It’s amazing all the people that I reach! Thank you for all of the love!

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Galer Estate Vineyard and Winery has become one of the leading boutique wineries in the region, marrying old world methods with modern technology to make wine. Recently, one local oenophile spent a day among the grapes and the vines at Galer, learning the art of what makes its wines so unique

Sunlight, held together by water

By Alessandra Nicole

I spent one day this past September in a beautiful, golden daze, up to my elbows in freshly harvested Chardonnay grapes.

As the late afternoon sunshine glowed on the vines, I dove into the two-ton tub of bright green grape clusters. Big, brazen bees buzzed unabashedly all around me, attracted to the delicious sticky juice on my hands. I was feeling a fulfilling fatigue from having worked a very honest day in the fresh air.

On assignment from this magazine, I was a winemaker for a day at Galer Estate Winery and Vineyard.

Few things paint a more romantic picture in my mind than winemaking, and my own romance began the year before I was of legal drinking age. I studied to be a wine sommelier while attending art school in Savannah, Georgia, which gave me a realistic insight into the culture, science, art, and profession of winemaking.

Though a career in photography eventually won out, my personal love affair with the end results of each bottle of wine I uncork is very much ongoing. With each inky elixir I tip to my lips, I acknowledge the hard work that goes into what eventually ends up in my glass, on my dinner table, and enjoyed with my friends. Wine has stayed quite interwoven in the great and continuing tapestry of my life.

My teacher at Galer was the exceptionally talented and personable Virginia Smith Mitchell, Galer’s new winemaker. Soon after I met her, I realized that this assignment had given me the opportunity to spend a day with someone who aspires to keep the bar raised very high for this very special winemaking region. Learning from her was like looking into the window of my missed calling, and knowing that it’s all being handled by an extraordinary visionary who is attending very much to hers.

A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Mitchell, along with her new husband, Chase, both graduated from Penn State with food science degrees. Mitchell worked a couple of internships with large commercial wineries in eastern Pennsylvania and abroad in South Australia at Two Hands during college. She returned to Erie after graduation and worked her way up to assistant winemaker at Mazza Vineyards, one of the first wineries in Pennsylvania and the largest in the state.

Mitchell utilized her time there to work on new products and hone in on what she really wanted from her career and trained under a really great winemaker and oenologist. She was able to make her first vintage in 2011.
At Mazza, as many as 50,000 cases – about 1,000 tons — of wine are produced annually, compared to 25 tons of grapes processed each year at Galer. Part of the reason why Mitchell left the large winery was to become more involved with the grapes and be more hands-on in all aspects of the process.

“I felt I was missing out on some things at the larger winery,” Mitchell said. “Mazza gave me a lot of opportunities to make products, but then those products became owned by the winery. Working at a boutique winery like Galer gives me an opportunity to work directly with the grapes and the winemaking, put my name on the product and share some ownership of it.”

For vineyard owners Brad and Lele Galer, bringing Mitchell on board was a very easy decision. Galer opened in 2011 and with it began a new standard of winemaking in Chester County, that marries “Old World” style winemaking with advances in “New World” technology. “Old World” winemaking is an intelligent combination of respect of the history and wine producing abilities of a particular region, melded with reliance on terrain, soil and climate. It is an elegant art form of embracing “what is,” in terms of seeing what the process yields as the grapes are harvested and fermented. The Galers worked closely with a team of experts to build the highest level of wine-making facility, allowing them to control all aspects of winemaking, from production to bottling.

I arrived for my day as a cellar hand mid morning, wearing the recommended long pants, waterproof shoes, and t-shirt, and walked through the signature towering rust-colored iron gates. Mitchell took me on a brief tour that included the Barrel Room, which she had recently pressure-washed the floor of herself, and with the assistance of her husband, arranged the pretty oak wine barrels into neat rows. I was able see her well-lit white laboratory where we would later test grapes for acidity to determine when they would be ready for harvesting.

Mitchell then took me past the bottling machine. “Next to fermentation, bottling is the most important aspect of winemaking,” she said. “The bottling line is the end point, and if something gets messed up in the bottling line, that’s your end product, the end result. Brad wanted to buy a new car, but they decided to buy a bottling machine instead.”

The machine can both cap and cork the bottles, and labels them. It takes up to three people to run — one person to feed the bottles into the machine, another to take the bottles off at the end to put them into cases, and someone in the middle to make sure everything is going properly.

We ended the facility’s tour up in the fermentation room, where we began the day sanitizing large long plastic hoses so that we could “rack the Chardonnay,” a process that moves the juice from one temperature-controlled vat through an air tight hose via a pump into another tank where fermentation is added and monitored daily until it is ready to be aged in oak barrels in the Barrel Room below.

Mitchell clamped the end of a hose to the spout at the bottom of the tank of grape juice harvested a few days prior, and asked me to press the big button on the pump. The juice began flowing through the hose.

While the Chardonnay was racking, Mitchell showed me how to document the ferment of a nearby tank of Pinot Gris. Documentation is very important to Mitchell so that she will be able to look back year to year and track information and progress. From the documentation, she is able to create graphs for her processes. This information will become her Winemaker’s Diary. She wrote down all of the ferments daily which consists of temperature and a Brix reading – or sugar concentration.

“20 brix will give an alcohol of 11.5 percent,” she said.

While the Chardonnay we just racked had a brix of 21 ― which will make an alcohol equivalent of about 12 percent — We used a thermometer and a hydrometer to check the sugar reading of the Pinot Gris. Mitchell observed the color and aroma of the Pinot Gris. She took a taste of it through the hydrometer, and offered me a sip. The juice had a thickish salmon color and a slight yeasty taste that reminded me of beer.

With the Chardonnay racked and all the daily ferments checked and documented, we set out in the early afternoon sunshine to walk Galer’s lower vineyard to take grape samples from different areas for a diverse test sample to represent the entire vineyard. When the grapes are tested at around 20 brix, she decides along with the vineyard manager when to harvest.

We hiked down through the upper vineyard where the fourth-year vines twist and curl their lovely little grip around the stakes and wire in natural elegant filigree until we reached the lower vineyard. These vines were planted in 1994. We plucked a few grapes from various areas and different places of the cluster and I popped a grape into my mouth, enjoying the sweet meat of it and worked the seed out, politely discarding this as I kept up with Mitchell’s stride. The rows hadn’t been mowed in a few weeks, and tall husks of grass met the edges of the brown soil at the base of the vines.

I turned to admire Galer’s property from the bottom of it’s lower vineyard. Set just behind Longwood Gardens, Galer is a quiet, peaceful place away from most traffic where the songs of bird and insect are able to dominate a charming and rustic landscape. I had seen this beauty before, only much bigger.

Last September, I was gifted a trip to the Napa and Sonoma wine regions of Northern California. Each breath of air I took seemed to take on the enormity of a personal revival. We drove through miles of grapes and uncorked some of California’s best 2010 vintages. We fell in love with many remarkable bottles, scribbling down names and notes. We spoke with other travelers, with many sommeliers, chefs, winemakers, and especially with each other. It had been a long time since I had sipped wine so very consciously. All of my antennae were up. All of my senses were engaged and my palette rejoiced.

With lower vineyard samples in sealed zip-lock bags, we headed back up to Galer and into Mitchell’s laboratory, where we popped the grapes in the bags, mashing them until they were nice and juicy.

Mitchell poured the juice into a little bowl and calibrated a pH reader for three tests to be done on the juices from our sample. Testing is not Mitchell’s favorite part of the winemaking process.

“I would rather just be making the wine instead of doing all the tests myself,” admitted Mitchell, though she’s really good at the data and lab part of this process and it’s really important to her. She continued to show me how she tests the acidity of the juice to determine if the grapes are ready for harvest.

When we emerged from the lab, it was time to climb into Mitchell and her husband’s pickup and drive ribbons of roads through the southern Chester County countryside, past Embreeville, to an enormous, gorgeous vineyard in Coatesville, one of two in the area. I had no idea it existed. The vines seemed to stretch endlessly. We took a drive around it’s perimeter so that I was able to take it all in before circling back to meet the vineyard manager for our Chardonnay pickup.

“It varies year to year but this year the only grapes we have at the winery is the Chardonnay, which is about 7 or 8 tons,” Mitchell said. “We don’t really ever have to supplement the Chardonnay. Sixty-five percent of the wine that we make is grown by the Galer’s property. At Galer Winery and Estate, we keep Chardonnay and then there’s the home winery [where Brad and Lele Galer reside], which has five varietals.”

The vineyard manager used a tractor to push the tubs of grapes onto a large scale pad that weighed the grapes. He sent us back to Galer with two and a half tons of absolutely delicious-looking Chardonnay on a trailer on the back of the truck. We returned to the ribbons of road, winding through the country side with the windows down and air blowing our hair around. I watched the grapes through the back window of the truck’s cab, strapped in and following us in four very large plastic lugs on a trailer. I couldn’t imagine a more rustic and romantic sight than being on horseback on one of the green hilly farms and watching three people in the cab of a pickup hauling Chardonnay grapes.

Soon we were back at Galer and Mitchell’s husband used a tractor to lift one of the huge bins of grapes onto the deck where we would manually scoop them into buckets. For me, this was probably the most pleasing part of the day from a tactile standpoint. It was later in the afternoon at this point and the shadows in the upper vineyard were drawing out slowly. The glorious shining sun was losing altitude. Working so closely with the grapes all day and getting that amount of fresh still-summery air had been especially gratifying.

Wine is sunlight, held together by water.

I held these green weighty clumps of grapes in my hands, with Galileo’s quote on my mind and admired the wholesomeness of them. These exact grapes will be juiced in the machine, the marrow of them flowing through the long hoses into the fermentation room, into a holding tank, and carefully attended to by Mitchell through her fermentation process. Afterward, they will be casked in the oak barrels stored downstairs where they will rest for many moons, and bottled, saving their very unique poem until someone is incited to open one, pour it into some stemware, and finally tilt the glass to their lips. That moment will be a couple of years or more from this very moment.

By then, Mitchell will have spent a couple of years flourishing with Galer and will have blossomed into an award-winning household name amongst foodies and oenophiles alike. Yet at this moment, as I admired the grapes, Mitchell was standing next to me. She was nursing a fresh bee sting, her second sting of her first harvest season at Galer Estate and Winery. She shrugged off the sting, as if to say that such mishaps are part of the bargain for choosing to follow one’s passions – the necessary evil of one’s artistic imprint.

The bees bounced off of my arms and my smiling, sun-kissed cheeks as I continued to help fill the buckets.

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Alessandra’s story and photos: http://www.kennettsquaretoday.com/magazines/kennetttodaywinter14/index.html

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Rainy Day NYC

October 22, 2014

Autumnal colour isn’t only found in October foliage! New York City certainly wears the season well. I will take this town rain or shine. Don’t you just love NYC in the fall?

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harvest season

October 9, 2014

all gussied up for October
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San Marzano tomatoes on the vine
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I bought these tomato plants the day before Mother’s Day last May at a flower market festival. We’ve had a lot of fun nurturing them all summer.
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the green ones will ripen on their own in a few days indoors
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ahctober

October 8, 2014

couple snapshots from early this morning outside of the studio…

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sunrise! 645 am Octobertime

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if I had to awaken on a bed of yellow mums, I’d be in the shape of a smile too. : )

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We really got doused last night!

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funny things one sees outside of the studio (DD!)

the solitary pair

October 3, 2014

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Follow me on Instagram @alessandra_official

Landenberg Today Magazine

Landenberg Today Magazine

After putting her pursuit of a pilot’s license on hold for more than a dozen years, a writer/photographer returns to the air over Landenberg and beyond, and falls in love again with the memory – and sensation – of soaring through the skies

Like a ballerina in the air

By Alessandra Nicole
Contributing Writer

I have always believed that there is something so strong yet so vulnerable about flying in a small plane. I am in love with that duality; it’s like both cursing gravity and knowing you’re also at the mercy of it, so when I arrived at the New Garden Flying Field on July 25, on assignment from this magazine to write about my return to flying, I knew that I was about to re-live that duality.

For there it was, waiting for me. A flawless shiny red 1946 Fairchild 24.

The first flight I ever took I do not even remember. I was a colicky infant coming over to the United States from Germany with two new parents who reported that I cried for the entire eight- hour flight.

When I was 16, my father and I flew to Miami from Philadelphia the week I graduated high school. I was glued to the window the entire time. I had never seen clouds from the top before; the sight of such impacted my portfolio for art school; as a direct result the experience married my obsession with Degas’ graceful, blue-bathed ballerinas and the ethereal cloud shapes through which we flew on the trip to Miami and back.

When I was in my early twenties, I held a job in Washington for three years as a federal contractor that required me to fly to just about every major U.S. city a week at a time. The constant travel at that age felt glamorous, and every Monday morning for me was filled with prickly anticipation at my next big- city destination.

But the first flight that overtook my heart was one I experienced while attending the Savannah College of Art & Design. I had begun contributing some of my photography to a local entertainment newspaper. On one of my assignments, I found myself in the belly of a large military plane headed to Fort Bragg, N.C., along with 100 Green Berets. They were required to routinely take what’s called a “Hollywood Jump” to maintain current parachuting status, and I photographed them as they stepped one-by-one off the back of the cargo opening and floated out over the beautiful patchwork quilt of farms below.

On the return to Savannah the pilots had me join them in the cockpit for the flight, and from there I was absolutely hooked. It felt like glorious magic watching the pilots guide such a tremendous machine through the air. I loved everything about it, the banter of the pilots on the head sets, the communication with air towers, all the dials and instruments, the updrafts that would put butterflies in my stomach, and the feeling of defying physics to some degree ― the thrill of some form of anarchy against nature.

Years later, on my commutes from my office in southwest Washington, D.C. to my home in Delaware, I would regularly pass a tiny airport outside of Annapolis on Rt. 50. It had a large banner advertising their flight lessons. In late summer of 2001, I was intrigued enough to find my way to the landing strip and go up in a small twin engine airplane to see if it was something I’d like to further pursue.

The experience I had in Annapolis on my hour long first lesson that August afternoon was a total delight of the senses. Being in a small aircraft was completely different from being in a large cruising commercial airliner. It felt personal. It was intimate, delicate, highly technical; an elevated experience in a spiritual sense. I felt like a ballerina in the air.

When we landed again I was absolutely over the moon about the flight. I wore an enormous irrepressible grin for hours, even days afterward. I signed myself up for lessons immediately; I couldn’t wait to learn more! I couldn’t wait to feel like I was levitating again. I wanted to see the mosaic of homes and hills stretch out to the horizon, to see sun spill across the Chesapeake Bay in endless throngs of glitter beneath me. I was looking forward to the prestige of mastering a unique skill unheard of in my family and social circle. My first lesson took me into the air and taught me about using my heightened sensitivities to feel the changes in the air mass around me and gave me confidence in my innate desire for finding balance within the given atmosphere amidst all of it’s unpredictable changes and excelling through the elements. I loved it in the sky.

A few short weeks later in September, however, two commercial airplanes were redirected from their flight patterns and were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, another flew into the Pentagon, and still another crashed in rural Pennsylvania. The world was in shock. Things were never to be the same again. Life as we knew it as Americans was changed forever.

My life changed, too. I was a handful of blocks away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when they were attacked. The magnitude of witnessing such a thing deeply changed my own life’s course. My small flight school was closed for federal audits as our nation’s government sought to learn more about who was taking lessons on simulators for domestic commercial aircraft. The greater Washington, D.C. area shifted into a mode of sheer fear and daily panic, heightened security measures were implemented all around. The day’s color-coded terror alerts were discussed over our morning coffee. My own job subsequently got very busy; many of my co-workers refused to fly for a long time and I, still being willing to go up in the air, was assigned a great deal of travel. The goal of working to earn a pilot’s license would be put on hold indefinitely.

Today, I am a professional photographer, and more than 12 years after my last seat in the cockpit of an aircraft I was given the opportunity to climb back in. As I made the tranquil, picturesque drive to New Garden Flying Field to meet with it’s manager, Jonathan Martin, I felt nervous to the point of nausea. My heart was in my throat at the anticipation of the experience. I parked the car, fumbled clumsily around for my camera bag, took a great big deep breath, and trekked over to the landing strip, where Martin met me with an encouraging smile. There, he revealed his stunning and fully-restored 1946 Fairchild 24. My nervousness vanished. An enormous irrepressible grin – one that had accompanied me on all of those past flights years before – had returned.

We flew Martin’s red vintage plane over Landenberg and out to the Chesapeake Bay and chatted about how we each fell in love with aviation. The Fairchild 24 is a cozy craft with 4 seats, crank windows, high wings, and an inverted (upside-down), self lubricating 200hp engine. Martin’s plane hadn’t flown since 1952, and, as the third owner in 2011, the Fairchild 24 was his second total aircraft restoration. I could tell it was restored lovingly. “Truly a labor of love,” said Martin, “Wanna fly it?”

“Yes!” I gasped. Very gingerly I took over the flight.

The Fairchild handled like a Danseur noble with complete aplomb. It was a smooth, steady, responsive: a gentleman of the sky. We took a course out over Havre de Grace, saw the Cecil County Fair from above, and saw the sun spill it’s treasure over the vast Chesapeake Bay once more. I was captivated. I fell in love all over again.

After some time I relinquished control to Martin who curved us around back toward New Garden. “Wanna land it?” asked Martin.

“Oh- No, no thank you!” I exclaimed, suddenly very nervous.

“Aw, come on. It’s the most important part! Take-off is optional but landing is mandatory,” he laughed. Indeed! He vectored us in for a landing in the grass right next to the landing strip.

“This old plane prefers to land in the grass. Easier on the rubber.”

New Garden Airfield was originally built by the duPont family and was sold to New Garden Township in 2007. Jonathan Martin, who has had a special place in his heart for New Garden Airfield since he was 12, was asked to join the Township as manager of the airfield in 2008.

I was elated to learn that Martin along with Court Dunn, a pilot with a teaching background, have been very enthusiastically heading a young aviation program for the past 5 years. The Future Aviators Summer Camp was established in 2009.  This first year they had 28 campers and every year the program has grown and now attracts children from all over the US.  This year they have 130+ campers registered for this summer!

I told Martin that I wish I had been exposed to aviation from the small aircraft vantage point much earlier on in life and that these young people are fortunate to have access to such a thrilling program. I believe Martin is responsible for inspiring and changing the trajectory of young people’s lives in a very positive way. It would be an honor to know that at the end of your day through your passion for what you do you implemented a program that has impacted the lives of young people in such a horizons-expanding manner. I believe exposure to small craft aviation sets a young person up for the ability to dare to achieve worthy things in life.

The return to the cockpit was such a spirited and emotional one for me. The return to the wide open skies in that gentle and elegant way was a return to myself. I left the experience feeling a decade younger and I text messaged one of my friends with shaking hands, “There is something so strong yet vulnerable about flying in a small plane. I had all but forgotten the wonder of it.” Moments later he responded, “Strong yet vulnerable? You’re describing yourself! Welcome back.”

published: http://www.landenbergtoday.com/magazines/ltfall14/index.html?page=48

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