Your Guide to the Best Beer, Wine and Spirits in Delaware
Wineries to visit; beers, ciders and meads to drink now; spirits to savor—all crafted in our own backyard.
Va la Vineyards in Avondale, PA.//Photography by Carlos Alejandro
Only a few years ago, Delaware had one winery, a couple of craft breweries and no distilleries. How times have changed. Today, there are more than 20 breweries, half a dozen wineries and two distilleries. To top it off, making mead and ciders are also part of Delaware’s alcoholic beverages scene.
All this activity has had two significant outcomes. One is economic, as hundreds of Delawareans are now making a living producing or serving beverages. The second is that these producers have also changed the Delaware social scene. Meeting friends or having family outings at brewpubs and wineries is now part of the state’s social networking.
Here’s an update on what is happening.
Jeffrey and Terri Cheskin of Liquid Alchemy in Wilmington.//Photography by Carlos Alejandro
A taste of honey
After years of making beer and wine for other people, Jon Talkington and Robert Walker Jr. decided they would go into business for themselves—this time making meads from honey at the Viking-themed Brimming Horn in Milton. As it turns out, it’s a business that’s creating a lot of buzz.
The other meadery is Liquid Alchemy Beverages in west Wilmington, owned by Terri and Jeffrey Cheskin. “When we started working on our meadery in 2012, there were about 100 of them in the whole country,” Terri says. “Today, there are more than 500 producers.”
Why the popularity? Turns out that mead is as versatile as tea in creating a spectrum of flavors, while having about the same amount of alcohol as most wines. Sweet or dry, fruity or savory. Just bee there!
Adrian Mobilia of Salted Vines Vineyard & Winery.//Photography by Carlos Alejandro
Yes, Delaware can produce good wines
In contrast to neighboring Pennsylvania and Maryland, Delaware has been somewhat slow to plant vineyards and open wineries. But that has nothing to do with the state’s capability to make good wine—in fact, one winery has been doing so since 1987. But planting a vineyard and building and equipping a winery is expensive, and there are always weather-related challenges, such as wet-weather mildew, springtime frost and hail.
Nevertheless, there are four Delaware wineries currently in production—all with tasting rooms—and rumors of more to come.
Salted Vines Vineyard & Winery, located in Frankford, is already in its second existence. Owners Jessica and Adrian Mobilia started making wine almost seven years ago as Fenwick Wine Cellars. Needing to expand, they bought a 26-acre farm, built a winery and reopened in November 2016. Their tasting room has been a destination ever since. “We currently have merlot and cabernet sauvignon in the ground,” Mobilia says, and his plans are to continue planting more vines each year until they have 20 acres covered. Like most area wineries, Salted Vines tries to have a wine for every palate—dry, sweet and in between.
Peggy Raley has been a pioneer and winemaking inspiration since she and her father planted vines for their Nassau Valley Vineyards in Lewes in 1987. The best wines are the ones made from her 8 acres of homegrown vinifera or European varieties, plus grapes she buys from nearby states. Several wines are varietals made from grapes such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but Nassau Valley also produces blended wines from different varieties as well. Average annual case production is between 3,000 and 5,000. An added attraction is a farmers market at the winery on Sunday afternoons.
Pizzadili Winery in Felton reminds us that not all wines are made from grapes, as they also make wines from other fruits purchased from local growers. The Pizzadili brothers—Tony and Pete—first began making homemade wines with their father years ago and planted their first vines on the family farm in 1993. Today Pizzadili Winery, which also operates a catering business, makes wine from 12 grape varieties. As with other Delaware wineries, Pizzadili also hosts weddings and other family and corporate events at its site.
Owners Chuck and Chris Nunan have made rapid expansions since opening their Harvest Ridge Winery in Marydel on the Maryland border five years ago. Already, they make almost 5,000 cases a year in addition to operating their own successful cidery (see “Weaving a Cidery Web”). What’s more, they expect to double production by 2020 and recently opened a tasting room in Toughkennamon—the first Delaware winery to cross the border into Pennsylvania. Already, Harvest Ridge has 20 acres of vines and buys grapes from area fruit farmers.
For all Delaware wineries, finding additional grapes can be a challenge, with most of the availability being on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where there are also several wineries. According to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, there are currently only about 50 acres of vineyards in the state.
Weaving a cidery web
If there was any doubt as to whether the future of cider was a fizzle or a sizzle, just ask Chuck Nunan of Rebel Seed Cidery in the hamlet of Marydel on the Maryland border west of Dover. “Oh, my God,” Nunan says, “we’re selling more than we can produce.”
Nunan, who also owns Harvest Ridge Winery, says Rebel Seed’s cider club now has more than 500 members. “The best ciders are blends of different kinds of apples, and we source them all from orchards within the region,” Nunan says. His three ciders range from off-dry to Red Delicious sweet.
Delaware’s other cidery also shares its production quarters, this one with a meadery: Liquid Alchemy in Wilmington. Owners Terri and Jeff Cheskin make both straight ciders as well as those with ingredients other than apples, including vanilla beans and tart cherries in its Red Cowabunga.
From home brews to hoppy days
Kevin Schatz of Volunteer Brewing Co.//Photography by
Kevin Schatz and Mike Dunlap are two business professionals—Schatz in healthcare, Dunlap a network engineer—who both like beer so much that they became home brewers. Separately, they each did such a good job of it that their friends urged them to make beer commercially. Like other brewers in Delaware, they both thought the craft brewing market was ready for them, and that they were ready to go commercial.
There the similarities between the two brewers end—at least for the moment.
Schatz owns Delaware’s smallest brewery, Volunteer Brewing Co., housed in a two-car garage on a back street in Middletown. He’s not in a hurry to get bigger. Dunlap and his business partner, T.J. McGrath, recently opened Midnight Oil Brewing in a business park south of Newark, and they and their investors are already on a track to get bigger quickly.
“Ten years ago, I was spending $500 or more a month on craft beers from around the world,” Dunlap says. “I started making my own on a stovetop, then expanded into the garage.” Friends liked his beer so much, he says, that they quit bringing their own brews to his beer parties. So he set up a jar for guests to put a dollar in for each bottle they drank. “T.J. looked at the jar one night and explained to me, ‘You know you can sell this.’” A partnership was quickly formed.
That was four years ago, and in the time between they secured funding from investors as well as bank loans and found a place to brew and sell to the public. They are already on the road to expansion, having hired a sales rep and shipped their first kegs to local bars this summer. Referring to the fast-growing southern California craft brewer, he says, “God willing, we’ll be the next Stone.”
By contrast, Schatz says, “I just want to be a neighborhood brewery. I’m not looking to expand a lot.” He needed to run water and sewage to the small, converted garage, but otherwise it was a minimum startup. “I started with a half a barrel, and was open four times a month. We’re still only open on nights and on weekends, but we are up to 600 liters.”
Schatz says marketing is strictly by word of mouth and through social networking. “The community’s reception has been a pleasant surprise. There’s no TV in the bar, and when it’s good weather people can sit in the yard out back.” About half the business is beer sold for consumption at the bar, and the other half is takeaway.
Schatz says he’s also committed to community volunteerism, and his customers have enthusiastically joined him in the project work. “It’s been surprising how engaged they’ve become,” he says.
What to drink now
Today, there are over 20 breweries in Delaware—some with multiple tasting rooms and many that double as restaurants. Here are some First State brews you might want to drop in to try—a mixture of old favorites, seasonal variations and don’t-look-now-but-it’s-gone limited editions.
Many breweries contribute to charitable organizations, but ale-dominant 16 Mile Brewing in Georgetown has a special beer for a special purpose. A portion of sales of 16 Mile’s Responders Ale—a 4.1 percent ABV American blonde ale—is earmarked as a donation to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
This Dewey brewhouse is whipping up small batches of beer in its 20-gallon brewhouse while using interesting, local ingredients. Try the Poser Pale Ale, which the brewery describes as “a well-balanced pale ale trying to be an IPA; wears a chain wallet.” Brilliant.
Lori Clough and Suellen Vickers, owners of 3rd Wave Brewing in Delmar, want you to wake up and smell the coffee—in your beer mug, that is. Their Dawn Patrol Coffee Cream Stout is a perfect balance of the flavors of dark malts, coffee and sweet cream guaranteed to get your adrenaline flowing no matter when you drink it.
Blonde on Belgian is Argilla’s smoothest beer—light and easy drinking and a perfect match for the brew-and-pizza pub’s ricotta-based white pie. Located on Kirkwood Highway at Meadowood, Argilla’s co-owner and brewer Steve Powell notes, “My dad started the pizza shop back in 1978 with us adding the brewery a little over six years ago.”
Michael Lankford and Milan Mladjan opened their gastropub and brewhouse in the basement-level restaurant space of the Clear Space Theatre building in Rehoboth Beach this summer. It’s the first Delaware brewery to focus on brewing gluten-free beers—Chupa is a pale ale brewed with amaranth, sorghum, quinoa, ginger, coriander and orange zest.
Bellefonte was looking for something that would be a big Belgian yet would still be an old smoothie, so they created a gentle monster—the Claymonster Belgian Quad. The Wilmington brewery took its time brewing this one so that its Belgian elegance wasn’t bowled over by its 10.5 percent ABV. They’ve entered it in the 2018 Great American Beer Festival. We have our legs crossed.
Most wine drinkers turn up their noses at the funky smell of Brett—Brettanomyces. But the Big Oyster cult in Lewes loves it. The brewery’s Petite Brett Noir is brewed with blueberries, co-fermented with Brett and aged six months in French barrels from Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards. Big Oyster likes to brew big, getting complex flavors from oak and different yeasts.
Smyrna-based Blue Earl boasts that it is known for its “awesome dark beers,” and it was looking for one that could take the heat when Latin food was on the grill. It came up with Jingo Loba Imperial Stout, which has the flavor and kick from ancho chiles with some notes of chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon.
Kevin Reading of Abbott’s Grill and Eric Williams and Ryan Maloney of Mispillion River Brewing partnered to bring Brick Works Brewing and Eats to Smyrna in 2016. IPA lovers should definitely wrap their lips around a glass or two of Drop Trowel IPA, a juicy brew with hints of grapefruit.
Brewer Jon Schorah says his Lewes crew was looking for a hearty beer you could “fall” into, something that touched all the season’s flavor bases. The result was Jav-O-Lantern Smoked Pumpkin Coffee Ale, with dark roast Guatemalan beans and hunks of spicy pumpkin smoked over cherry wood. Go chunk this punkin!
You don’t have to be a nitwit to enjoy Dew Point’s Nit Wit Belgian-style witbier. Located upstairs at the old NVF complex in Yorklyn (downstairs has been known to flood from the Red Clay Creek), Dew Point produces several seasonal beers, but Nit Wit—with its mild spice flavors and 5.0 percent ABV—is one to remember.
Farm-to-table restaurants like to talk about the freshness of their nearby produce. Dewey Beer is proud of the freshness of its beer—“30 feet or less” is its motto. One of those brews to try is Exercise the Demons, a 10.5 percent ABV, triple IPA oat beer.
“We love all of our off-centered beers alike, but 90 Minute IPA holds a special place in our hearts, as it was the first of our continually hopped beers,” says Dogfish Head’s Heather Kenton. Indeed, even faced with the allure of such brews as Liquid Truth Serum (hoppy with bitterness) and SeaQuench Ale (black limes and sea salt), Dogfish fans keep returning to 90 Minute with its flavors and aromas of fruitcake, citrus and pine forests.
What would October be like without an Oktoberfest beer—such as this one from Dover’s F&D Brewing? With its malty flavors but clean, smooth finish, the brewery’s Dominion Octoberfest! has cleaned up at the annual Great American Beer Festival, claiming one silver and two bronze awards. Put on your Alpine hat and lederhosen and polka on down.
When Delaware brewpub pioneer Iron Hill was getting ready to open its Rehoboth location, John Panasiewicz, the head brewer at the beach, wanted to have a fruited sour beer on tap. His creation turned out to be Little Red Wagon, which has natural strawberry and rhubarb as its chief flavorings, with a little sour kick in the finish.
Newark-based Midnight Oil is ready for winter with its Midnight Porter, which provides great fireside flavors such as roasty malts and subtle chocolate notes. Plus its low alcohol—about 4.5 percent ABV—means it won’t put you to sleep in your rocking chair.
When Eric Williams turned 40, he decided to open a craft brewery in Milford with his wife Megan rather than have a midlife crisis. Try his no-worries Space Otter American Pale Ale, which comes in at a smooth 5.5 percent ABV.
Revelation took home a silver at this year’s World Beer Cup competition with its Peach Berliner Weisse. “We have a unique method for brewing sours that use our own house Lacto strain,” says brewmaster Patrick Staggs.
It’s creeping up on 25 years since Stewart’s opened its pioneering brewpub in Bear. A stalwart brew is its Highlander Malt, a full-bodied roasty malt made creamy by the addition of oatmeal. Think of it as a chocolate-and-coffee-flavored milkshake.
Daniel Sheridan’s brewpub on Market Street is the latest addition to Wilmington’s downtown renewal. Try Stitch’s Snitchez Get Stitchz, which is an IPA that’s a little bit of a tongue twister. See if you can still pronounce the name when you’re ready for your next round.
Whenever Twin Lakes (now located in the Newport Industrial Park) has its limited edition Portabella Brown on tap, sales—well —mushroom. This brown ale is brewed with portabella mushrooms and was originally created for the 20th anniversary of the Kennett Brewfest. Although not known for its “extreme” beer, this one shows that Twin Lakes can think outside the keg.
Middletowner Kevin Schatz says his Turkey Beer isn’t delicious because of the turkey giblets, liver, gizzard and neck he puts in the brew—because he doesn’t do that. Rather, the German Altbier-inspired brown ale—smooth and malty sweet with a light bitterness—was created to guzzle on Turkey Day when you’re up to your gizzard in food.
Craig Wensell of Wilmington Brew Works.//Photography by Carlos Alejandro
Delaware’s newest brewery formally opened in August, and CEO/owner Craig Wensell tells us as the days get shorter to be ready for some serious winter brews, such as a farmhouse barrel-aged saison Riesling blend and a rum barrel-aged beer. An early favorite is a wild Belgian witbier fermented with funky Brettanomyces. It is called Bier du Blanc and has a 4.4 percent ABV with added lemongrass and orange peel flavors.
Chester County's winery boom
An impressive wine region is growing by bottles and cases just across the border in Pennsylvania’s southern Chester County—at last count 13 of them, plus another just over the line in Lancaster County.
“The climate is unique because of its adaptability,” says Penns Woods co-owner and winemaker Gino Razzi, who also makes wine in his native Italy. “We are able to grow an array of vinifera grape varietals where other climates are typically more limited.” He finds the most comparable European region to be a blend of Maremma in Tuscany and Bordeaux in France.
This something-for-everyone approach draws large weekend crowds from the area’s huge metro population, looking to taste what’s new and to listen to musical events. All of the wineries listed below operate tasting rooms, sometimes with additional ones at other locations.
Cyber-security expert Ben Cody and paralegal Sarah Daily Cody came from Midwestern farm families before opening this summer in Landenberg.
Located in Sadsburyville, Black Walnut owns no vineyards but purchases grapes to make easy-drinking wines. There is also a tasting room and wine bar located in Phoenixville.
Borderland, situated on a family hillside farm in Landenberg, has been struggling to establish its identity after co-owner Karen Kalb died of a sudden illness and brother and co-owner Kurt Kalb of a tragic accident shortly afterward.
The area’s oldest winery, established in 1982 and located along U.S. 1 in Chadds Ford, specializes in seasonal and fruit wines, but is now working its way back into making dry table wines for which its departed founders were famous.
Located behind Longwood Gardens, Brad and Lele Galer’s upscale offerings make it a favorite destination along with musical entertainment and art-related tasting room events.
Off the beaten path in Glen Mills, Grace makes well-regarded wines from estate grapes, plus it operates an inn and is a popular venue for weddings.
Carole and Jim Kirkpatrick started as home winemakers before establishing this beautiful vineyard and winery in the farmlands south of West Grove.
Located in Landenberg,
Paradocx was started by the Hoffman and Harris families (both couples are doctors) and is the largest and perhaps most commercially innovative
winery in Chester County.
Mario Patone makes some delicious wines from other folks’ grapes, but his Landenberg tasting room is mainly open only by appointment.
Italian-born winemaker and importer Gino Razzi and his daughter, Carley Mack, took over a failing winery and turned it into a world-class operation.
This gem of a small, sustainable winery got its start in 1979, when wine pioneer John Weygandt and his late wife, Alice, planted their vineyard south of Coatesville.
They opened the winery—the only area that also makes sparkling
Antony Vietri of va la Vineyards.//Photography by Carlos
The epitome of boutique—even cult—winemaking, Va La’s Antony Vietri has become nationally known for the quality of his original and innovative field blends from his “little vineyard” in Avondale.
Ed and Adrienne Lazzerini are building a high-quality vineyard
and winery just south of
Amish farm country.
You can feel the energy and enthusiasm popping at this new but fast-growing farm winery owned and operated by the Wilson family.
Our spirits are growing
Cocktail concoctions abound thanks to Dogfish and Painted Stave.
“We hate dropping things,” laughs James Montero, general manager of Dogfish Head Spirits when asked about Dogfish’s portfolio. And indeed it does seem like the distilling arm of Delaware’s breakthrough brewery always has something new to offer its legion of drinking fans.
Now that it has a new “R&D facility” operating in Rehoboth Beach, Dogfish has introduced two collaborative spirits with chef Hari Cameron of a(MUSE.) and barkeep Ginger Breneman of Fork + Flask at Nage, available at the restaurants and at Dogfish’s Chesapeake & Maine. “We now have enough distilling equipment to last us for the next 10 years,” Montero says, noting that the spirits side is slowly expanding into the states where Dogfish beers are already available.
Additionally, Dogfish’s facilities in both Milton and Rehoboth offer tours and hands-on interactive programs for customers. dogfish.com
Likewise, Smyrna's Painted Stave continues to expand both as a distillery and as a tasting bar and event space. “We now can serve cocktail ingredients that we don’t make, which was a welcome tweak in the regulations,” says co-owner Ron Gomes. “We also now have an outside space where we can have a cocktail garden, live music, even outdoor movies.”
Supplementary to Painted Stave’s Diamond State whiskies, other crowd pleasers include Silver Screen Vodka, which pays homage to the fact that the distillery was once a movie theater; Off the Hoof Scrapple Flavored Vodka, distilled with corn, real Delaware scrapple, apples and sage; and Scarlett Cranberry Flavored Vodka, which is infused with cranberries from the Johnson Farm in Smyrna.
In addition to being distributed in adjoining states, Painted Stave now has expanded to New York and California.