Long overlooked, Pennsylvania
wines are gaining ground
Illustrated by Danielle Mulcahy
On a recent spring day, I went to my neighborhood state liquor store in search of a Pennsylvania wine to pair with some locally raised lamb and asparagus. Local food, local wine, right? Given the state’s tradition of making wines dating to the time of William Penn, its 200-plus wineries, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s iron grip on sales of wine and spirits, I expected to find a showcase for hometown bottles. But the selection didn’t come close to quenching my thirst for something local and good: The small Pennsylvania-New York section was dominated by sweet wines—blush, Niagara and something called “Tailgate Red”—with just a handful of wineries represented.
On another day, I attended an event at the upscale Italian steak house Davio’s in Center City and grappled with a much different dilemma: A temporary bar was crowded with more intriguing Pennsylvania wines than I could possibly imbibe in one sitting. The event, which kicked off the Pennsylvania Winery Association’s new “Wine Land” campaign to encourage people to visit local wineries, featured several dozen choices. I was in the mood for white, so I sipped a refreshing Chardonnay from Penns Woods Winery in Chadds Ford, run by Gino Razzi and his daughter, Carley Razzi Mack, and a crisp Riesling from Lehigh Valley’s Galen Glen Vineyard and Winery, which boasts one of the state’s only female winemakers, Sarah Troxell.
These experiences show the conundrum local wine boosters face: The number of wineries in Pennsylvania has quadrupled from 50 a decade ago, but the challenges of building their profiles with little or no retail presence remain. As the largest single buyer of wines around the country, the PLCB is like the Wal-Mart of wine retailers: It buys in huge quantities and drives hard bargains on pricing. Neither option really connects with the winemaking profile of the state, which despite ranking seventh in production nationwide, mainly consists of mom-and-pop growers and makers. “The PLCB’s one goal is to make money, not to help establish Pennsylvania as a winemaking state,” says Ali Duloc, who helps manage her grandparents’ vineyard and winery, Karamoor Estate in Fort Washington.
However, the PLCB points to recent pricing policy changes and a “PA Preferred Wine” marketing initiative that lets local wineries choose up to ten state stores to sell their bottles, according to spokesperson Stacy Kriedeman. Wineries can also receive 99 limited permits a year to be used at off-premise events, such as farmers’ markets and festivals, and can vend their wines every day in five locations outside their facilities.
Whether Pennsylvania becomes the next Finger Lakes or Long Island or Virginia—all Eastern regions that are now wine destinations— depends on variables as complex as those that go into producing a fine vintage. Some are controllable—winemaking itself, marketing, state regulations—while others, like the weather and public perception, are not.
“I see more people that
walk in the door and say,
‘Do you carry local wine?’
A couple of years ago, that
never would have happened.”
Without the retail presence, however, winemakers here must rely on visitors to their tasting rooms and restaurants to spread the word. As Mack tells me, “It’s dramatically changed, because of the buy-local movement, but it’s still a big push, it’s still hand-selling. You have to go to every restaurant and get them amped up about local—it’s different than going in with a portfolio of wines and expecting them to be bought.”
At least Penns Woods has going for it a location on 30 acres in the well-touristed Brandywine Valley, where it holds all manner of classes, tastings and concerts. The 15-yearold Galen Glen, which is perched at the top of a steep hill with a “20-mile view of nothing,” faces an even bigger challenge in getting wine connoisseurs to its headquarters, according to Troxell.
“We’re not near any major metropolitan areas,” says Troxell, a chemist by training who runs the winery with her husband. “Wine needs to be grown where the farmland is, and where it’s best suited to be grown. Wine also needs to be sold. We have an extremely loyal following, but they have to find us. That has taken a long time.”
As the Wine Land event at Davio’s demonstrated, the challenge isn’t supply. We have wineries in every corner of the state. We produce a wealth of so-called single-estate wines, many of them comparable to good bottles from Bordeaux and other cool-climate regions, and we live in a time when local has never tasted so good to people who think deeply about what they eat and drink. Even so, consumers have been not been as quick to embrace the idea of drinking as locally as they eat, according to William Eccleston, general manager and wine director at Panorama restaurant and wine bar in Philadelphia. “People are looking for the best-produced local farm production, whether it’s cheese, vegetables or meat, but people are slower to come around to the locavore aspect of wine, just as they’re slower to come around to wines that are produced naturally, organically or sustainably,” he says.
Price naturally figures into the equation, with winemakers here stuck in a sales-production Catch-22, says Tria partner and wine director Michael McCaulley. The trifecta of labor, land and economies of scale means they have to price their products higher than larger producers, yet they struggle to ramp up their sales to the point where they will become less costly to make. “A Bordeaux producer is making a million cases, and here you’re making 150 cases, and you have to buy the same equipment and put the same care and love into it,” says McCaulley.
To Eccleston, who carries a limited number of Pennsylvania wines among his 150 wines by the glass, local wineries would be wise to focus less on the $10-and-under category and more on the mid-range. “When you get to handcrafted wines that are in the $15 to $20 range, I think the value is equivalent [to bottles from France] and something to be proud of,” Eccleston says.
Further slowing the path of local bottles to dining tables is that winemakers have yet to really connect the corks among restaurateurs and the general public, despite the determination of people like Terry McNally, owner of Philadelphia’s Paris Wine Bar.
The bar, an intimate lounge that acts as a companion to McNally’s London Grill next door, typically features three Pennsylvania wines on tap among seven. For McNally, the inspiration for serving fresh local wines came from her frequent trips to Italy. “They have the mentality of drinking and eating regionally,” she says. “To me it made sense to keep it local and regional like they do in Europe. It’s wine that lives here.” Even among devoted locavores like Fork chef Eli Kulp, there’s no reason to serve the wine next door unless it’s truly the best bottle available. Certain local bottles match up perfectly with the levels of fermentation in his cooking, such as a Penns Woods Traminette, which harmonizes with his terroir menu’s venison carpaccio and his Ode to Kennett Square, a mushroom terrine with fermented cashew butter.
“When they do pair well, people say they would never have guessed they’re from Pennsylvania. It’s sort of a grassroots movement. Any time you turn one person on to it, they might buy some bottles or venture out to the winery for tasting. As each year goes by, each vintage will only get better and better. Vintners will know their wines better, the soil will go through another cycle, and the vines will get older,” says Kulp.
Perhaps it’s a generational change that needs to happen, says a recent Pennsylvania wine convert, Dan “The Wineman” Soskin, owner of Old City’s Pinot Boutique. After a change in state law, he added to his stock of wine openers, glasses and accessories wines by the bottle and glass from two Pennsylvania wineries—Paradocx Vineyard in the Brandywine Valley and Pinnacle Ridge Winery in the Lehigh Valley— and South Jersey’s Auburn Road Vineyard & Winery. “People are more educated about wine now, especially younger people,” he says. “They grew up with farm-to-table and craft beer and the whole local movement. I see more people that walk in the door and say, ‘Do you carry local wine?’ A couple of years ago, that never would have happened.” Soskin is also collaborating with Auburn Road to promote the Vintage Atlantic Wine Region, which will offer more than a half-dozen wine trails in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. In the works is a website, Facebook page and foldout map.
A similar strategy informs the multimedia Wine Land campaign recently launched by the Pennsylvania Winery Association. The effort, based on research from Saint Joseph’s University’s Academy of Food Marketing, positions wineries as an easy getaway, according to Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Winery Association. A mobile application is intended to help plan spontaneous winethemed trips. “It’s the mindset of having that weekend getaway, but your weekend could begin on a Wednesday,” says Eckinger. “Even if you don’t have time to take a long vacation, it doesn’t entail an extensive amount of planning.”
As a group representing all wineries, the marketing message—“Keep tasting”—has to be a democratic one that encompasses the sweet wines usually associated with the state, as well as the dry wines that seek to claim a place at finer tables.
Regardless of your tastes, other East Coast wine regions have a leg up on Pennsylvania, which perhaps has yet to brand its best grape, according to McCaulley.
“You have over a million tourists every year to the Finger Lakes, you have Cornell University with a research department that’s one of the best in the country for grape studies—you have all that going for you,” he says. “When you go to Long Island, you have Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. In the Finger Lakes, they do Riesling, off dry and dry, and Cabernet Franc. Maybe we haven’t found the right grape.” For winemakers, the biggest hurdle—and payoff—is getting people to keep an open mind while tasting.
Having arrived from California just two years ago, Karamoor Estate winemaker Kevin Robinson brings an outsider’s perspective and impressive credentials to the extremely boutique operation. A graduate of the prestigious wine program at University of California, Davis, Robinson has been the winemaker at Rutherford Hill Winery in Napa and Brassfield Estate Winery in Lake County, north of Napa. Despite leaving behind the established northern California industry, Robinson feels right at home on Karamoor’s carefully cultivated 250-acre property. He is fortunate to be able to depend on the deep pockets of entrepreneur and philanthropist Nicholas Karabots and his wife, Athena, who are determined to create a world-class winery. A tasting room is in the works for a possible 2016 launch, but for now the winery relies on selling to high-end establishments like the Union League of Philadelphia, for which it makes wines under the club’s label; Fountain at the Four Seasons; and Parc.
Robinson likens the situation to that of Napa in the early ’70s, when the region was known outside the California mainly as the source of jug wine.
“Getting people to taste it is a challenge,” Robinson acknowledges. “But we’re building the brand one account at a time.”
As I survey the neatly tended vines of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varietals, I want to believe.
Now if I only I could convince my state store to replace the Tailgate Red with something better.
THE HUNT FOR PENNSYLVANIA WINES
You are hard-pressed to find Pennsylvania wines on restaurant lists, unless you know where to look. Here’s a partial list: In Philadelphia, Tria serves Karamoor Estate’s Meritage in bottles at its two wine bars and on tap at its Taproom; Fork features Penns Woods’ Traminette and Chambourcin, as well as Pinnacle Ridge’s sparkling rosé; Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar rotates in various vintages from Penns Woods at its locations in Philadelphia, Glen Mills and North Wales; and Paris Wine Bar features such wines on tap as a rosé from Karamoor Estate, a Merlot-Chambourcin from Allegro in York County and a Riesling from Galen Glen. Meanwhile, Panorama is offering Penns Woods Chardonnay and Karamoor’s Cabernet Franc; the Union League of Philadelphia features private-label Chardonnay and Meritage from Karamoor; White Dog Cafe features several bottles from Penns Woods, including its Cabernet Sauvigon; and Capital Grille has Penns Woods’ Chardonnay. Outside the city, Sovana Bistro is serving Galen Glen’s Grüner Veltliner and Riesling and Golden Pheasant Inn also pours its Grüner.
Some brewpubs are championing Pennsylvania wines, because state law allows them to sell local wine without a special license. You’ll find Penns Woods’ Merlot and Pinot Noir at Tired Hands Brewing Company in Ardmore and an assortment of Galen Glen varietals at Sir Winston’s in Glenside.
ON THE TRAIL
Visiting local wineries to tour and taste is more than an ideal day or weekend getaway; it helps support local viticulture and the efforts of the region’s long-term and newly established vintners. Wine trail associations, with their grouping of wineries in close geographic proximity to one another, offer maps, suggested itineraries, location details and event info to help plan your excursion. Pennsylvania is home to 12 wine trails statewide. Here are a few nearby favorites.
- Berks County Wine Trail Eight wineries
- Brandywine Valley Wine Trail Seven wineries
- Bucks County Wine Trail Nine wineries
- Lehigh Valley Wine Trail Nine wineries
- Montgomery County Wine Trail Three wineries
For more information, visit pennsylvaniawine.com.
Over the Border:
- Southern New Jersey Wine Trail
- Vintage North Jersey
- Shawangunk Wine Trail (Hudson Valley, N.Y.)