By Paul Vigna
Virginia Mitchell is one of the young faces of a growing Pennsylvania wine industry, one that ranks among the top 10 states nationally in wineries (more than 200) and among the top five in wine production (1.6 million gallons annually) and grapes grown.
A millennial, she’s among a handful of female winemakers in the state, one educated at Penn State, partly under the tutelage of the current state enologist, Denise Gardner. Articulate, she’s a willing advocate for Pa. wines, eager to tout the glass-half-full side of the business. She’ll be carrying that banner at the American Wine Society’s 50th convention in Pocono Manor, Pa. in November, sitting on a panel that will discuss the diversity of grapes that thrive across this state.
Galer Estate Winery in Chester County’s Kennett Square is her third stop in Pennsylvania. She arrived there in 2014, and has worked with the owners on replanting the vineyards with less common varietals that she feels will better express the unique soils and climates of Kennett Square. It’s just one of the issues the state’s wineries face, an industry searching for wines that will strike a chord with consumers.
”A winemaker at a small winery, like Galer Estate, has to balance what the consumer expects and what can actually be produced from the grapes in the vineyard,” Mitchell said. “This can be challenging, since we’re still learning what grapes will grow well in our soils and in this climate. What we can grow well may not be what the clientele expects.”
The reality is that the clientele remains largely in the dark about what to expect, despite a significant uptick since 2010 in the number of producers making premium wines. While the industry itself grapples with its direction: largely sweet wines vs. dry wines and a focus on events vs. a priority on the wines.
One issue the PWA faces continually, he said, is responding appropriately to various issues without alienating some wineries. “Therefore, our approach thus far has been to be generic with initiatives that serve the entire industry,” he said. “I do think that going forward, we will see more specific issues being addressed.”
Jan Waltz was a supplier first at his Lancaster County site, for years selling grapes that wound up winning awards for other wineries. Then he and wife Kim opened Waltz Vineyards in 2009 and turned it into one of the state’s top wineries, based on awards, sales and restaurant placement. But it hasn’t been easy.
“Unfortunately, our biggest obstacle has always been to convince the wine connoisseur that great wines can be made in our region,” he said. “For the past 20 years we have worked diligently to educate the consumer that world-class wines CAN be made in central Pennsylvania.”
How? First, figure out the terroir to determine which grape varieties can thrive in his winery’s rural location 10 miles north of Lancaster, nearby an American Viticulture Area (AVA). Then excel in the vineyard and the cellar. “When this recipe for success is passionately followed, all the consumer needs to do is taste,” he said.
The two have complemented those efforts with education, for themselves and others. It was Waltz Vineyards that provided the site for an April 2017 workshop that assembled winemakers from 12 high-quality East Coast wineries, stretching from Long Island to southern Virginia. “We have hosted grape growing seminars through Penn State to educate others on how to produce top-quality fruit,” he said. “We have consulted for many start-up vineyard/winery operations. We have engaged in roundtable discussions and seminars to give feedback and assist the industry in its pursuit of regional identity. However, the most important contribution we have made is to consistently produce excellent wines.”
They’ve also run their business contrary to the norm, keeping their tasting room closed on Sundays and eschewing any association with a wine trail. Most wineries do belong to one or two trails – there are 14 total – that center around an activities calendar. Gruver said it’s the PWA’s responsibility to provide a positive environment for all wineries, no matter the business model.
“Currently the various wine trails throughout Pennsylvania are providing regional networks that have become instrumental in new start-up operations while at the same time supporting the older more established wineries,” he said. “When we work together, we all win.”
Allegro Winery is one of the oldest wineries in Pennsylvania, with the previous owners planting their first vines in 1973 in southern York County. Many of those vines, both Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, provided a bridge and foundation to new owners Carl Helrich and wife Kris Miller.
“We started in 2001 at Allegro, and the most difficult task we had was figuring out how to sell our wine,” Helrich said. “The winemakers and grape growers who came before me left lots of data points for what [grape] works and what doesn’t work. But the hardest obstacle we faced was trying to bring about consumer awareness for our wine and – more importantly – find a way to get the wine to their tables.”
Last year’s changes to the state’s liquor laws, allowing grocery stores and other retail outlets to sell Pennsylvania-made wines, came on the heels of an improving relationship the past couple years between the state’s Liquor Control Board and wineries, Helrich said those changes offer more options but also more to grasp.
“Our industry made a seismic shift and now looks from the outside much more like other states than it ever has,” he said. “Going forward, learning a new distribution system will be our biggest challenge.”
That notwithstanding, Helrich said his goal remains making “good wines across all of our wine list. What makes me most proud is the fact that customers come to our winery and find it difficult to narrow down what they want to take home,” he said. “That, for me, is success in the cellar.”
A collaboration with two winemaker friends (Brad Knapp from Pinnacle Ridge and Joanne Levengood from Manatawny Creek) have helped, as they meet several times a year to critique each other’s wines. Indeed, they have combined to make three vintages of a dry red blend called Trio, where each of the winemakers contribute grapes and their expertise in its production. It’s the state’s best example of a productive collaboration.
Galer Estate’s Mitchell said she still consults with Gardner, her former teacher, if there are issues with a wine, and continues to document her work in the cellar to avoid making the same mistakes again. In the end, she said, what she’s making and selling affects Galer Estate’s bottom line and the industry overall.
“After a wine tasting, if one person walks away from Galer Estate’s tasting room with a more positive outlook on Pennsylvania/East Coast wines [and hopefully they also buy a bottle or two], then I believe the region has become that much better,” she said.
What will help the state’s wine industry is a recent influx of $1 million annually to use for marketing and also for education. While this funding is long overdue, Gruver noted that it provides its own pressure to raise the profile and acceptance of Pennsylvania wine.
“In the past, the wine industry in some of our border states [New York and Virginia] have had a much more robust marketing effort because they had the funds to do so,” he said. Now Pennsylvania has the same opportunities. “Our challenge will be to make sure we don’t over-promise and under-deliver.”
Additional wineries to consider for a taste of quality Pennsylvania wines:
- Va La Vineyards, 8820 Gap Newport Pike, Avondale, PA
- Penns Woods Winery, 124 Beaver Valley Rd, Chadds Ford, PA
- Galen Glen Winery, 255 Winter Mountain Dr, Andreas, PA
- Karamoor Estate, Fort Washington, PA
- Pinnacle Ridge Winery, 407 Old U.S. 22, Kutztown, PA
- Blair Vineyards, 99 Dietrich Valley Rd, Kutztown, PA
This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.