FRONTLINE: Profile

All in Good Taste
Chaddsford Winery’s quirky founders will do just about anything for a sip.



All in Good Taste
Chaddsford Winery’s quirky founders will do just about anything for a sip.


It was over dinner and, fittingly, a bottle of red wine that Chaddsford Winery’s Lee Miller proposed her latest marketing scheme to her husband, Eric. Wouldn’t it be a great gimmick, she asked, to promote the new Naked Chardonnay with a photo of its maker—in the buff?

“I said, ‘That’s a really good idea. I’ll do that,’” recalls Miller, who acknowledges the wine may have helped inspire his enthusiasm.

Before he had time to reconsider, Lee had him posing for a publicity photo with little more coverage than some strategically placed vines. “When the camera’s on you, you don’t know what’s being seen in that lens,” Miller says.

But when you own a winery—especially one that’s located on the opposite coast from the better known and funded West—you do what it takes to grab your customers’ attention. You can’t make a living on the one percent of “crazy” wine aficionados like Miller, as his wife good-naturedly describes him; you need the other 99 percent who enjoy wine, but can take it or leave it. For Chaddsford, reaching the broader market has meant trading heavily on its tourist-friendly Route 1 location between Longwood Gardens and the Brandywine River Museum, and luring potential customers with a regular schedule of concerts and festivals.

“You have to build a culture,” says Miller, during a recent chat in the private tasting room at the winery. “When people come here, we can give them an experience. It’s not just about selling a bottle of wine—it’s about selling something that’s regional and good and unique.”

Miller’s bit of naked self-promotion paid off. The unoaked Chardonnay, introduced in 2004, proved an instant hit and continues to gain in popularity. After all, stunts and special events will only take a serious winemaker so far.

Chaddsford, which marks its 25th anniversary this month, wouldn’t have survived if this second generation winemaker didn’t understand the local terroir—which refers to the site, soil, climate and growing season—and how to use it to his grape-growing advantage. Because the climate here is closer to France than California, Chaddsford’s wines more closely resemble their European counterparts than their West Coast cousins—but with Miller’s uniquely American stamp. “He was willing to change the way he approaches viticulture and winemaking,” says Sandra Silfven, the East Coast editor for Tom Stevenson’s Wine Guide. “His are Old World-style wines, made in a New World style.”

Any discussion of those wines must start with Miller’s original oaked Chardonnay, which was the first Pennsylvania wine to be reviewed by American wine guru Robert Parker. His “92” score showed the state could produce a credible dry, white table wine. And getting someone of Parker’s stature to so much as open a Chaddsford bottle proved key to reaching that crucial minority that seals a reputation. “Once somebody starts to write about you, things start to change,” Miller says.

In recent years, Miller’s big, bold reds have been getting equally good press from the likes of the New York Times’ Eric Asimov, who wrote: “The 2005 Chaddsford pinot noir convinced me that credible wines at the least, and often really good wines, are emerging from the most unexpected corners of North America, and now is a good time to start paying attention to them.”

Besides positive reviews in the Times, USA Today, Wine Spectator and other national media outlets, Chaddsford also has won dozens of prizes at major competitions. “Chaddsford is one of the iconic wineries of the East,” says Silfven, also the wine writer for the Detroit News. “Eric has such a passion for his wines, and for getting things right and building excitement. It comes out in the wine itself.”

Good Wine Ambassador
For Eric Miller—whose generally conservative appearance (when not posing without clothes) and plummy, almost professorial tones contrast with his down-to-earth manner—wine is everything. His first thoughts of the day revolve around what he’ll make for dinner that night—and what wine he’ll serve—and no matter how late he comes home, he’ll follow through on that food and wine pairing.

“Eating and drinking wine and having a conversation is the most wonderful thing,” he says. “To me, the philosophy of wine is like any other food. I use it like salt and pepper for my meal.”

As one might expect, Miller spends his days in the cellar trying to perfect, innovate and derive the best-tasting wines from Chaddsford’s Pennsylvania-grown grapes, many of which are cultivated on acreage in northern Chester County. The workday usually extends to many a night and weekend, when he can be found teaching a class, traveling to other wineries or greeting customers at Chaddsford.

Even his vacations are a kind of busman’s holiday, when he and his wife—usually joined by their four adult sons, their spouses and families—head off to some other winemaking region for a week or two of fine food and drink.

“Wine is what he tells you he lives for,” Lee Miller says. “For Eric, it’s not work––this is his life. It’s just his passion. It just goes through everything.”

That passion has proven contagious. In growing Chaddsford from annual sales of 3,000 cases to more than 35,000, the couple has helped launch a wine industry in Pennsylvania where none existed. Back in 1982, when the Millers “discovered” the Brandywine Valley during an East Coast scouting trip, the state had maybe 20 wineries. Today, there are more than 100 and counting. Under the Millers’ guidance, an accompanying infrastructure, including a state wine association, an official oenologist and a “wine trail” for the Brandywine Valley, has developed.

While these efforts may pale next to the millions of dollars invested by California, Oregon and Washington in helping promote and grow their wineries, they are a building block to instilling a level of awareness in local products to parallel the local food movement. “People still feel safer with a California wine—it has more cachet,” Silfven says. “But today, we’re looking at our own regions, and taking pride in what we can grow ourselves.”

Chaddsford sells its wines mostly in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, and isn’t likely to expand much beyond that footprint, given the expense of sales and marketing and the ability to promote its wines at very little cost on the Web. “It started with microbreweries, and it’s beginning to build up enough mass for it to mean something with wine,” Eric says of the drink local movement. “Our future is to grow within the region.”

It’s a geographic area Miller understands so well, in large part because of his background as the son of the artist, illustrator and winemaker Mark Miller, whose Benmarl Vineyards in the Hudson Valley was New York’s first modern-day farm vineyard. For 10 years, Miller worked closely with his dad, who was known for his experiments with grape varieties but, by the early 1980s, was eager to strike out on his own.

Despite his own winemaking savvy and the extensive knowledge of Lee, whom he met when she visited the family vineyard to write an article for a wine magazine she was publishing, it took nearly a decade for his efforts to begin to pay off. “I thought if I made a good wine, I would be discovered,” he says. “I didn’t realize the onus of not being in a strong wine area.”

Yet, the “x” factor also works to Chaddsford’s advantage with curious wine drinkers from outside the region. “People from out of town are inclined to try the wine,” says Michael McCaulley, a wine buyer for Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse in Center City and wine director of the Tria Fermentation School, where Miller has taught. “You get the sale because it’s interesting and they’re visiting the city. They buy a second bottle because they like it and it’s good.”

While the self-effacing Miller claims to have become a winemaker because he wanted to “avoid work,” he’s got another quarter-century’s worth of items left on his to-do list. These include creating even more high-end reds along the lines of his Due Rossi, which combines the barbera and sangiovese grapes, and his first syrah, just now being released.

Then there’s that ongoing experiment to remove humidity from the soil to allow for cultivating even more grape varieties. “I need another 25 years to see it happen,” he says.

The Millers don’t necessarily expect their son, Eric—who is studying wine-making at the University of California-Davis—to take over the business. They think he might do just as well to strike out on his own or work for another vintner.

At the same time, Miller believes a well-funded “star” winemaker really could make Pennsylvania a national force one day. But that task could just as well fall on Miller himself—and he won’t have to have to drop his drawers in the process.

Chaddsford Winery is located at 632 Baltimore Pike (Route 1), Chadds Ford. For more information, call (610) 388-6221 or visit chaddsford.com.

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