Galers turn their passion into award-winning vineyard

Brad and Lele Galer show off their brand new sign - and their gold medal award winning 2011 Chardonnay Reserve - at their winery, Galer Estates, on Thursday, May 16, 2013. The Galers purchased the old Folly Hill winery in East Marlborough in 2008 and rebuilt the business from the ground up to create a number of award winning wines. Staff photo by Wm. Shawn Weigel

EAST MARLBOROUGH – Brad Galer got a rude awakening when he sat down to learn all about the business of owning a winery back in 2008.

“The instructor said, ‘whenever people talk about opening a winery, they think Tuscany and the sunset and this beautiful vineyard,’” the pharmaceutical executive recounted. “And then there’s the reality.”

Despite those sometimes harsh realities turning up repeatedly in the past five years, Galer and his wife, Lele Galer, have managed to wrought award-winning wines out of the township’s rough soil.

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Like many aficionados, the Galers often dreamed of creating their own wines and joining a growing number of Pennsylvania wineries that continue to find recognition among the country’s finest producers.

As with many dreams, however, the waking world is sometimes a different story.

“It’s really quite a lot of work,” Lele Galer said with a somewhat exasperated smile.

Determined to make a go of it, they wound up purchasing the former Folly Hill vineyard and winery off Doe Run Road shortly after it closed its doors six years ago.

Its proximity to Longwood Gardens and the former winery’s inclusion on the Brandywine Trail tour, Lele Galer said, made the location seem particularly attractive.

“And it actually fit our game plan,” she said. “We’d had vines that we’d started over on our home property in Pocopson, and we’d been cultivating those for a couple of years … and we thought this was great because there was already a winery on site.”

Once they were on site and ready to work, however, the Galers soon realized that the infrastructure they thought was in place required an extensive overhaul that wound up being the biggest expense in their venture so far.

“It was an extraordinary expense. It was millions,” Lele Galer said.

They also had to tear out a 10-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vine that was no longer producing quality wine, she said, and replace it with clones of a Chardonnay varietal.

They also found themselves fighting with township officials, who informed them that not only were they not allowed to host large events like weddings, they were also no longer a part of the Brandywine Trail tour.

“The event model really wasn’t our model anyway,” Lele Galer said, adding that their goal was always to create high-quality wines and to provide a place to sample and purchase them.

And those classes Brad took? “I learned a lot about the process ... the business? Not so much.”

In spite of the setbacks, Galer Estates officially opened its doors in November of 2011: In that short time, their wines have earned them 46 medals, including most recently a gold medal at the Finger Lakes International Competition in Sonoma Valley – the heart of California Wine Country.

Lele Galer said that, for her, the awards validate the level of work and dedication she and Brad put into finding the right equipment and location, as well as assembling the right team.

“We were trying to bring in the best viticulture techniques, getting the best clones and getting the best people,” she said. “It requires a lot of research in finding very knowledgeable people – people much more knowledgeable than we are.”

For Brad Galer, it was important that their motto – “blending science, art and nature” – be genuinely reflected in the wines they wound up producing.

“I knew we would not do this ourselves, that we needed experts,” he said. “So we found experts.”

To that end, they brought in numerous consultants to fine-tune their operation, starting with Penn State’s viticulture extension educator Mark Chien – the instructor who schooled Brad so eloquently on the reality of owning a winery.

Through Chien, the Galers were introduced to nationally renowned viticulturalist Lucie Morton, who examined their soil and helped them select the right clones to get started.

Morton also brought in wine expert John Levenberg to examine their product and make suggestions as to how to improve certain aspects of their individual wines.

The Galers also found fellow Unionville-Chadds Ford parent and friend Jan Grimes, who took her interest in agriculture and enrolled in the courses necessary to become their vineyard manager.

“She is amazing – every plant is hand cared for each growing season,” Lele Galer said. “They are her babies, and she does a brilliant job.”

The final piece of the puzzle, she said, was winemaker Katrina North, who came to Galer Estates from Wente Vineyards, the country’s oldest, continuously operated family-owned winery.

Lele Galer said their goal was to make wines that stood up not only to wines from California and the Finger Lakes, but international wines from France and Spain – weighty competition for a small upstart in southern Chester County.

“We’ve been getting gold and silver (medals),” she said with a confident nod. “I used to live in California; I can’t imagine them picking up that (cover) and seeing Pennsylvania. I mean that must have been quite a shock.”

While the awards and the recognition are great, Lele Galer said, the amount of work they had to put into running Galer Estates quickly turned a side job into a full-time affair.

The Galers both admit to some ignorance on their part when it came to actually running a business, which accounted for a few unexpected hiccups along the way.

“The whole reason we waited a few extra months to open was because I was afraid of having to use the (credit card) machine,” Lele Galer admits with a laugh. “I was not understanding anything.”

Since opening, however, the Galers said they have enjoyed a moderate following of locals who enjoy their product and their setting – a success they attribute to both the partnerships they share with area restaurants and to general word-of-mouth.

It’s also earned them a top spot at the upcoming Longwood Jazz Festival; Galer Estates will be featured at the event’s Education Tent, where their wines will be expertly paired with food from Longwood’s 1906 restaurant.

It’s an honor, Lele Galer said, that is just as important as any award or medal.

“Our very first restaurant customer was 1906, and they have been a huge supporter of our wines ever since,” she said. “And Longwood is our neighbor and they’ve been wonderful from day one. That support means a lot to us, and it verifies what great wines we’re making in Pennsylvania.”

The Galers see a correlation between what they’ve been growing and their personal sacrifices to grow the business.

“You actually want bad soil,” Brad Galer said. “The worse it is, the better, because it makes the vine work harder. You want it to suffer.”

For more information on Galer Estates, visit www.galerestate.com.