3rd-generation vintner venture bears fruit

For area vintners, the co-founders of Chaddsford Winery blazed trails that have extended far beyond the Brandywine Valley.

Grapes that will be used for [Ee'z] thrive  at the Beatty Vineyard on Howell Mountain in California.

Grapes that will be used for [Ee'z] thrive at the Beatty Vineyard on Howell Mountain in California.

Eric and Lee Miller founded the winery in 1982, nurturing it from a fledgling upstart that bucked the odds into the state’s largest winery, garnering accolades along the way.

When the couple exited the business in 2012, they said they wanted to concentrate on ancillary wine activities, such as traveling and writing. But the lure of terroir – the chemistry and atmosphere integral to a particular vintage – has earned them a new distinction.

The Millers are now marketing [Ee’z], a California zinfandel that represents a third-generation collaboration. During a recent interview, Eric Miller and Eric Stauffer, his stepson, offered insight into their grape-filled history, which ultimately propeled their latest initiative from improbable to inevitable.

Eric Miller’s wine education dates back to his childhood. His father’s job as a magazine illustrator landed the family in the Burgundy region of France, where enjoying wine is inextricably linked to the culture. After the family returned to the U.S., Miller’s father retired and they started New York state’s first farm winery: Benmarl Vineyards in the Hudson Valley.

It was during that time that Miller met his wife, Lee Stauffer Miller, who had experienced a more abrupt transition into the world of cabernets and chardonnays. She and a business partner had been given a wine newsletter after writing a couple of newspaper articles about Lancaster County vintners.

Eric Stauffer (left), and his stepfather, Eric Miller, say  their winemaking collaboration benefits from the fact that they share the same  tastes.

Eric Stauffer (left), and his father, Eric Miller, say their winemaking collaboration benefits from the fact that they share the same tastes.

In doing research on the wine industry, Lee said she kept coming across the name Mark Miller, Eric’s high-profile father, and so she decided to travel to New York to interview him. Upon arriving, she took an immediate interest in his son, Eric Miller, and introduced him to her partner, Hudson.

Although Lee was disappointed that the sparks weren’t mutual, she got a second chance when she crossed paths again with Miller six months later. “The first thing he [Eric] said was ‘How’s your husband?’” she related, realizing that he had misheard her when she said “Hudson.” They’ve been together ever since.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the marriage planted the seeds that would eventually give birth to the [Ee’z] zinfandel. Lee brought two sons from her previous marriage to Benmarl, and the couple had two more.

“Little Eric,” so named to avoid confusion, said he has fond memories of growing up at the vineyard. Although he's technically a stepson, he said the family's strong bonds always made that term inadequate, and it was never used.

Despite his early exposure to winemaking, Stauffer said he had no plans to pursue it as a career. As a teen, he helped out at the Chaddsford Winery on Route 1 but thought that “working for my parents was a cop-out.”

He said he started college but wasn’t motivated and ended up back at the winery by default in his early 20s. It was during that same time that he met Erin, who would soon become his wife. She later started working at the winery as its retail manager.

By then, the Millers had made their mark among area wine cognoscenti.

Lele Galer of Galer Estate Vineyard & Winery in East Marlborough Township said she believes everyone in the Brandywine Valley wine industry owes an enormous debt to Eric and Lee Miller.

[Ee'z], which the winemakers hope will go down easy and be enjoyed, is being sold online.

[Ee'z], which the winemakers hope will go down easily and be enjoyed, is being sold online.

“Their hard work and determination laid the groundwork for all the wineries and vineyards that have come after them,” Galer said. “Their dream was to put Pennsylvania on the map for quality wines, and that is a reality thanks to them.”

Anthony Vietri, founder of Va La Winery in Avondale, agreed. “Like Stargazers, Twinbrook, and others, they have been important to the region and are part of our history,” he said.

After Stauffer returned to working at the Chaddsford Winery, he said his parents started to do more traveling to other grape-growing meccas, and he sometimes joined them. “I was overwhelmed by the hospitality we experienced from other winemakers,” he said, “and I began to fall in love with the industry.”

Stauffer said he realized that the next logical step involved education, and he returned to college to begin rehabilitating his GPA. He was eventually accepted into the prestigious enology and viticultural degree program at the University of California, Davis, and he and Erin headed West to the Napa Valley.

“It was a very scary thing to do,” he acknowledged.

They both got jobs in the wine industry, working their way up to more responsibility. Stauffer earned his degree, and his parents enjoyed periodic respites there.

When the Millers sold the Chaddsford Winery, they also left the 250-year-old farmhouse on the property that had been their home, but they didn’t move far. They now reside in a historic residence they renovated in the borough of West Chester.

During one of his parents’ visits to California a couple of years ago, Stauffer said his father asked: “What do you think about doing a little wine project together?”

Stauffer said everyone loved the idea, although he experienced some pangs of nervousness. “Do I really want to take on this whole other project?” he wondered. He decided that he did.

He said his wife’s expertise, like his mother’s, involves the retail and marketing aspects of winemaking, which left him to tackle questions such as where to get the grapes and where to process them – with guidance from "Big E."

“It made absolute sense,” Stauffer said of the arrangement. “I think Eric was getting antsy and starting to drive Mom crazy.”

Stauffer said the stars aligned when he learned that some old-vine zinfandel grapes were available for purchase at Beatty Ranch, a premier vineyard on Howell Mountain, and then he found a facility where they could be crushed. He also took advantage of his expert consultant.

When Eric Miller was not on site for face-to-face counsel, he got packages overnighted to him. For example, after Stauffer picked the grapes, he shipped them to Miller to see if he agreed that the timing was right. “They were drop-dead delicious,” Miller recalled.

Stauffer said the process continued to go well, despite moments of terror over a host of decisions ranging from pruning to yeast selection. One of the things he learned from Miller was that “if everything is going fine, step back, and let it do its thing.”

Both winemakers said they are pleased with the results and concurred that the partnership worked because their tastes are well-synchronized. “When we are tasting wine, we always know that we’re each tasting the same things,” Miller said.

Whether it makes sense to expand their operation will depend on sales, Miller said. He said he believes they produced a great bottle of wine, which they have a license to sell online for $45.

“It’s a $45 bottle of wine that cost us $65 to make,” Eric Miller said, affirming that winemaking can be a prohibitively expensive hobby. “The experience has been well worth the money we put up, though.”

He said they produced 74 cases, used 12 cases for promotional purposes, and only have about 10 left. Stauffer and his wife recently made a trip East to help promote [Ee’z] among area oenophiles, especially old customers who miss the Millers’ touch.

“I’m feeling pretty confident,” Stauffer said. “All indications point to this being a successful season.”

Miller, who said wine pervades his DNA, agreed. “My passion’s in the making of it and sharing it with people,” he said. “Part of selling it is sharing it.”

Stauffer said the wine’s name came from the “e's” they all share in their names, not to mention the fact that they hope the public will agree that it goes down easily.

Miller said the moniker is also in keeping with a class of zinfandels playfully called “slutty zins” for their fruity, high-alcohol content. “I guess I’m still not quite finished [with winemaking],” he said with a smile.

For more information, visit their website at www.sluttyzin.com.

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