Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sunday in Chester County, PA

It's not often I head out to Chester County for fun -- unless it's on two wheels -- but this past Sunday, two forces drew me there with pleasure. One was a visit from a new friend, Anne Saxelby, who I'd met on a recent trip to New York. The other force, drawing us to ChesCo specifically, was the new business of old friends, Aimee and Bryan at Talula's Table in Kennett Square.

Anne had been invited to teach a Monday evening course at Tria's Fermentation School in Philadelphia. When she expressed an interest in coming down early to see the area, which she'd never visited, I offered to play host and show her around. Tying things together, Aimee had stopped in to see Anne at Saxelby Cheesemongers during a reconnaissance mission of New York markets a few weeks earlier and Anne was excited for the opportunity to see Aimee in her new digs at Talula's. So off to Kennett we went. I was jazzed as it would give me the chance to get back and check out the progress of the business.

A quiet moment at Talula's communal table
We arrived at Talula's just after noon to find the store well populated by a mix of locals, friends and Sunday shoppers. It was nice to see people availing themselves of the communal seating areas in the front and central areas of the shop and to see families with children in tow sitting down to impromptu lunches. We did just that ourselves, as Aimee prepared for us a lunch sampler of her husband Bryan's house smoked salmon with candied lemon, local mushroom quiche, smoked scallops, and a selection of olives and cheese. As we munched, we noticed pastry chef Claire Shears periodically passing through the shop with fresh loaves, rolls, baguettes and pastry. A particularly decadent looking tray of sticky buns caught our attention and became the clear target for a quick dessert, washed down with beverages from the coffee/espresso bar at the front of the shop.

In only its second week, there is already some added depth in the shop's selections. I noticed a fuller stock of pastas and dried goods, as well as a few more prepared dishes. Bryan and Aimee's passion for food, energy and attention to detail have brought things up to speed very quickly. They've also had good fortune in putting together a tight-knit team of young barristas and cashiers. A little more confidence with customer communications and a bit more experience with the nuances of the espresso machine and the front of the house should be humming right along with the kitchen and proprietors.

Part two of our mushroom country venture, largely at Aimee's suggestion, was a quick dogleg into Avondale, PA, to visit Va La Vineyards. In over a dozen years living in the Philadelphia area, I must admit this was only the second time I'd visited a Pennsylvania winery and the first visit to any of those producers located in the southeastern corner of the state. Sometimes it takes an out of town visitor to inspire a local to really get out to see his own neighborhood, albeit an extended one.

Va La is a small family based producer, with only seven acres under vine. Though they tout a long history for their farm, including the presence of grape growing and wine making, the current "Home Vineyard" is actually a very recent phenomenon, planted only in the late 1990's. In a spirit aimed at the family's Italian heritage, Va La has chosen to focus its efforts, particularly in the red wine department, on Italianate varieties such as Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Though the producers' hearts are in the right place, the climate and soil characteristics of the mid-Atlantic US are notoriously difficult for site demanding varieties such as these and the end results show the challenge. Sunday's tasting table was focused almost entirely on the winery's red bottlings and, while the wines are in the A-league for the area, the Nebbiolo and Barbera both show dilute structure and atypical flavor and aromatic tendencies. Of the three Italian varietal reds we were offered, the Sangiovese showed most strongly, with at least a hint of its typically dusty red cherry fruit and enough spine to lend it some structure. The most complete red being showed on Sunday was a wine called "Il Rustico," based on a rare vine called Carmine, an American crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carignane. Va La is one of the few wineries in the world producing a Carmine dominated red and, while "Il Rustico" earns its name with simple, rustic flavors, it was the only wine on offer which fully matched color, flavor, alcohol and structure with no real damning flaws.

Va La will be interesting to watch in the future, as both the vines and the wine making choices mature and deepen. I'd love to see them make the leap to a real commitment to estate based wine making, to a complete reliance on their own vines and property. Though that's already the intent of their mission, it's not yet reflected in the "Vinted and Bottled by..." language on all of their bottles nor in their decision to buy in fruit from other local and regional growers.

Our tasting and look around complete, it was about time to head back to Philly, walk the dogs and move on to our final destination of the evening -- dinner at Marigold Kitchen. But that's a topic for another post....

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