Heart and Soul’ Keep Delaware’s 1st Farm Winery Going Strong

9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

LEWES, Del. — Tell Peggy Raley-Ward something can’t be done at your own peril.

Raley-Ward bucked centuries of Delaware agricultural tradition when she began the first vineyard in Delaware.

“So many people said it couldn’t be done,” she said.

Today, Nassau Valley Vineyards, run by Raley-Ward and her sister, Suzette Hopkins, has grown from a handful of vines to a bustling winery which has won more than 100 medals in international competition.

Delaware had peach groves, apple orchards, corn and broiler chickens aplenty. But there were no vineyards in the small state.

“People even said the area was too flat,” she said, laughing.

The first few vines were planted by her father, Bob Raley, and John Simpler. At that time, Peggy Raley was a young wine lover who worked very far from home for the Friends of Wine Magazine and Les Amis du Vin International.

“My dad says it’s a story about fishing because it involves bait,” she said.

Once those first vines took root, Raley told his daughter, “You don’t have to keep running up and down to these highfaluting vineyards. We can make wine here.”

She decided that the sandy soils, temperate climate and abundant sunshine of the beach area were actually well-suited to growing grapes.

Delaware passed legislation allowing the establishment of farm wineries in 1991, legislation drafted by Raley. Two years later, Nassau Valley Vineyards opened its doors to the public.

Almost 19 years have passed since those early days, and the vineyard now boasts a number of traditional vintages as well as wines made with blueberries and peaches.

The vineyard doesn’t grow all of the grapes that it needs on the small farm. But Raley-Ward makes sure that the emphasis is always on using local and regional fruits for the vineyard wines.

Every drop of wine is bottled and made on the premises. “We’re trying to keep it as true regionally as possible.”

She’s a purist at heart, arguing passionately that making wine is about much more than just soil chemistry and aging. Part science, part art and all passion, she says that winemaking is truly an art.

“A certain amount of heart and soul has to go into it,” she said.

Earlier this month, Nassau Valley Vineyards began harvesting. The six-acre-plus vineyard produced six tons of chardonnay grapes and four tons of merlot grapes.

Cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc have yet to be picked. There is also a small amount of petit verdot, but the young vines aren’t ready to produce a harvest yet.

While many farmers were hit hard by a dry summer, it did not hurt the grape harvest. Grapes do not like “wet feet” and do best when the weather is not too rainy.

Nassau Valley is a European-style dry vineyard, which means the vineyards are not irrigated.

The vineyard is clearly a labor of love for Raley-Ward, who wears her passion prominently on her sleeve. She considers much of her job to be educating people about wine.

Hence, the small museum on the grounds which explains 8,000 years of wine history. “Wine has been the beverage of everyday man for centuries,” she said.

The museum allows visitors to get a glimpse into that long history through a self-guided tour. Raley-Ward said that history was interrupted by Prohibition, which single-handedly changed the way Americans view wine.

Until Prohibition, wine was commonly made at home and sold to make extra money. But when Prohibition was finally lifted, there were almost no wineries in existence in America.

That meant wine lovers had to import wine from other areas, like Europe. With the Depression raging and imported wine beyond the means of most Americans, “wine was suddenly relegated into the hands of the wealthy,” she said.

At that moment, she said wine became something for the snooty to savor. It’s an idea she abhors. “With wine, people think they are supposed to like certain things.”

“But if you don’t like steak, then you don’t like steak. ... The only way you find out what you like is by tasting.”

She said more young people are now visiting the winery and she finds their attitude refreshing. “The nice thing about young people is that they are not afraid to like what they like,” she said.

If that means drinking white wine with meat or placing an ice cube or two in your glass, she’s just fine with that. “Life is too short. This is not a dress rehearsal,” she said.

The history may be what she loves most. “Wine is the only thing in the world that lets you pop a cork and taste history,” she said. “You can pull a cork and taste time. ... I think that’s quite magical.”

“If you don’t have heart, you can’t make good wine,” Raley-Ward said.

The winery labels have often featured artwork from late artist Tom Wilson, long considered one of the premiere artists in the beach region. More recently, wine labels have sometimes borne the artwork of popular local artist Abraxas.

When asked why, she replied, “Wine is art.”

Other countries strictly regulate wine, but America is far less stringent about how wines are made. It’s a distinction which troubles her because it means some wineries add ingredients that can include color enhancers or cane sugar.

“I think that is reprehensible,” she said.

She compares the results to something akin to pancake syrup when it comes to fruit wines like blueberry. Nassau Valley Vineyards uses “100 percent fruit and nothing else and that’s made all the difference in the world,” she said. “Most people say they don’t like fruit wines. But maybe they have never had a good one.”

The winery also serves as a location for weddings, concerts, photo exhibits and other events. There are two full-service event facilities which means every weekend “it is full tilt boogie,” she said.

Raley-Ward jokes about the romance of running a vineyard while going in 12 directions at once. Her then-future husband once jokingly said to her, “You mean you’re not running around in sun dresses going tra-la-la?”

Winemaker and vineyard manager Michael Reese is a relatively new addition to Nassau Valley Vineyards. When their former winemaker left, Raley-Ward decided to give Reese a chance.

A former construction worker who made wines at home, Reese has settled in nicely and the vineyard is flourishing.

Reese was “punching the cap” recently on four tons of merlot grapes picked three days earlier. Punching means the skins which float to the top are punched down into the grape juice below.

“It’s always good to see something from start to finish and know you had a hand in it the whole way,” he said. “It is rewarding. It is nice to know other people are liking my wines.”

For more information about Nassau Valley Vineyards, visit www.nassauvalley.com.

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