Pennsylvania’s Emerging Wine Scene Surprises Even Those Closest to It

Grapes on the vine at Mazza Vineyards / Photo courtesy Mazza
Grapes on the vine at Mazza Vineyards / Photo courtesy Mazza

About 10 years ago, Scott Zoccolillo went through a conversion. Skepticism turned into amazement, followed by searching, fervor and, finally, evangelism. It’s an experience shared by many sommeliers: an appreciation for Pennsylvania wine.

The bottle for Zoccolillo was Va La’s Silk Rosado. At the time, he worked as an assistant dining room director at Hotel DuPont in Delaware, when Va La winemaker Anthony Vietri gifted him the bottle after he helped direct a family wedding reception.

“I didn’t think much of it,” says Zoccolillo. “All I knew about Pennsylvania wines were the sticky sweet, strawberry wines and Moscatos. I drank it a month after he gave it to me, and I was so impressed by the quality, it gave me the motivation to search for others.”

Located in Avondale, about an hour outside of Philadelphia, Va La is an agrarian operation with just 6.7 acres of vineyards. Vietri uses native yeast for fermentation, practices sustainable agriculture, pioneered Italian field blends in the state and produced Pennsylvania’s first skin-contact wine.

Unknowingly, he set off a chain of events that would bring Pennsylvania wines into some of the state’s most esteemed dining rooms.

The evolution of Pennsylvania wine

As early as the mid-1990s, a handful of Philadelphia sommeliers had begun to add Pennsylvania wines to their lists. Sommelier Marnie Old recalls seeing Pennsylvania wines at the original incarnation of Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the shuttered Fountain at the Four Seasons. But with too few bottles that were both affordable and exceptional enough that could be offered by the glass, the state’s wines never really took off.

“It was a turning point for me. These wines were well made, interesting and exciting, and they came from 30 miles outside the city.” –Alexandra Cherniavsky, beverage manager, The Love

“The people drinking them were tourists,” says Old. “I had no luck trying to convince Philadelphians to try them.”

More than a decade after Old championed its Chardonnay and Chambourcin, Zoccolillo began to build the state’s selections on his menu at Nectar in suburban Berwyn. He also launched a series of blind tasting events that would become the PA Sommelier Judgment, an annual tasting of 100-plus wines by more than 20 state sommeliers and beverage professionals.

“It was a turning point for me,” says Alexandra Cherniavsky, an advanced sommelier who grew up in Chester County. “These wines were well made, interesting and exciting, and they came from 30 miles outside the city.”

Alexandra Cherniavsky tasting wine
Alexandra Cherniavsky / Photo by Ted Nghiem

The annual tasting has even revised Old’s views on the state.

“In each of the three times I’ve judged the event, it’s changed my previous judgment,” she says. “I used to say that Chardonnay had the most potential in Pennsylvania. I’ve said that in magazines. But now, I think Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are showing the most potential for quality.”

Like many emerging wine regions, Pennsylvania still produces its fair share of sweet clunkers, along with wines from international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon that don’t do well in the state’s microclimates. But wineries are evolving, especially as farmers plant varieties better suited to Pennsylvania’s cool, humid weather.

Galer Estate and Maple Springs make award-winning Albariños. Galen Glen sold out of its 2018 production of Red German Bastards, a blend of Cabernet Dorsa, Zweigelt and Regent. The hearty hybrid Chambourcin has long been one of the state’s success stories.

Now Carmine, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan, has joined its ranks. Winemakers in Chester County, west of Philadelphia grow Italian varieties like Nebbiolo, Barbera, Malvasia Bianca, Fiano and more. Merlot and Cabernet Franc have shown promise, and on the esoteric side, Fero Vineyards’ Saperavi was named one the state’s best red wines at the 2019 PA Sommelier Judgment.

Pennsylvania Wine Finds Focus

Local roots, global influence

Mario Mazza’s family has made wine near Erie for nearly 50 years at Mazza Vineyards, and he’s seen priorities and practices shift over time. Many have recruited qualified winemakers from other parts of the world.

In other cases, locals have studied elsewhere before returning home. Prior to rejoining his family’s winery, Mazza made wine in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills, Australia, where he graduated with a master’s degree in enology from the University of Adelaide.

Erin Troxell, daughter of Galen Glen founders Sarah and Galen Troxell, earned a degree in viticulture and enology from Cornell University, followed by a master’s degree from the Vinifera EuroMaster program in Germany and France. She has interned in Nahe, Napa and New Zealand and worked for several years at E. & J. Gallo.

“Second and third generations of winemakers, plus new people coming into the industry, are purposeful and have much more focused plans,” says Mazza.

When Jennifer Eckinger, currently the executive director of the Pennsylvania Winery Association, began work for the group 15 years ago, there were 54 wineries in the state. Now, there are more than 300.

The Drunk Grandma's Life tray at Bloomsday Cafe / Photo by Caroline Hacthett
The Drunk Grandma’s Life tray at Bloomsday Cafe / Photo by Caroline Hacthett

The best bottles seem to land first in Philadelphia. Tim Kweeder runs the beverage program at Bloomsday, and he was one of the first Philadelphia sommeliers to push natural wines and educate about their value, stories and charms.

“Our two biggest requests are skin contact [wines] and pét-nat,” he says. “They’ve become terms that people know, like someone saying, ‘I want your IPA or Cabernet.’ ”

“There’s still a large amount of wineries catering to old-fashioned tastes and boasting that everything is heavily oaked. But a lot of wineries are on the right path. We’ll eventually connect when that happens.” –Tim Kweeder, beverage director/general manager, Bloomsday Cafe

In the last few years, Kweeder has seen several wineries like Wayvine and Vox Vineti move toward lower-intervention winemaking practices. In part, that’s because of an open dialog between those winemakers and sommeliers.

“There’s still a large amount of wineries catering to old-fashioned tastes and boasting that everything is heavily oaked,” he says. “But a lot of wineries are on the right path. We’ll eventually connect when that happens.”

Pennsylvania’s by-the-glass revolution

The beverage program at Martha in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood is based on the concept of microbial terroir (a.k.a. natural fermentation).

Martha has an extensive selection of local beers and a wine list made up of mostly Pennsylvania selections. Jon Medlinsky, who built the list, sought out small wineries and convinced them to sell to the bar.

“Part of the evolution is me finding these wines,” says Medlinsky. “So many of them just aren’t talked about that much.” He cites Pinnacle Ridge, which has produced award-winning sparkling wine for nearly 20 years.

Grapes growing at Pinnacle Ridge / Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Winery Association
Grapes growing at Pinnacle Ridge / Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Winery Association

Every wine at Martha is available by the glass. You can sit on a barstool and eat an Italian hoagie waffle alongside a $30 flight of Va La.

“Part of why we offer wines by the glass is that we don’t want Pennsylvania wines to be this rarefied thing,” says Medlinsky.

Old doubts that Pennsylvania will ever be a value source for wine. Growing conditions are too challenging and land is too expensive. But the increased number of Pennsylvania wines on restaurant lists has helped to catapult their popularity. At The Love in Philadelphia, Cherniavsky’s team is quick to pour samples for guests hesitant to order Pennsylvania wine.

“People are always open to a sip,” she says.

The staff at The Love, in Philadelphia, being led through a wine tasting / Photo by Kelly Smith
The staff at The Love, in Philadelphia, being led through a wine tasting / Photo by Kelly Smith

Rewriting outdated liquor laws

In 2016, the state updated some of its arcane liquor laws. One change allowed breweries to apply for licenses to sell wine and liquor at a fraction of the cost of a traditional liquor license, as long as the products came from Pennsylvania producers.

As a result, Evil Genius and Human Robot Beer in Philadelphia, Tired Hands in Ardmore and Levante Brewing in West Chester all serve Pennsylvania wines by the glass.

The new laws precipitated Kelly Peterson Bates to return home to Pittsburgh. She had worked in Chicago for a decade, which included years spent as beverage director of Alpana Singh’s Boarding House.

“Every single time, you can see it in their faces. They’re thinking, ‘No way that’s Pennsylvania wine.’ ” –Kelly Peterson Bates, general manager, Cinderlands Beer Co.

Peterson Bates joined Cinderlands Beer Co., and its two locations now feature eight to 10 Pennsylvania wines by the glass. To find those wines, much like Medlinsky, she spends weekends driving around the Pennsylvania countryside, hunting down great producers and bottles.

Wines in her regular rotation include Mazza’s Chambourcin, Perfect Bubbly and Teroldego; Karamoor’s Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Meritage, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay; and Galen Glen’s Riesling, Grüner, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Stag Red blend.

“People still ask if we have Kim Crawford,” says Peterson Bates. But staff steer guests toward local options.

“Every single time, you can see it in their faces,” she says. “They’re thinking, ‘No way that’s Pennsylvania wine.’ ”

Vines growing at Vox Vineti / Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Winery Association
Vines sprouting at Vox Vineti / Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Winery Association

Producers can now also ship to in-state customers, and most significantly, grocery stores have been permitted to sell wine. It represents the largest growth area for wineries like Mazza, who offers both premium wines and “cheap and cheerful” bottlings tailored for grocery shelves.

A young Pittsburgh entrepreneur, Christian Simmons, found loopholes in state liquor laws that allowed him to open Pennsylvania Libations, a boutique liquor store with 100% Pennsylvania-made products. It’s the only privately owned liquor store in the state and acts as a wholesaler for restaurants and bars, too.

Simmons and his general manager, Jeremy Noah, are in the final stages of opening a Pennsylvania wine store with a separate brewpub hosted by Helltown Brewing housed in the same location, and wholesale operation. Fourteen wineries have signed on so far, along with a few mead producers.

Big state, bigger dreams

Once it opens, Pennsylvania Libations’ new venture should introduce consumers to a wider variety of the state’s wines. It could also help get bottlings from small producers into restaurants.

While restaurants can buy directly from wineries, it’s not always an easy transaction. Wineries and AVAs are spread across prohibitive distances. Va La does not ship. The team at Waltz Vineyards in Manheim offered to drive halfway to Pittsburgh to drop off wines with Peterson Bates, but she couldn’t lose two hours of her week to retrieve the cases.

Barrels at Pinnacle Ridge / Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Winery Association
Barrels at Pinnacle Ridge / Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Winery Association

“You have to realize, as a buyer in Pennsylvania, you’re working with a farmer who might have a three-person operation, and deliveries might come every couple of weeks,” says Steve Wildy, beverage director of Urban Outfitters’ portfolio of restaurants.

Wildy first poured Karamoor from kegs at Alla Spina eight years ago. He now manages beverage programs in Philadelphia, Glen Falls and Devon, prime wine country.

“It’s a big hurdle with any wine scene,” says Wildy. “You have a crew of young buyers who have a wall up against anything local. It’s perceived as uncool. I was the same way.

“But it’s hard to poo-poo things in your backyard, especially if you’re not connecting with farmers. The younger sommelier community is starting to realize they can have these direct relationships. We have the opportunity to help with harvest and to visit wineries.”

“It’s a big hurdle with any wine scene. You have a crew of young buyers who have a wall up against anything local. It’s perceived as uncool. I was the same way.” –Steve Wildy, beverage director, URBN

In Pittsburgh, Allegheny Wine Mixer occasionally includes wines from Maple Springs, Briar Valley Vineyard and Galen Glen into its tight 40-label list. Diners in Harrisburg can enjoy Pennsylvania wines at Millworks.

Marnie Old consults on lists for Nitro Bar and soon-to-open West Reading Motor Club in West Reading. For the latter, she anticipates about 20 Pennsylvania wines on its 150-label list. Jeremy Nolen, the chef, specializes in German and Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, which makes wines made from Germanic varieties an obvious choice.

Stephen Wood manages the beverage program at The Pressroom, one of the oldest restaurants in Lancaster. Like Wildy, he poured Pennsylvania wines for years at various restaurants in town, but he’s only recently been inspired to retool The Pressroom’s wine list.

“In the past few years, guests have become more open to trying local wines,” says Wood. “Everyone thought Pennsylvania wine was a sweet product… But people need to understand those aren’t the only wines made in Pennsylvania.

“I’m passionate about it right now, and for the first time, I have the ability to make buying decisions that will educate not only guests, but also our bartenders and servers, about Pennsylvania wines.”

Published on May 7, 2020
Topics: Emerging Regions