by Emily Kovach
In the early 1990s, Sarah Troxell and her husband, Galen, were deep in the corporate world—she was a pharmaceutical chemist, and he served as the head of a mechanical engineering company.
Galen came from a farming background, and his father frequently asked the couple if they were interested in buying his farm in Andreas, Pa. Their successful careers, combined with the fact that their home was 85 miles from the farm, led them to defer the question time and again. That all changed one day when a friend sent the couple a bottle of wine from Hawaii. They were both surprised at the quality of the wine that had come from this unexpected region, and it occurred to them that great wine could come from anywhere—like, perhaps, Andreas, Pa.
“We both gave up these high-salary jobs and moved our three young children to a very rural area,” remembers Sarah. “Our families thought we were crazy! It’s very peaceful, but it was a cultural shift.”
During their corporate careers, Sarah and Galen had frequently traveled to Germany, and became familiar with and fond of the country’s amazing wines. Pennsylvania’s similarity to Germany’s climate convinced the couple to turn the farm into a winery. They hired a vineyard consultant to survey the property, a glacially carved, U-shaped glen at 1,000 feet elevation, which was discovered to provide great air movement, an essential component for reducing disease pressure, allowing for less spray and an extended growing season.
In 1995, Sarah quit her stressful corporate chemistry job and shifted gears into becoming a winemaker. “I actually cashed in my 401(k) to start the winery,” she says. “I decided to invest in myself and I’ve never regretted it since.”
Galen had some familiarity taking care of fruit trees from his childhood on the farm, and Sarah had her background in chemistry, but their education in winemaking was a crash course. Sarah met a winemaker living outside of Philadelphia who gave her free business counseling through the SCORE program, and sold her used equipment, some of which she still uses today.
“I didn’t take any formal classes, which I would not recommend!” she recalls with a laugh. “When it comes to chemistry of wine, I had a handle on that; when it comes to the artistry of wine, you’ll never have that in a lifetime.”
The couple planted white grapes that they knew would be well-suited for the soil, terrain, and climate of their land: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and the light, crisp Grüner Veltliner, which they fell in love with on their German travels and is now the signature style of their winery. They began to build their wine cellar, which included a rather famous bottling line, formerly owned by California winemaker Andrew Murray, who had used it to bottle the wines for the movie Sideways.
Over the past 10 years, Sarah and Galen’s processes have evolved, as has the quality of their product. “Looking back now, we don’t do anything like what we did then!” Sarah notes. She has a mentor from Europe whom she sees once or twice a year, and together they work on improving her grasp of wine chemistry. Ever the scientist, she’s flourished in her well-appointed lab, and she keeps working to expanded her testing capabilities. Other improvements have included switching to all-jacketed tanks to allow for cooled fermentation, transitioning to screw-cap tops, and using a French bottling line.
Galen recognizes Sarah’s intuition as her greatest strength: “She has great instincts when it comes to transforming fruit grown on our farm into something special. The wines represent the place where they were grown, and appeal to the most discerning wine critics and novice wine drinkers.”
Sarah laments how hard it can be to progress as an American winemaker without the same long, multigenerational tradition many of her European counterparts enjoy. “My friends in Europe ask their fathers or grandfathers, but we don’t have an older generation to ask!” she says. “We’re still figuring out more about our land, and every time we plant something, it’s a wiser choice.”
Galen Glen currently produces 6,500 cases per year, with its critically acclaimed Grüner Veltliner as its best-known product.
This dramatic, refreshing white wine has caught the attention of major media outlets like The Washington Post. It also produces Rosé, Riesling, Chambourcin, and a number of other varietals.
Sarah and Galen’s oldest daughter, Erin, is soon to join her parents’ business. As a graduate of Cornell University’s Viticulture and Enology program, she’s been traveling the world for six years, working and apprenticing in a diverse number of roles across the winemaking industry. Erin sees her mother as exemplifying both of the elements that are often attributed to successful winemaking: science and art.
“From her, I have learned how to transform the hard work that goes into producing each vintage’s crop into wines made with a high degree of chemical know-how, as well as care for stylistic consistency,” Erin says.
Looking toward the future and the wine industry that her daughter will inherit and likely help to shape, Sarah says that Pennsylvania wines are still waiting in the wings for their big moment. “That’s what I’d like to see for the future: someone from our state recognized in a bigger way that the rest of the wine world notices.” She believes there is enough great wine here, and has observed world-renowned wine critics noticing other younger wine regions, such as those in New York, Maryland, and Virginia.
“As younger people join and—at least, in our case—we bring in a highly educated second generation, and that will start to shift our industry, too,” she says. “Somebody somewhere from Pennsylvania is going to be discovered, and have that magical moment, and then we’ll be recognized in the wine world.”