Delaware’s Burgeoning Wine Industry is at a Precipice

Photo courtesy Nassau Valley Vineyards

Peggy Raley-Ward was 21 years old when she decided to open a winery on her father’s farm in Sussex County, Delaware. The only problem? At that time, in 1988, it was prohibited to produce and sell alcohol manufactured within state lines. So, for three years, Raley-Ward worked to change the law.

Last month marked 30 years since Raley-Ward successfully lobbied the General Assembly to pass its Farm Winery legislation, which ushered in Delaware’s wine, cider and craft brew industry. Her winery, Nassau Valley Vineyards, officially debuted in 1993, and it was the state’s sole commercial vineyard until brothers Pete and Tony Pizzadili founded Pizzadili Winery in 2007.

Delaware’s craft wine and beer scene continues to grow. There are four wineries, two meaderies, and more than 20 breweries, some of which also distill spirits, in the state’s 1,982 square miles.

Harvest Ridge Winery
Harvest Ridge Winery was established in 2010 / Photo courtesy Harvest Ridge Winery

Long overlooked as a winegrowing region, local winemaker Chuck Nunan of Harvest Ridge Winery says he’s considering labeling a future bottling Dela-WHERE?

However, in certain ways, Delaware is ideal for winemaking. Its location between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay ensures a relatively mild climate, and the sandy soil provides good drainage. Its topography allows winegrowers to cultivate Vitis vinifera like Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay.

As legend has it, French wine magazine Gilbert & Gaillard later superimposed a map of Bordeaux over the Delaware Valley region and noted the similarities between the Delaware Bay and the Gironde estuary. The magazine compared Delaware’s growing climate to Bordeaux’s Right Bank, with similarities in season, climates tempered by large bodies of water and soil composition.

The state’s size is also an advantage. Most U.S. winemakers don’t have photos of their governor stomping grapes or know their local representative’s favorite red wine, unlike those in Delaware. Raley-Ward and Nunan have personal relationships with the farmers who supply them fruit grown in places other than their estates, and Nunan mentors a grape farmer who recently went into business up the road. When these growers run into a problem, they say, they can call their state senators or the state’s liquor commissioner and know they’ll be heard.

Peggy Raley-Ward Nassau Valley
Left: Nassau Valley grapes. Right: Peggy Raley-Ward / Photo courtesy Nassau Valley Vineyards

However, the novel coronavirus pandemic uprooted Delaware’s burgeoning wine business. Raley-Ward cites shipping delays and equipment shortages as ongoing sources of frustration.

“Dealing with Covid has been harder than starting the industry,” she says.

When bars and restaurants lost revenue in 2020, Raley-Ward says, legislation was passed to allow the sale of takeout drinks. But comparable alterations were not made to the wine industry.

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Delaware is one of just five states where laws favor a distributor-based model, rather than direct-to-consumer shipments, which means even licensed small wineries in the state are unable to ship directly to consumers. In May, House Bill 210, which would allow wineries to ship directly to consumers within state lines, was introduced to the state’s General Assembly. There’s been no movement on the bill as of yet.

The legislation and pro-business mentality that helped Delaware’s wine industry grow also permits commercial and residential development. Some winemakers feel their burgeoning businesses are threatened by new housing for retirees, former city dwellers and remote workers moving to the beachfront area.

Salted Vines Vineyard
Salted Vines Vineyard and Winery / Photo by Neil Parry

Adrian Mobila, a fourth-generation winemaker and founder of Salted Vines Vineyard & Winery, appreciates how the influx of arrivals from New York and the greater Washington D.C. area drives the push for quality Delaware wines. However, he says, these new residents have different needs and priorities than winemakers like himself, Raley-Ward and Nunan.

As once-permeable land is converted for commercial and residential use, estuaries and natural water runoff areas are sacrificed, which adds to flood risk. Faced with a labor shortage, corn and soybean farmers are eager to sell to developers. The landscape of Sussex County, once synonymous with agriculture, is changing rapidly.

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This shift does not bode well for wine, says Mobila.

Despite these challenges, there’s a sense of optimism at Harvest Ridge and Salted Vines. Mobila and Nunan say that, while significant capital is needed to launch a vineyard, the reward is substantial. In Delaware, a vineyard can gross up to six times more per acre than through row crops like corn and soybean. Wine grapes require considerably smaller farms, too.

Nunan’s oldest grandson is spending this summer on the farm. He believes that future generations will have the foresight to convert corn and soy plots to small acreages of grapes before those farms succumb to the tide of housing developments that stretch west from the beaches. Such a decision could be crucial to the survival of Delaware’s wine industry.

Published on August 12, 2021
Topics: Wine Regions