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