Meet the Winemaker: Chuck Zaleski of Fero Vineyards and Winery

One wouldn’t think that a stethoscope and a siphon would both be mandatory tools to master in one lifetime, but that’s the reality for Chuck Zaleski, a well-respected surgeon and a self-taught oenologist.

He blends science, chemistry and the power of working with his hands to create some of Pennsylvania’s finest vintages in the bucolic hills of Lewisburg.

Chuck’s love affair with the grape began at Bucknell University, when his studies took him overseas to Vienna. As part of his “personal curriculum,” he would visit several historic vineyards and found himself fascinated with the profiles of the area’s premium varietals such as Rieslings, Weissburgunder, Grüner Veltliner and crisp Sauvignon Blancs.

After graduating and while practicing medicine back in the states, Chuck met and fell in love with his wife, Daneen, who just so happens to also be an avid wine lover. The couple enjoyed trips to the Finger Lakes region of New York and found themselves discussing the possibility of starting a vineyard of their own.

In 2004, the couple had an opportunity to convert part of an 1812 family farm, and Fero Vineyards & Winery was born. Once the concept of the vineyard became a reality, “I got excited with things like soil analysis, scientific approach and the research and science required for this industry,” Chuck says. Every new learning stoked his passion for those skills and fueled his desire to grow great grapes.

Gleaning information at a rapid pace, Chuck latched onto the philosophies and practices of famous Russian viticulturalist and winemaker, Konstantin Frank, who was a renowned expert in the Finger Lakes region in the 1960s. A scientist himself, Konstantin was known for planting vitis vinifera grapes, which no one believed could be done in that region.

Perusing technical and wine journals became an obsession for Chuck, as he absorbed information on Pennsylvania weather, soil conditions, and the processes to create wines that could compete with—and even surpass—those in Europe and the Finger Lakes.

“I read anything and everything and found each new piece of information more fascinating that the next.”

Not waiting to get his hands dirty, Chuck began with several test plots and eventually established his first commercial planting in 2010. The Zaleski family currently nurtures Riesling, Pinot Gris, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Noir and Lemberger grapes. Chuck also hints that—like his mentor, Konstantin Frank—although skeptics said it wasn’t possible, “Fero Vineyards is one of the few wineries in the state to grow saperavi grapes, which typically hail from Georgia.”

Chuck believes that only great grapes can produce solid location-specific wines. “I want to play with the big guys to produce the big-league vintages in a local environment and to eventually be economically sustainable.”

He does, however concede that the biggest challenge Pennsylvania wine growers deal with is that their wines are sometimes not considered world-class enough. “I believe that we must educate the wine lover about our product and get them to taste and support our industry,” Chuck says. “A wine that tastes superior to many people will do all those things.”

Chuck wants tasters to know that “many Pennsylvania wines compare not to our West Coast, but lean more to the countryside of the Old World. We create a different expression of the same fruit. That’s why I chose the varieties I did. The soil, the slope, and the concept of terroir combines all of those elements while combating humidity and temperature extremes. It just makes scientific sense for developing a better grape here.”

Educating fellow wine lovers also goes beyond just what’s in the bottle. Chuck is a believer in regional and seasonal cuisine pairings, like his whites with summer fare and barbecues, specifically lighter meats like pork and chicken. “Fresh fish and vegetables always work well with the whites in warmer weather, too. Then I recommend turning to the reds during Pennsylvania’s rough winters to pair with soups, stews, and venisons. People sometimes stress about the different pairings, but if you stick with what’s locally sustained, it really is hard to go wrong.”

Chuck adds enthusiastically that Pennsylvania is taking large strides with new regulations to get local products distributed throughout the state to supermarkets, state stores, and restaurants.

“I envision Pennsylvania exceeding New York and Virginia in volume once that really gets off the ground,” he says.

Chuck and Deneen welcome visitors to Fero Vineyard and enjoy interacting with the knowledgeable (and not-so-knowledgeable) wine “experts,” who the pair see appreciating the better vintages that Pennsylvania has to offer.

Chuck continues to be encouraged by the direction that the consumer and the industry are headed and believes that his own legacy is to create sustainable world-class wines. “We’re grateful to have the opportunity to do what we love with the support of family and friends and look forward to continuing to produce outstanding grapes on the slopes of Lewisburg.”

For additional information or to order Fero’s wines online, visit the vineyard’s website, like the Facebook page and check in with the Pennsylvania Winery Association for new releases, events, and pertinent wine-lover information.

Fero Vineyards & Winery is located at 965 JPM Rd., Lewisburg, PA; (570) 568-0846. —Ed Williams