Tasting the Wines and Beers of Delaware: A Coastal Road Trip
By Christopher Ludgate
Weekend getaways are a big attraction for people living in the coastal region of the Atlantic after winter blows over. Hiking trails and outdoor fun are at the top of anyone’s list, including mine. Summertime escapes are a given, but why limit ourselves to crowded highways on precious days off?
In a search to expand my local travel itineraries last spring, I became aware that beyond the exits stemming off of Delaware’s busy highways exist clusters of fruitful vineyards.
I took a three-day weekend and went to explore these delicious little gems that are part of what’s known as the Atlantic Wine Region which extends through the state of Delaware.
From spring to fall harvest, the vineyard trails seemed like a perfect road trip diversion during a four-hour drive en route from the tri-state area to the picturesque Rehoboth Beach and historic Lewes, the first state’s first town. With tastings to try and unique blends to buy, there was every reason to go off-the-beaten-path for these pretty little havens.
The friendly nature of the region’s vintners was as welcoming and down-to-earth as any Delaware native is known to be. There was no worry of having to decode wine-speak when visiting these user-friendly wineries.
With a guide readily on hand to teach some of the lingo, it was a hands-on education of wine tasting, as well as the state’s winemaking history.
As anyone can learn from an experience at Harvest Ridge or Nassau Valley Vineyards or any of the other delightful Delaware wineries, the chronicle of this tradition is unexpectedly extensive for U.S.’s first state. But given Delaware’s colonial history, it makes sense that it is also one of the country’s oldest of wine-making regions.
Popular knowledge has California or Oregon being the go-to place for domestic vino, but with the lack of humidity, frequent drought, and hilly landscape, does it really compare to European tradition when it comes to the agricultural conditions? As it happens, the vibrant terroir of this region on the Atlantic is actually almost exactly the same as that of one of the quintessential renowned wine regions; Bordeaux, France.
Old World Terroir in Delaware
Historic Lewes’ Nassau Valley Vineyard’s co-owner, Peggy Raley-Ward has an incredible knowledge of wine acquired from her years of traveling the European wine country as a writer for a popular wine publication, Les Amis du Vin. Raley-Ward’s integrity and passion is rooted in her hard work.
The exuberance beamed from her eyes as we gazed at maps in the vineyard’s gallery which reveal both Delaware’s deep wine making history and the mirror image of the old-world region across the pond.
Raley-Ward cites an article in French wine magazine, Gilbert & Gaillard, which examined the discovery. The cellar master explains, “The article showed an inverted map of Bordeaux on top of a map the Atlantic Vintage Wine Region and it clearly matches not only the geography but the climate and terroir are almost identical – unlike California.”
The similarities that bind them are the clay and the gravel soils in both regions. They also share an ideal drainage system and a climate mellowed by the influences of the rivers that flow through them. It was fascinating stuff to learn, and we couldn’t wait to taste.
The tour at Nassau is easily self-guided as we trailed along on a big piece of local history; the old Rehoboth Beach boardwalk which vintner Peggy cleverly salvaged after a bad storm ripped it up, forcing a need for replacement. That is an endearing testament to the reverence the locals have for preservation and sustainable living.
Reservations are not necessary here to tour and imbibe, as well as take-home. But calling ahead is a good idea, as the gorgeous seven-acre estate has also become a popular event space catering to charity events, weddings, and photography shoots.
A Tuscan Legacy Off Highway 1
The off-the-beaten path just west of Highway 1 in Fenton, Delaware is Pizzadili Vineyard, a hidden 15-acre estate that was founded by Tuscan-born, Pete Pizzadili and his now late brother, Tony, both of whom came to the U.S. in 1960. The vineyard began with a single seed gifted from their father.
The brothers’ vineyard is an expansive and inviting terrain that beckoned us to roam its lush aisles of 1400 plus plants and fruit trees and walk upon the terra-cotta beneath the looming trellises and shade ourselves from the hot sun in the lakefront gazebo feeling the mist of the nearby fountain.
Afterwards, we stepped into Pizzadili’s cool “Bacchus Cave” for a tasting of the estate-bottled libations. Old-school Pete surprised us with some bright creations like Rosato, rhubarb, and blueberry wines, all of which paired nicely with the soft cheeses Pete spread out for us.
We sampled the bouquets and sipped a Seyval Blanc, then a blended Chambourcin, and finished with Proprietor’s Reserve. Then we were about ready to call a driver.
As with most of the wineries offering tours, tastings, and estate bottled vinos, tours are available for individuals and groups. Some are best when booked in advance and some welcome impromptu drop-ins during business hours. The cost of a wine tasting is often just a few dollars and bottles to pop and pour are reasonable.
Delaware is home to a few breweries that are making names for themselves. Mispillion River, 16 Mile Brewery, and Dogfish Head Brewery are among the well known. As a compliment to our Vineyard itinerary, my friend, Steve, and I added them to our road trip voyage.
When we drove up to 16 Mile Brewery we were happy to see the bustle in its front lot of a farmer’s market plum full of local produce, local farm fresh products, and food trucks.
Delaware was gaining big points with its integration seasonal and locally sourced food as well as its sustainable community-driven ideas. It was also proving to be a place that impressed with its top-notch creative homespun ways, especially in the libation arena.
16 Mile boats session IPA’s and a surprisingly refreshing Watermelon Ale, of which they had just two six packs left. So our guide, Sarah, showed where they were making more. My companion and I took a spin through the on-site brewery with Sarah and sampled as we walked.
The brewery is Brett McCrea’s small business brainchild. After leaving the racket in DC, McCrea seems very content to be behind many of the innovative brews on tap at 16 Mile. Some of the crowd favorites include Baby’s Lunch – a double IPA and Amber Ale in addition to the Watermelon Ale.
Besides its tavern and tastings, the brewery hosts a number of events through the year including music festivals and beer dinners.
If you’ve ever explored the world of craft beer, then
you’ve heard of Dogfish Head. As #13 (to date) in volume of America’s craft beer makers, Dogfish’s star has risen considerably since young English major and poet Sam Calagione brewed his first bottle in 1995.
American Beauty, Midas Touch, or Namaste, Dogfish Head makes some of my favorite brewed concoctions. Its first brewery was a micro in Rehoboth Beach, right by Rehoboth’s famous boardwalk.
That location is now the home of its restaurant brew pub and brand new distillery. It tends to be a party, but is also kid friendly. The 100,000 square foot facility the brewery moved into is just a short drive away in Milton.
Headquarters seems like a genuinely a fun place to be, and doesn’t appear to be a tense corporate environment. The company, which now exports to 25 states (to date) with seasonal, occasional, and rarity brews is known locally for its community involvement with a generous spirit for philanthropic giving.
“Off Centered Beer”
“Off-centered beer for off-centered people” is their slogan, and while I am no beer geek, my companion and I got an intriguing view at their integrative process which is a highly creative science and a lesson in sustainability and conservation with an emphasis on recycling. From shiny polished conditioning tanks to kettle machines and the fine details of the mash, it’s like touring a laboratory.
The thought that goes into the varieties which are introduced – some on a rotating basis – is remarkable. The toasted barley smell of fermenting brews followed me to a bird’s eye view of the well-oiled bottling assembly line. It’s an enjoyable hour-long walking tour that left me really wanting a pint.
Steeped in History at Dogfish Inn
Clean, beachy, stylish and affordable is not always easy to come by in a hotel in a beach town, I tend to find. Dogfish Inn on Savannah Road in Lewes was opened by the fruitful brewing company of the same name in 2014 and proved a pleasant surprise. Designed by Studio Tack of Brooklyn, NY, the cool bare-floored rooms are tastefully ornamented with colorful throw rugs, artsy “beer-centric” elements.
There is also artwork by Steve Rogers, each of which contain a hidden picture of the ‘Lightship Overfalls’, one of the 17 lightships still in existence which also happens to be just outside and up the canal in front of the Inn.
In the lobby there is a common space for coffee, home-brewed iced-teas, and a table with a fun selection of board games at your fingertips good for groups of friends or family. Over by the fireplace is a library curated by San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop lending a beach read or a quick skim while sipping a drink.
Just outside, by the grass and patio area is the bonfire cauldron with a welcoming circle of benches ready for stargazing each night. The beach and paddle boarding are a quick ride up the street, and one can certainly make use of the hotel’s bikes to get there as well as to neighboring Henlopen State Park which has multiple activities available, too.
But it was not just the 16 unit Inn itself that enamored us. The historic and progressive little cape town of Lewes, Delaware’s first city that Captain Henry Hudson came upon in the early 1600s and William Penn later named, is the definition of quaint.
As a walking town, it is an ideal destination for meandering through and then along the canal and in between the little shops and diverse restaurants & pubs. The well-maintained town is generously steeped in history and has historic landmarks–some as old as 1665–everywhere you turn!
Lots of Delaware Pride
Evident in Delaware townspeople and businesses is a reverent pride which, no doubt, comes from a rich heritage. The timeline here goes long and deep.
It’s hard to say where to begin exploring the history because, as I mentioned, it’s all around, but the odd looking crooked old house called ‘The Ryves Holt House’ further up the main promenade on 2nd Street was a very welcoming place to start to learn some history with a wow factor and get suggestions for any of multiple tours and events.
Upon our own self-guided tour we found informative plaques at places like the Cannonball House, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church which was first founded in the 1600’s, The Doctor’s House, and the Overfalls Lightship. The Zwaanandael Museum stands out on Savannah Road in Dutch-style architecture housing artwork and notable relics.
Along Lewes’ main promenade are many unique small town shops. King’s, a vintage-style handmade ice cream shop, Nectar Café juice bar, an Italian gourmet which offered a selection of cheeses to go with our winery souvenirs, and a rare-finds bookstore are among the charms.
A neighborhood favorite called Notting Hill begins roasting their coffee beans on premises in the wee hours, the aroma and pastries like the ‘blueberry puffin’ had my companion hopping out of bed early to indulge on a bench along the mall.
Good Eats by the Rehoboth Boardwalk
We ventured down to the boardwalk for some inspired food and drink. I had my sight set on James Beard Nominee Hari Cameron’s, a(MUSE) on Baltimore Avenue. I remembered just peeking inside during a previous visit which had me wrapped up.
The atmosphere is sophisticated, yet casual. The décor is an inspired nod with framed classic vinyl record covers in one section, surf boards hung elegantly in another, and perfectly placed wallpaper literally pulled from a copy Julia Child’s, The Joy of Cooking.
Chef Hari – forager, artist, culinary master, affable host – took creative control assembling a tasting menu based on a palette of regionally sourced seasonal produce, sustainable options, and dietary preferences, and inspired pairings with libations. Among the savory dishes, the chef served an amazing buckwheat pasta dish. To finish, the mint chip creation with chartreuse, variations of chocolate, and sorrel was divine.
The a la carte menu of modern mid-Atlantic fare and late-night bites follows the same mindful philosophy of food throughout. Cameron’s inspired, modern take on classic ingredients makes a visit to a(MUSE.) a highlight experience.
Oysters in Rehoboth
Henlopen City Oyster House on Wilmington is another go-to place that is also committed to locally sourcing fresh ingredients. And a block from the beach, this classic surf & turf restaurant boasts a raw bar ideal for a hot day happy hour.
The restaurant can offer a more intimate dining experience as well with some sharing options. Henlopen has a healthy selection of salads that are bright and well portioned. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends.
We built up an appetite with a bike ride through Henlopen State Park courtesy of Atlantic Cycles, conveniently located one block from the restaurant. It’s a picturesque ride through the neighborhood and park.
A walk along the boardwalk or Rehoboth Avenue as the sun sets can polish off a satisfying dining experience, especially when topped off with a stop at Kilwin’s Fudge Shop.
By day or by night, the main stretch of Rehoboth Avenue offers a very eclectic collection of unique casual dining and hang-outs, like The Purple Parrot, which has a very casual and fun outdoor area with a very off-the-beaten-path feel within its forest of abundant bamboo, cabana huts, and fun colorful character with a diverse crowd and a diverse drink selection including some of the local brews.
The Shortcut Home on the Ferry
We headed to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to start back home. This is not your typical Ferry ride. The two-hour sunset journey through the Delaware Bay up to Cape May with a 360-degree view is a pure delight.
During the season the Ferry offers packages to make the trek even better with various themed trips. Regular trips range from $8-$47.
The three-level pedestrian/auto transport vessel offers a wide array of refreshments and snacks available during usual trip service, but there was no better way to wind up our road trip than with a six-pack of Dogfish, beautiful Delaware in the rear-view and the ferry doing half the work of taking us back home.
Useful Websites for Visiting Delaware
The Southern Delaware Tourism board provided assistance in form of lodging and meals for this story, but the opinions are the author’s alone.