Where Butler and Skippack pikes meet in Blue Bell, a long fence follows the road and stretches into the distance.
Where Butler and Skippack pikes meet in Blue Bell, not far from Philadelphia’s northwestern edge, a long fence follows the road, wraps around the corner and stretches into the distance. Beyond it there are trees, carefully tended shrubs, a glimpse of vast green fields and historic buildings. And at multiple gates, the same sign: Karamoor Farm.
The view from the road is pastoral, serene – and mysterious. “Everybody wants to see behind the fence,” Kevin Robinson acknowledged with a laugh.
Robinson knows the hidden property well. He’s the winemaker for Karamoor Estate, the vineyard and winery at the heart of the 250-acre suburban farm.
Karamoor’s prize-winning wines are sold only at the vineyard and through its website, and wine tastings there have become a favored weekend activity for those in the know. Tours of the farm and its wine production area are especially popular in the fall, said Despina “Des” McNulty, whose father, Nicholas Karabots, first envisioned making wine at the farm.
Harvest is “what people want to see,” McNulty said. It’s literally in the air. “They can smell that smell inside of the winery when we’ve just finished crushing the grapes.”
This fall’s lively scene at the winery brings pleasure and relief to its proprietors, for it was by no means a sure thing. Karamoor Estate wines began as a labor of love, when Nicholas decided in 2003 to grow grapes on the Karabots’ sprawling property. It would be a challenge – there’s a reason the Philadelphia area is not world-renowned for wine production – but many of those hurdles had been successfully cleared when, beginning in 2020, a series of calamities struck.
The Karabots family – Nicholas, his wife Athena and their daughters Des, Andrea and Constance – had run very successful publishing and printing enterprises from their Montgomery County base, but perhaps are best known as philanthropic superstars. The family endowed institutions in both Nicholas’ native New York and in Philadelphia (including the Franklin Institute, Children’s Hospital and Einstein Medical Center) as well as causes in Whitemarsh Township.
In the 1980s, they amassed the historic properties of Oxmoor Estate – part of Willam Penn’s colonial-era land grant – and neighboring Brookside Farm to create Karamoor Farm. In 2003, Nicholas began exploring the idea of a vineyard on the farm, where wheat and alfalfa were traditionally grown.
Despite the recent proliferation of small vineyards (where grapes are grown) and wineries (where grapes are pressed and aged to become wine) in Southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the area is not a natural for the production of fine wines. It has neither the long summers and cool ocean air that elevate the wines of Northern California, nor the gravelly slopes that help define many European wines.
“This is hard farming,” acknowledged Robinson. “The disease pressure is huge” from our region’s summer rains and often oppressive humidity, and the summer growing season is short.
The Karabots brought in the experts – notably viticultural consultant Lucie Morton, who helped establish numerous vineyards in her native Virginia and is credited with raising the quality level throughout the state’s burgeoning wine business. She agreed with Nicholas’ vision to plant European, or vinifera, grapes, instead of the sweet and hearty American natives that were traditionally farmed for East Coast wineries. The best way to grow the red – Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon – and white – Chardonnay and Petit Verdot – grapes here, Morton advised, was to fill each acre with densely planted vines to maximize grape production and the odds of success.
In summer, Karamoor’s crews of contract workers continually hand-prune and thin the vines to give the remaining grapes the optimal chance of survival. Come fall, they harvest the grapes by hand, in the old-world way.
The process is labor-intensive and costly. “But that’s how you get quality,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who with his wife Laura joined Karamoor in 2012, agreed with the Karabots that making quality wine was really the whole point of the enterprise. He had worked at West Coast vineyards and knew well the high-alcohol, oaky wines that got much of the attention there; he was equally wary of the “fruit bombs” produced by many East Coast operations.
Instead, Robinson said, Karamoor’s wines are crafted to reflect the true flavor of each grape variety and be “more balanced, more food-friendly, less alcoholic.” Reviewers approved of the approach, and in recent years the wines have garnered awards not just regionally, but from California-based Sunset Magazine and San Francisco Chronicle competitions, among others.
With production in full swing, the winery opened to visitors. Tours and tastings were offered on-site, and in 2016, the Karabots opened a private tasting room atop the winery building, where the juice is stored and aged in stainless tanks and oak barrels before bottling. The upstairs space, overlooking the vineyard, is the regular meeting spot of Karamoor’s wine club.
Seeking a large, more casual spot for drop-in wine tasters, Nicholas purchased a neighboring stone barn, on Bethlehem Pike, adjacent to the vineyards. Crews set to work converting the old space and planning an adjoining terrace for al fresco tastings in warm weather.
But early in 2020, as Covid raged around the world, not even Karamoor’s idyllic setting was safe.
The first impact would seem almost comic, except for its dreadful effect: Restaurants on the roads surrounding the farm had largely shut down, and raccoons accustomed to a steady diet of dumpster pickings had to look elsewhere for food. They found Karamoor’s grapes, and “descended with a fury,” eating a significant portion of the crop before they could be stopped, Robinson recalled. “I’d dealt with bears in California. This was nothing like that.” The following summer was just as unlucky – a freak hailstorm ruined much of the 2021 crop.
In November 2020, another crisis: The newly renovated barn, just weeks away from completion, was partly destroyed in an overnight blaze that took nearly 100 firefighters to extinguish. While the barn’s stone walls held firm, the roof and all the improvements were lost.
Most devastating of all, on Feb. 1, 2021, the family patriarch, Nicholas, was felled by Covid at age 87. His death left Karamoor without its chief visionary.
It had been his idea to “bring the wine to the public” by bringing the public to Karamoor, daughter Des McNulty recalled. “He knew the only way to make money was to sell directly to the consumers.”
But several months after his passing, McNulty and sister Andi Duloc, the two daughters involved with the wine estate, weren’t sure how to proceed.
“We had this burned-out building,” McNulty recalled. “We could hear our dad’s voice, saying, ‘Eh, not sure if it’s worth it.’”
McNulty, who had been running the family’s publishing business, was first to admit she was “not a wine connoisseur at all. But I’ve come to have an appreciation of what wine is, and how other people thoroughly enjoy it.”
And, she added, she’s “kind of morphed into” what was once her father’s role, to figure out, “What do we do now?”
Covid, which brought tragedy, also brought an answer.
The shutdowns “opened up the world’s eyes to how you could eat, drink and be merry,” McNulty said. “The whole outdoors scenario really took off.” The burned barn would be repaired, and is slated to open later this fall. In the meantime, an open terrace in front of the barn became the site of an outdoor tasting bar. It was built with cabinets from the Karabots’ old kitchen, as Athena will tell visitors when she stops by.
McNulty described the spot’s evolution: “First we said, ‘Let’s put a tent over it,’ and people came. Then we said, ‘Let’s build a roof over it,’ and people kept coming!’’
The terrace, with bar and scattered umbrella tables, was open Fridays through Sundays this summer, busier than ever. “Some people are intrigued and have questions, and some just want to come with their spouses and have a drink,” noted Lisa Robinson, who will lead those interested through a guided tasting. A recent sampler included healthy sips of Karamoor’s Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, rosé of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
There is no food service, but customers may bring their own. Food trucks are occasionally on site. There’s often live music.
McNulty says the family’s hope is to finish the barn’s interior before winter, and install glass garage doors to allow a view, and fresh air when the temperature permits. “I envision being open five days a week, you can come buy wine, you can taste, and have a place for small events,” she said. “Then we can be open 12 months a year. Our mission is to be the best we can be.”