Death of a Winery

Chaddsford Winery Barrels

A few years ago, I conducted a wine tasting for a local business who insisted on supplying the wine from Chaddsford Winery in the Brandywine Valley – our state’s largest producer. We served a white blend and a red – Chambourcin – neither of which was very good (and that is being kind). It was at precisely this point that I wrote off Pennsylvania wine in general and Chaddsford specifically. No, it was not very fair, and I fully admit to being a wine snob, but, given the amount of good wine in the world, I thought, why waste my time with the PA juice just because I happen to live here?

As a former bicycle tour guide in France, however, I believe that there is no better way to get to know a region than to peddle through the countryside, stopping along the way to interact with the locals. For some reason, people are much more welcoming when you arrive on a bike–perhaps it helps them recall their youth or makes you seem more like one of them. Maybe they are just scared of all the spandex.

Being the deep thinker I am, I finally came to the realization that one needn’t be in France to do a bike and wine tour, so I planned an excursion through our very own Brandywine Valley with a fellow cyclist and wine drinker. We decided to visit 6-8 wineries, the first of which was Chaddsford Winery. It was time to give them another chance. (More on our trip can be found on The Drunken Cyclist.)

As we pulled into the Chaddsford property, there was a bevy of activity—people setting up picnic lunches, a band belting out folk ballads, patrons coming out of the building with half-corked bottles ready to get their drink on.  An employee was needed to direct traffic and we were ushered to an auxiliary parking area since the main lot was full. The place certainly seemed like it was jumping, which caused the anticipatory anxiety to escalate.  I did not know what to expect—I have been visiting wineries for well over a decade, but this was my first visit to the winery that was not even an hour drive from my house.

Chaddsford Winery

As I walked up to the building, it occurred to me that, although I have a negative view of PA wines, I had never really tried all that much PA wine — maybe a glass or two here and there, but certainly nothing extensive. As our two person private tour started, I was determined to keep an open mind, something that can be hard for me to do. It certainly was a rather impressive set-up, though it did not seem to have been updated for some time.

About 10 minutes into the tour, as I was snapping a few photos and feigning interest, our guide shared some shocking news: Eric Miller, the owner and winemaker at Chaddsford, has recently left the company he founded in 1982.

Huh?

The same Eric Miller that made this video? (Which is still featured on the Chaddsford website, BTW.)

Slowly, without much prodding, the story came out. A longtime “silent investor” has taken over the winery and will ramp up production from roughly 20K cases to 100K cases by 2015. The amount of varietal (dry wine) production will stay the same, while the increase will come from a rather dramatic rise in the production of sweet wines.

Sweet wines?

Our guide informed us that the winery currently makes four different sweet wines: Niagara (the same grape used to make Welch’s White Grape Juice), Sangri-La Sangria, Spiced Apple Wine, and Sunset Blush.

Oh Boy.

I tried not to judge.  Having lived in Northern California, I know how important the oft-maligned White Zinfandel has been to the wine industry. (It’s a cash cow that has enabled wineries to pay the bills and dabble in less profitable but more serious wines.)  If this was the business model that Chaddsford was adopting, I figured I could support it as long as I would not have to pretend to like (or taste) any of these sweet wines.

It wasn’t.

As we continued the tour, it became increasingly clear that the winery was embarking on a complete transformation. Though our tour guide assured us that Chaddsford was going to continue to make dry wines, statement after statement seemed to indicate the contrary. I’m not suggesting that our host was trying to deceive us; he was open, forthcoming, and made every effort to answer all of our questions truthfully (or so it seemed).

It just does not add up.

Almost all of the oak barrels used to age wine have been sold off (save the few pictured above) and the barrel room is now full of boxes of empty bottles to be filled with sweet wines. Our guide even said it “broke his heart” to see the barrels go.

chaddsford-chardonnay-1982

The library wines (with every vintage, most wineries hold back several cases of each wine so that they can monitor the evolution of the wine over the years) will be gradually sold off over the next few years.

And then there’s the real kicker: they’ve also sold the vineyard that produced their estate grown fruit. (Edit: They actually only leased this vineyard, but have terminated the lease.) Going forward, the winery will source (buy) all of the grapes for their dry wines. That’s right — the vineyard that was planted by Eric Miller 30 years ago is no more. Even worse, we found out later that, after unsuccessfully trying to sell the vineyard, the land has been plowed over and will be used to build condominiums.

I have no idea if the Millers were forced out of the winery they built after a few tough harvests, but it sure sounds that way. In the video above, Eric says: “Making wine is what gets me up in the morning. Making absolute top quality wine is what keeps me going day after day, year after year.” Now he says that he and Lee want to travel more, work on another book, and spend more time with their family. We have all heard variations of this refrain before…

After the tour, we sampled the wines, and, as we spoke to our pourers, it seemed clear to me that, while they were excited to share and talk about the wines, there was also a real sadness knowing that this was the end. Perhaps not the technical end of Chaddsford Winery, but certainly the end of an era they had all helped build.

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