Learning from the past at Country Creek Winery

More than anything, as the future approaches at Country Creek Winery in Telford, Pa., the owner-operators are excited that, as Joy Klein says, “we finally have an idea after so many failures.”

Nets now help protect the Country Creek Winery crop from the birds, a missing element their first year.

Three years ago, honeybees that another subcontractor was raising on the farm sucked all the juice from the Kleins’ grapes just before harvest. “He said it was unusual, but it was so dry that they swarmed,” she says. “Well, we no longer have honeybees.”

Another year, it was Japanese beetles.

If not for their deer fencing – 12-foot-high vinyl mesh on steel posts – the deer would have a feast. Nets now help protect the crop from the birds, a missing element their first year.

“Every year we learn something new,” Klein says of their life in the countryside where they’ve spent 20 years in their farmhouse and 18 years in the neighboring grape business, which is run out of the barn. Small, the family business is shared with her husband, Doug, and their two daughters, Kelly, 20, and Jackie, 17. At one time, Doug’s sister Donna was involved before family responsibilities took precedence.

Doug, an auto body mechanic, would like to make his living solely on the winery. Joy is trained as a dental hygienist. Right now, they’re producing 3,000 gallons of wine a year, and gradually building the business with an old-fashioned approach to engaging in community, while also taking advantage of modern-day strains of communication.

“You wouldn’t believe how much that has helped our business grow,” Klein says of hosting a wine and cheese party or using Facebook.

There’s also help from friends like Wayne Teichman. He and Klein are the chief growers and spend the most time among the vines. Two winters ago, the vines took a hit from Mother Nature. Last year, they were admittedly “let go.” Last fall, Teichman did a lot of catch-up work, and this spring and summer the vines were really looking good.

A natural approach to growing

The Kleins haven’t done any spraying recently. Instead, they’re working closely with Environotics Unlimited in Bethlehem, Pa., and running trials with three rows in the vineyard. Though they may not see the results of the experimentation this year, they might in another year. “We’re thrilled he’s doing something in the vineyard,” Klein says about Environotics’ Wil Spencer, whom she met at a local community networking event.

Environotics’ experimentation is based on the notion that its soil and plant inoculants provide the minerals and microorganisms required for optimal health, immunity and nutritional value of the plants. These nutrients are provided in forms nature intended, but are now missing due to industrialization.

Country Creek Winery’s selection of products.

Minerals are the key element for plant health, and the microorganisms are the symbiotic diplomats between the plant and the soil, releasing the minerals from the soil as the plant calls for them, reading the energies in the root hairs generated through photosynthesis. The microorganisms keep the growing environment clean and healthy, ensuring the plant’s strength and immunity.

“We have been working with the winery to demonstrate the effectiveness of our methods both in the growth and health of the plants and in the Brix readings in the ripened fruit,” Spencer says. “We are striving to gain some attention for our practices in the food and wine industries, as well as for our line of products providing help for the honeybees.”

Spencer’s position is that organic and biodynamic practices are healthier for people, but aren’t significantly more nutritious. For example, we need over 60 different minerals in order to be healthy, but conventionally raised foods provide, at best, 20 minerals on average. Organic, he says, might increase that number to 25 minerals.

“This is not as much because the minerals are missing, as it is that the minerals are locked in the soil for lack of microorganisms,” he says. “In a nutshell, we’re working to bring nature back to its own natural balance. Return the balance and nature takes care of itself and us.”

Partnering in community

Since Country Creek first started, business has definitely grown. The Kleins have joined various community groups and participate locally, including at the Indian Valley Farmers’ Market. They’ve also added a second retail location, in addition to the winery, in neighboring Souderton, at Frederick’s Flowers & Greenhouses.

“They approached us,” Klein says. “You have to think outside the box. There’s no other flower shop in this area where you also have access to wine. It’s helped them with gift basket orders, and it’s been magnificent for us. Now, they’ll call and say, ‘Joy, we need more Concord,’ and then I run it over. [The wine] is drawing new customers to their store, and more people are learning about us.”

It’s approaching a year since they started selling at Frederick’s. The move meant temporarily backing out of the Skippack Farmers’ Market. This year, they weren’t sure they’d have the inventory. “You can’t really hurry up wine,” Klein says. “This fall, we’ll increase the amount of gallons we produce.” The plan is to have enough inventory for two farmers’ markets and two retail locations.

Visibility is one thing, but discovery is another. Often they hear from passersby who finally stop and say that they’ve driven past for 10 years and never knew.

Getting started

Previously, the land was an old dairy farm belonging to a Moyer, a noted name in the region, and more recently, Appleville Orchard, which started a winery plus pick-your-own apples and greenhouses, a full-scale operation. When it sold, the acreage was subdivided, which left 10 acres for the farmhouse and barn, which had been converted into business space.

Prior to the Kleins’ involvement, it was rented to two former professional athletes who bought the wine business. It didn’t work out, even after a year’s amnesty on rent.

“It lost its draw without all of the other things,” Klein says. “They had high hopes of a big, thriving business, but without all the other things, it wasn’t happening. One day we made them an offer that was almost embarrassingly low and they took it.”

Doug’s sister, Donna, knew about winemaking from classes at Delaware Valley College and from books she read. She became the winemaker. Joy and Doug helped the former owners when they bottled, and she even worked in the tasting room to lend them a hand.

When it became their turn to run the winery, the Kleins took Penn State Extension courses, attended seminars at other wineries and also Wineries Unlimited expo shows, and ever since have just kept it simple and basic, “especially for how involved it can be,” Klein says. “Because of our size, it’s worked for us.”

When they had initial trouble, particularly with sediment, they sought advice from Buckingham Valley Vineyards, where they were buying their bottles, another example of building the business through a sense of community. Jerry Forest, the owner-operator there, was kind. “He said, ‘I’m not going to tell you how to make wine, but I will tell you what went wrong,'” Klein recounts.

Fermentation takes place in the lower level of the barn; they bottle upstairs in a very basic bottling line. “We’re not high-tech,” Klein says.

Rain is their only irrigation. If need be, they have the east branch of the Perkiomen Creek (hence the winery’s name) running at the bottom of the orchard, but they haven’t yet had to use it.

Country Creek Winery is currently growing two of its own grapes, split between Cayuga, a dry white, and Chambourcin, a dry red, vines that are 6 years old.

Focusing on the future

Country Creek would like to focus on its dry reds. “Pennsylvania produces quality reds, and for us, our reds are OK, but we’d like to see improvement,” Klein says.

They’re currently growing two of their own grapes in a 1-acre vineyard that’s split between Cayuga, a dry white, and Chambourcin, a dry red, vines that are 6 years old. Those were the two varieties that Penn State Extension personnel said were proven, hearty and resistant in this area of Pennsylvania.

“When we thought vineyard, we knew we would have to go start to finish with our own,” Klein says. “Everyone was asking, ‘Where’s your vineyard?’ Now, it’s nice to say, ‘It’s right back there.'”

Other grapes are purchased, mostly from growers on the other side of the state, in Erie. The Kleins, who offer a full variety of wines, including apple, strawberry and blueberry on their website (www.countrycreekwinery.com), would like to contract with more local growers, mostly because it’s the right thing to do, but also because Country Creek has been getting calls.

“There are more people producing, so we’re getting more calls from growers selling grapes,” Klein says.

One building on the farm is targeted for a conversion into community open space, for reflexology, yoga and general common classroom use, wine-related or not. Spencer has already taught on the property.

On other open acreage, particularly 1 sloped acre, the Kleins would either like to expand their own vineyard or open it to community gardening. Slowly, they’re moving toward a general expansion in product and services, though not promising anything as vast in scale as Appleville.

For one, they can only expand the vineyard if they get more help. Their time is spread, and they can’t do it all, “though we’d like to,” Klein says.

Confidence levels are up; still, she says that after 18 years, they’ve specialized in taking “baby steps,” though each little improvement they’ve tried has worked.

“We’ve had good response, and we know there’s interest out there,” she says. “But if a regular business person looked at us after 18 years, he’d say that we should have given up a long time ago.”

For the Kleins, it’s not necessarily about a business model so much as a community model. That’s evident even in their willingness to host a big annual folk music festival called the XFest, a mini version of the Philly Folk Fest. In its 11th year, 300 visitors attend, camp out, listen to live music and have a ball participating in what’s become a tradition at Country Creek Winery.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. He writes from Quakertown, Pa., about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.