow that to 10,000 cases of each by 2020.” Harvest Ridge has 16 acres of vines, is planting four more and also buys some locally sourced grapes.

Salted Vines Vineyard & Winery began its existence six years ago as Fenwick Wine Cellars. Last year, owners Jess and Adrian Mobilia bought a 26-acre farm in Frankford that is now being converted into Salted Vines.

“We currently have merlot and cabernet sauvignon in the ground,” Adrian Mobilia said, “and they are both on their second leaf [season]. We will be planting a total of 20 acres. Most likely varieties will be petite verdot, malbec, cab franc, chambourcin and teraldago.”

Winemaker Michael Vorauer is an industry veteran with 35 years’ experience in Europe and America. A fifth winery, Pemberton, is scheduled to open soon in Milton, according to Nunan.

In many ways, Delaware is an ideal place to grow grapes, as is much of the coastal plains and low hills within the mid-Atlantic Region. The climate here is similar to those of the winemaking regions of France, Germany and parts of Italy, and the different soil types can support many different varieties of grapes if properly matched.

Additionally, once vines are established, they usually do not need watering or irrigation, as is the case in California. High levels of alcohol – 14 percent and above – are also not a problem in Delaware, as they can be on the West Coast. Tannins are generally more moderate locally – ideal for short-term drinking, though a possible detriment to longer aging.

The primary weather problems in Delaware are “winter kill” for younger vines during extreme periods of cold weather, damaging frosts in late spring and early fall, an occasional hail storm, as well as mildew and other rots brought on my high humidity and frequent rains. Deer, birds and raccoons can also eat grapes and destroy vines.

From an economic standpoint, wineries on the East Coast have many advantages over California and Europe. While production costs are a little higher locally than on the West Coast, there is a large urban population nearby, and wine tourism is booming. In fact, the Delaware Winery Association has received a USDA Specialty Block Grant to encourage grape growing and agri-tourism. The growth of wineries and vineyards in Maryland also means more fruit sourcing options, although only grapes grown in Delaware can be labeled as Delaware wines.

Another advantage for local wineries is their reliance on tasting room sales, especially since many customers see tasting rooms as entertainment venues and are often repeat visitors. For example, although Harvest Ridge wines are sold in 50 state and regional wine stores and about 30 restaurants, “Still, 90 percent of our wines are sold in the tasting room,” Nunan said. Winery sales yield much greater profit margins, as there are no distribution and fewer marketing expenses. Payment is also immediate, so there are no bad-debt write-offs.

An added major source of revenue that sometimes almost outstrips wine sales are business and social events at the wineries and on their grounds, especially weddings. Pizzadili reports it hosts about 25 to 40 weddings a year between April and October.

“I limit our weddings to 16 a year,” said Harvest Ridge’s Nunan, “because we don’t want to be a wedding venue that happens makes wine.”

Yet Delaware has its own list of problems for wineries. Chief among these is trying to enact legislation to permit wineries to ship directly to customers, which most other states permit. “We also aren’t allowed to sell at farmers’ markets,” Nunan said. Added to these legal restrictions is the search for affordable vineyard land, as housing developments are increasingly spreading across lower Delaware. Raley, a moving force in the early years in getting state approval to allow farm wineries to have tasting room sales, now sees land prices as a major problem. “Real estate developers are just sucking up all the property,” she said.

Perhaps most important to the future of the Delaware wine business is the fast-growing acceptance of area residents, who not long ago would have doubted their quality. Today, a stop at the local winery is becoming required entertainment whenever family and friends come to visit for the weekend.

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