Winemaker Q&A: Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards

Va La Vineyards in Avondale, PA
Winemaker Anthony Vietri and wife Karen of Va La Vineyards

This is an abridged transcript of email conversations I’ve had with Anthony Vietri of Va La Vineyards over the last few months on artisan winemaking and growing more obscure French & Italian grape varieties on the East Coast.

Artisan vs Industrial Wines

You talk about the difference between wine as an art form and wine as an industrial beverage. You are striving for artisanal wines. Can you elaborate on the differences?

AV: There are essentially two main kinds of wine in the world, and we should consider them differently. The vast majority of wines in the world are now being made as industrial beverages. All methods of mechanical, chemical, biological techniques are employed to create a stable, inert product that will safely taste the same way all the time — and throughout time. Much of the philosophy is borrowed from the soda industry. The constant critical demand for products without imperfections has created this world; unfortunately it is lacking in interest.

Artisanal wines attempt to provide a closer relationship between the land and the drink. These are wines based on the belief that it is important or of value to have a sense of the person and place — “who” makes the wines and where the wines come from are of interest. Risks are taken – in winemaking and growing – to step outside the box, in the hope of discovering and providing the audience with a unique or perhaps profound experience.

So you’re contrasting 2 competing philosophies: do you start with the vineyard – the terroir – and try to make a wine that expresses that, or do you start with consumer demand and try to make a wine that caters to that?

AV: Right, industrial wines, much like films today, are created by group think sessions to discover the flavors, textures, and broadest appeal a wine can possibly have. There are now consultants (originally from Napa and Australia) being hired by wineries in France, Italy, etc to help them get a share of the international market by employing the newest tool of international wines: Back blending sugar into “dry” big reds just before bottling.

Artisanal wines tend to be the vision of a single vigneron, for good or bad.

I’ve noticed that issue with “dry” wines seemingly having residual sugar here on the East Coast. My understanding is that you can call a wine “dry” if the residual sugar is less than 1%. However, if you ferment a wine to dryness, you’re trying to hit like 0.1%-0.2% for it to be stable. So, you’re saying they would then add residual sugar back into the wine after fermentation completes?

AV: From my experience, the PA industry has a long and continuous history of adding back sugar to ‘dry’ wines before bottling. But the shocking thing is that now a huge amount of California/ American reds that are under $20, especially those sold to the restaurant industry, have sugar added back.

What’s funny is that writers and drinkers call this “fruit forward”. It is NOT fruit, but most humans want to describe the sweetness as ‘fruitiness’. It is even happening with high end cult Napa wines in order to immediately balance out the tannic grip early on for the Parker tasting. Anyway, this is a phenomenon that is actually growing.

Artisan Winemaking – Organics & Biodynamics

In terms of artisanal winemaking, what are your thoughts on the biodynamic (bioD) movement? It seems the trend in French winemaking now is moving towards organics and even bioD winemaking.

AV: I am ambivalent. I have studied it for some time, and in general I have two main concerns.

  1. There are major red flags regarding the messenger of this movement (Steiner)
  2. The lack of verifiable scientific evidence.

However, I also know that the major detractors are in the science cult — the UC Davis homogenization camp.

If the bioD crowd is making great wines, does it matter if you can’t verify what they do scientifically?

AV: Well, human beings can create great beauty from their beliefs. Wine is in a constant struggle between autocratic industrial beverages and artisan ones. For me art wins. In the presence of beauty, I don’t feel the need to agree with, or even understand, the underlying faith that created it.

Do you think that applies to organic winemaking as well?

AV: No, I am only speaking here of bioD. Organic movements, I am fully on board with –well, except with the dogma of marketing it… or defining the term. They are ethically and intuitively good. Hence, as usual, I am in no camp! Anyway, I part ways over the marketing of both bioD and organic which leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The natural wine camp seems to argue that the only way to make artisan wine is by sticking to the philosophies of “sans soufre” or biodynamics. Those on the fringe tend to be the most vocal. Do you see these as “fads” or do you think they have some legitimacy?

AV: I think that in today’s world, whenever you try to sell a product based mostly on the specific method that it is made in, if it is about the method and not the final product, that yes, I suspect that it will ultimately prove to be a fad.

However, I also think that there is great merit in the belief system of bioD and organic movements. I just believe that they should be personal beliefs. And like religion, for me it detracts from the messenger and the message when someone preaches their beliefs at the world in a righteous manner or tries to peddle them to us under the big white tent.

Va La isn’t “organic,” correct?

AV: We are not technically part of the organic organization. I’m not sure what products they have listed these days as ‘acceptable’.

But I grew up in a family who, for generations, used northern Italian principles now often found in the bioD handbook, so I have some understanding of the concepts, preparations, etc. In the cellar, I was taught to make wine without sulfur or any chemical additions. We used no pumps or machines, foot-crushed the grapes, racked by mouth siphon, extended macerated whites on skins, racked and bottled by moon phase, etc – so my education is in the ‘primitive’ camp.

But you no longer do that?

AV: After being dissuaded by the industry from using such techniques, I was pretty much forced to shun my background. However, I have gradually and quietly started to return to my roots. This is where I am comfortable.

Does that mean you’re moving more towards organics or biodynamics – just not labeling it as such? Or is that unrealistic given the grape growing conditions of the East Coast?

AV: Well, we’re located in ground zero for fungal diseases – but we try to pursue as little chemical impact on our vines as humanly possible. There are products that are officially acceptable to the organics organization (OMRI) that we will not use here.

However, we don’t have any intentions of becoming a devotee of Mr. Steiner. We are not in the ‘ultra- naturalist’ camp (i.e. don’t touch the vine, don’t prune, don’t spray, just make wine out of whatever you end up with) because I feel that it limits quality.

With organics – you said you like the philosophy, just not the marketing?

AV: We have no intention of becoming members of the organic organizations, or labeling as such. For us it’s just a private matter; it is important to us as simply a personal belief that we strive to meet.

Anyway, I support any belief system that stands up to industrial beverage making. However, when people begin to make claims that have little to do with growing grapes…

Intuitively, I suppose my reticence regarding bioD is that it begins to queasily approach a religious belief. Once it becomes that, one tends to (or is forced to) abandon critical thinking, especially regarding data that threatens that belief.

Separating the marketing hype from reality with those who claim to be making artisan wines focusing on regional “terroir” or “typicity” is challenging – especially in France. It seems it’s everyone’s “philosophy,” but a good number of French producers who talk about it are all making similar wines. It just seems like with wine, so much is marketing hype.

AV: Yes, wine is SO much marketing hype, it is true (especially in France). It’s the part of the business I am least good at and try to avoid; I am not comfortable with the self promotion thing.

Va La Winemaking

With Va La, over the years, you’ve seemed to have shifted your focus to making four primary wines – the La Prima Donna (LPD), Silk, Mahogany and Cedar. You’ve phased out a number of wines (Castana, Siranetta, and Cinderbox), and still make a few others (Zafferano, Seed & Patina) occasionally. Is that correct?

AV: Yes. The field we farm contains approx 6.73 acres (2.7 hectares). Within this field there are four separate soils. Each soil produces one wine.

And you often release your wines in batches – for instance, the Siranetta 2008, had at least 3 (I think) & the Zafferano 2010 had 2. Why do you do this?

AV: Each wine is made from a compendium of smaller batches, that is, each wine is made from several passes through the vineyard that produce many separate small batches which are then blended together to form a single wine.

Occasionally, as in the examples you mentioned, certain batches have unique personalities or traits that we find compelling as a stand alone, and so we go ahead and release it that way rather than blend it into the main wine. Extended lees contact, or additional barrel aging, or a second primary re-fermentation, or aging outdoors in demi-johns, etc, have been some of the reasons that led to separate batches and releases.

Just so I’m clear, each vineyard pass = 1 batch? And most batches are blended together for the main wine, unless they have something unique about them that makes them interesting as a standalone?

AV: Yes.

Your wines are all blends of different grapes and batches – for instance, your Mahogany is a blend of 8 grapes (Malvasia Nero, Barbera, Sagrantino, Carmine, Lagrein, Charbono, Teroldego, Petit Verdot) and your La Prima Donna (LPD) has at least 4-5 (Malvasia Bianco, Fiano, Tocai Fruiliano, Petit Manseng, and Pinot Grigio). Can you talk about the blending process?

AV: Blending is a tricky thing. If you do co-fermentation, in my experience, the wines tend to develop in unison and change very little. If you attempt to blend finished wines, it is not as simple as pouring x mls of wine A and x mls of wine B into a glass and tasting it. That only gives you a very false approximation of what putting those two wines together will do. For in my experience it actually can take days, if not months, for the flavors, textures, and aromas of two wines blended together to settle into the final state that they will end up in.

So how do you decide what the final blends should be? Is there some type of process for selecting the most “optimal choice?”

AV: In my opinion, late blending contains a great deal of stabbing in the dark and bullshitting. I think that it may unfortunately be a fallacy of group think to believe that you can sit around a table blending different lots into glasses and that the result on that day will be the same as the final product. What you may consider to be a perfect blend at the tasting table, may actually never taste like that again. But at some point you just have to just bloody well choose something!

You’re saying co-fermentation gives you a better blend?

AV: With co-fermentation, it is much easier to create balanced and focused wines, assuming that you have spent years of R&D on coming up with the correct ratio of grapes. It tends to give more seamless styles of wines.

Late blending, in theory, can end up with more complex wines if done properly, but just as easily can give less focused and chunkier ones due to the new chemical and tannin reactions that you have created by putting separate, individually élevaged wines together. In my opinion, late blending performs best with longer cellaring before release, or longer bottle aging before release.

Does that mean that you do co-fermentation for Va La wines rather than late blending?

AV: We do both actually. In some of the wines, we first do co-fermentation, and then the separate co-fermed batches are later blended. In other wines, we specifically ferment and age the varietals in separate batches and do not blend together until much later.

Sometimes in your newsletters, you say wines are hand-bottled. Does that mean you fill each one up manually and cork them by hand?

AV: Yes, those wines are physically bottled by hand without a bottle filler, just a hose and one bottle at a time. Then they are corked with a mallet. I’ve done it that way here since I was a child.

That sounds very time consuming – what is the benefit to hand bottling? Can you see a difference between hand and machine bottling?

AV: I can only speak of my own experiences, but yes, there are differences between the bottling methods, but I’m not sure that one should expect folks to notice the vast majority of them. Generally speaking, in the short term, hand-bottled wines tend to come together sooner and suffer less bottling shock. If one takes great care in their ‘normal’ bottling, not much of a difference should be evident in the long term.

Va La Wines

You make red wines built for aging, which can mean that out of the bottle, the most recent red releases can be a little tight and austere when just opened. But I’ve noticed that after decanting for say 24 hours, they open up and integrate extremely well. Can you talk about their aging potential?

AV: Yes, I am trying to make red wines that are built for aging, so they are still a bit concentrated and young. Generally, it is my working expectation that the Cedar and Mahogany, as made now, will take about 7-10 years to reach their summit. I recommend that the reds from our field are best enjoyed with 24 hours decanting in their first 5-10 years.

That said, we tasted some 01 Corvinas etc, recently and were amazed at how even this light vintage had held up -and this was before we really knew we had on our hands.

With the most recent white releases (LPD, Zafferano), you are now making them as vin orange. Can you explain your process for making the wines?

AV: The 2009 LPD is the first version where we fermented and long-macerated the grapes on their skins, extracting deeper flavors, and picking up color (hence vin orange.) Everything goes through malolactic fermentation, and the wine is neither cold nor heat stabilized, and thus, cloudy. We pretty much make it like Mahogany, believe it or not, and that’s how we view it.

You make it like your red wines?

AV: Yes, our intention was to produce a white wine that would have richer, more lush qualities, texture, and the potential to age. This is in contrast to the whole cluster pressing before fermentation thing, and throwing out the guts and layers of flavor in order to produce a crystal clear beverage.

I guess you need to do pretty strict grape sorting with that?

AV: Yes, one needs very ripe grapes, the right site, and very low yields to attempt it, which limits how much one can produce. And the lack of water-like clarity is pretty much a death knell in the US market, so of course we make it. Northeast Italy is one of the last pockets of folks seriously fermenting whites on their skins.

And the general response has been positive?

AV: I was a little fearful about how it would be viewed, but luckily, we had some very wonderful response. Now the biggest problem is that we only had 100 cases!

So is vin orange the direction you will continue to take these wines?

AV: Yes, LPD and any future Zaff will continue to be vin orange. I grew up making whites in this style here, and so, these are wines that I feel comfortable with and a deeper connection with.

Va La Grape Growing

Your LPD used to have Viognier – but I think you said you pulled out all of your vines because they took over your vineyard.

AV: Yes, we pulled almost every vine of Viognier and Tocai. Viognier and Tocai are extremely vigorous; their sensitivity to water is the most I’ve seen of any variety, (and believe me, we’ve seen a lot of varieties!) It is also is victim – only in SE PA as far as I know – to some kind of as yet unidentified ripe rot that is devastates the entire crop about twice a decade.

I’ve been tasting a lot of Viognier in Virginia, and it seems the grape has very low acidity down there. Did you have problems with acidity levels up here?

AV: Acid was not the issue. It’s just that the beauty that Viognier is known for is inconsistent to reproduce, and even though the wine may be fine, it is a let down when it is not the stuff that makes your heart swoon. I literally still have nightmares about its over-vigor; I am deeply scarred! Those soils are now occupied by Carmine and Seed, planted at ~ 4,000 vines per acre.

Petit Manseng also seems to be an up-and-coming grape in Virginia. What has your experience been with it?

AV: Our Petit Manseng is in its eighth leaf. The industry claims that it is “extremely” vigorous. It is growing in our most fertile soils, and it has never had a single year with heavy vigor in growth nor crop load. It behaves perfectly for us, it just seems to love being here and I love growing it.

This is an example about why we feel that one can’t just make sweeping judgments about varieties. You do not know – until it is in your specific soil – what a variety or clone or a rootstock or a spacing distance or a trellis method is going to do, and then whatever you discover applies only to your site.

You experiment with a lot of grape varieties. Can you tell me about your experiences growing these more obscure grapes?

AV: The Teroldego and Lagrein clones are in their seventh leaf now and I enjoy growing them (Patina, Mahogany). Tocai, which we planted 14 years ago, not so much. (It is my belief that it is, or is a clone of, the Viognier that we had here.) The Lagrein in particular was REALLY difficult to get my hands on back then. Picolit, I like.

I am in love with the idea of Timorasso for our LPD and need to get cuttings, but there are none in America. This is what currently keeps me up at night. It is indigenous to the area of Piemonte that my family is from!

With Timorasso, is that because of lack of US demand or because the government hasn’t approved the cuttings as virus-free and safe to import?

AV: Yes, all new wood, no matter variety or clone, has to go to a certified program to be grown and hopefully proven clean of viruses. This takes thousands of dollars, and several years. Then it takes about three more years to propagate. Then you graft and that takes three years until crop. Make wine, and bottle in two to four years. Thus each new variety is a 10+ year project.

If, however, you can find someone who has already committed to this process, you can hope to buy wood from them. Or wait, and hope a nursery specs some vines (which is not going to happen in the case of obscure varietals.) And I really want that Timorasso!

Why do you think more wine growers don’t experiment with alternative grape varieties?

AV: In my own observations, there are a couple of issues. First, with new varieties you have to spend a ton of time educating the public, and most wineries don’t want to go to the trouble. And second, you have to do years of R&D in the field to determine their viability.

That said, UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services (FPS) has plenty of wonderful new varieties. It’s just that Timorasso is truly rare – and the truly rare have little market potential for someone to spend the money to have the wood certified by FPS.

How do you find people in the process of bringing alternative, more obscure varieties over here?

AV: Well, I search around, make calls, and make friends with folks at FPS who are sometimes kind enough to point me in the right direction. That’s, for instance, how I got my hands on clean Sagrantino before anyone else in the country.

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