How a Winemaker’s Plant-Based Diet Led Her to Grow Austrian Grapes in Pennsylvania

A former pharmaceutical chemist and her husband bought his family’s farm, and soon after they were inspired to start a vineyard.
December 14, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC
Gruner grapes on the vines.
Galen Glen

Inside the tasting room at Galen Glen, a family-run winery in eastern Pennsylvania, there’s an expanse of windows that frame sweeping views of the property’s vineyards, a polished bar for pouring glasses of Riesling and rosé, and rocks. Specifically, shale rocks imprinted with crinoid fossils—sea creatures, one of the oldest living organisms—that date back roughly 300 million to 400 million years.

According to Sarah Troxell, the winemaker who, along with her husband, Galen, owns the vineyard, the stones are liberally scattered throughout the rows of vines. It’s a tangible and ancient reminder of the history of this land, which has been in Galen’s family for hundreds of years. Seven generations, in fact, counting the couple’s three children.

The Troxells didn’t start out as winemakers. A chemist, Sarah spent the beginning of her career working for a pharmaceutical company making liquid drug packaging, while her husband is trained as a mechanical engineer. When Galen’s father asked the pair if they would take over the farm in the mid-1990s, they first researched exactly what they would do with it. After ruling out raising pheasants or horses, or growing herbs or walnuts, a bottle of wine from Hawaii—a gift from a college friend who had gotten married there—inspired them to grow grapes.

“It clicked,” says Sarah. “Wine that’s made in Hawaii, not Napa or Germany or France. Maybe we can do wine here in Pennsylvania.”

In the beginning, they hired a vineyard consultant, planted their first vines in 1995, and began making wine in 1997. A few years later, the small, rural winery inadvertently helped cultivate the growth of a new variety in the United States.

Grüner grapes on the vines.
Galen Glen

Grüner Veltliner—the white wine grape most common in Austria—was relatively unheard of stateside in the beginning of the 21st century. While flipping through a copy of Food & Wine magazine, Sarah came across a story about a wine that pairs well with her favorite food: vegetables.

“I still have the original magazine, from 2000—the title was ‘Austrian Emperors.’ The article focused on [pairing] Grüner Veltliner with white asparagus, but also the diversity, because you can serve it with pork, fish, and many other vegetables that are hard to pair with. I was just fascinated by one wine being so versatile, and never having heard of it.”

After tracking them down from a commercial nursery in New York, the Troxells planted their first Grüner Veltliner vines in 2003, which makes them the oldest in America east of the Rocky Mountains. (The oldest Grüner vines in the country were planted one year earlier, at Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards in Oregon.)

Now, Galen Glen grows nine different grape varieties, including Gewürztraminer, Vidal, Chambourcin, and Cabernet Franc. The vineyard makes about 20 different wines each year and is hailed as one of Pennsylvania’s best wineries, taking home the state’s top honor this year for its 2018 Riesling.

For all its successes, the nearly 25-year-old vineyard has had some challenges, like the lack of generations-old institutional knowledge. “I can’t ask my father and my grandpa, or neighbors, like you would do [in Europe]. There’s no one to ask. That’s the hardest part—to learn all the little tricks because no one is teaching you,” says Sarah. “They’re the difference between just okay wine, and really spectacular.”

Sarah, Galen, and Erin Troxell.
Galen Glen

Luckily for Galen Glen, though, Erin Troxell, the eldest of the couple’s three children, is serious about the family business. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in viticulture and enology, and also a degree in plant science, Erin went on to get her master’s degree in Europe, studying first in Montpellier, France, and then in Geisenheim, in Germany’s Rheingau region. She’s now a viticulturist—an expert in grape cultivation and harvesting—and one of very few women in the country doing this job. While studying for her master’s, she worked at some multigenerational family wineries in Europe, where she soaked up that institutional knowledge and brought it back to her corner of the Lehigh Valley.

She’s also gleaned ideas from trying wines from classmates’ family farms—students from some 16 other countries, including South Africa, Mexico, Israel, Russia, China, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. “When I tasted some of these wines, I thought, this is so much like Pennsylvania,” Erin recalls. “But how would I have ever known? These wines don’t get imported. It gives me ideas for other varieties I want to establish here.”

Though a quarter of a century in, Galen Glen seems to be just starting out. “You can’t have enough vintages to learn everything in one lifetime,” Sarah says. “That’s why the most successful wineries are multigenerational, so that some of the knowledge passes on, and it continues that way.”

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