By Paul Vigna
How long has Jerry Forest been in the wine business? So long, in fact, that he can remember when his three wines were called Red, White and Rosé. So long, indeed, that there were only a handful of wineries operating across Pennsylvania, from Bucks County near Philadelphia where he was located, across to Lake Erie.
He already was growing grapes when the state’s Limited Winery Act was passed in 1968, which unleashed an industry that has become one of the country’s biggest in grapes grown, wineries, and wine produced. For a time in a nearby newspaper’s advertising department, he left that job to become a full-time winery owner and winemaker in Bucks County with no regrets.
“I’m still here after 50 years, and love it,” he said. Several of his children now assist with the business. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. This was so far beyond anything I’ve ever done I can’t ever imagine not doing it. Enjoyable, challenging, rewarding. I started out with $2,000 and a couple of plastic barrels and now” have a business and property worth several million dollars. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
His story is echoed by a few others across the Mid-Atlantic who have been involved in making and selling wine even before the industry was officially created in each state, from pioneers Anthony Aellen (Linganore) in Maryland to Charlie Tomasallo (Tomasello) in New Jersey to Joal Wolf (Conneaut Cellars) and Forest (Buckingham Valley Vineyards) in Pennsylvania. All are survivors who have figured out a path through decades of growth, a proliferation of new grapes and a younger audience looking for diversification.
Tomasello remembers Saturday mornings labeling bottles in his dad’s winery in Hammonton, New Jersey, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. “I’d do it by hand, with a little glue machine.”
He’s the third generation; his son is following in his footsteps.
He remembers sitting in his grandmother’s house on White Horse Pike as a young kid, the winery located in the back, and the bell would ring when someone drove up the driveway. “My father would get up from the Thanksgiving table and sell them some wine. That’s how it worked.“
Today, they sell out of the winery and other New Jersey retail outlets in addition to shipping to almost 20 states and overseas, a list that runs from dry to sweet and complemented by a handful of fruit wines.
“I think it’s a matter of persistence, hard work, it’s not an easy business to be in,” he said. “I think you have to adapt to the different market trends and to what people buy. If you can do that, figure out what products to make, what wines to make, you have a pretty good chance of success. They’re changing all the time.”
Thus, the native American grapes his father started growing were joined by hybrids and later vinifera. “Then we got into the fruit wine business.” Later, he added, his son came home after getting his winemaking degree from Cornell and they got into the cider business. “There were a lot of apple farms in the Fingers Lakes and he saw people making cider. So we started making cider,” he said.
Demand has played a big part in the evolution of product lists, as much at Linganore as anywhere. Jack and Lucille Aellen moved to Maryland in the 1960s and planted 6 acres of grapes in Mount Airy, in central Maryland. They opened the winery, called Linganore Winecellars at Berrywine Plantations, in 1976, according to their son, Anthony, who has been the head winemaker there for more than 30 years. He told the story of a busload of retired women arriving in 1977, and after sampling their wine asked if there was something sweeter, such as Mogan David or Manischewitz. At the time, they made exclusively dry wines. Anthony said he ran to the store to buy a bottle. “I opened it up, and I went to pour it out to do a sugar test on it, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this stuff pours out like syrup.’ ”
Anthony Aellen, Linganore
Still, it wasn’t long before they became the first Maryland winery to make semi-dry and semi-sweet wines, and later fruit wines. They have continued to adjust to the marketplace, the past couple years moving toward widening its list of dry vinifera wines. “I truly believe that we have been around so long because we have been able to adapt to the changing tastes of the wine consumer,” he said.
The first winery to open in Pennsylvania after the law allowed direct sale to consumers was Penn Shore, near Lake Erie. It was the first producer in the state to make and sell Champagne in 1971 and continued to welcome customers over the next couple decades. For a while, nearby Mazza Vineyards took control, but current owners Jeff and Cheryl Ore purchased the operation from the Mazzas in May 2004.
So what has kept things going there, despite plenty of competition from one of the state’s most concentrated area of wineries? Name recognition, for one, Jeff said. Also, a reputation for consistency and a plan for growth. The ability to innovate, he said, also has been important. Penn Shore was the first winery in the region to introduce and host live music and entertainment and the first to introduce wine slushies, he said.
Asked to share his advice for someone getting into ownership for the long haul, Ore said the biggest mistake is being short-sighted. “Envision not only where your business will be, but where the industry and community will be 5, 10, 20 years from now.”
Twenty years is approximately how long Joal Wolf has run Conneaut Cellars, taking over the winery about an hour southwest of Penn Shore after his father, who founded the place, died. Basically, he has followed a similar script: maintaining customer service, tapping the Lake Erie region for grapes and staying involved in the community.
It was a seamless generational transition, one that some wineries across the region already have executed successfully and other soon will face. For Wolf, he sees other hurdles for his business. “I do see a challenge in growing red vinifera grapes in Lake Erie County due to farmers losing a lot of money a few years ago with winter kill,” he said. “A lot of them are planting Minnesota varieties to withstand the harsh winter. The farmers are also having issues in retaining their farms due to kids that are not interested in farming and Welsh’s low pricing of Concord grapes, which is the bumper crop of most grape farmers in the Lake Erie Region.” As for a future upside, “more wineries are in the restaurant and events business, which helps with return on investment,” he said.
More than 400 miles to the east, Tomasello said the key to success is finding “a niche that you’re comfortable with and that the market will buy into. We can’t all be Robert Mondavi.” Premium dry wine is an obvious niche, he added, but you’ve got to be able to sell everything you make. “And you need to have realistic expectations. It’s very easy in this business to spend a couple million dollars in equipment and not make any money. The toys are very expensive.”
The third-generation owner calls it a pretty exciting time for his business, with the opportunities that direct shipping offers. “I think we’re in a good place,” he said. “We’re in a lot of different baskets. We direct ship, we sell through distributors, we sell through retail outlets in New Jersey” and the PLCB.
Forest said he started his career five decades ago making three dry wines, all products he liked. Half the people walked out without anything, he remembered. Today he sells more than two dozen wines, including five sparkling, and “no one leaves without buying a bottle. They find something they like.”
At some point soon, Forest will step aside and offer the business to his kids. If that makes them happy, great. If not? “My dream is fulfilled,” he said. “If they don’t want to continue in this dream, that’s their decision. I don’t care what they do in life as long as they are happy.”
Oldest wines still being made in the mid-Atlantic (Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey)
Age: Wine name, Winery, Town, State
- 30: Tears of Gettysburg, Adams County Winery, Orrtanna, PA
- 30: Country White, Franklin Hill Vineyards, Bangor, PA
- 32: Marisa, Basignani Winery, Sparks, MD
- 33: Turtle Rock Red, Clover Hill Vineyards & Winery, Breinigsville, PA
- 34: Shawnee Red, Brookmere Winery, Belleville, PA
- 34: Skipjack, Linganore Wine Cellars, Mt. Airy, MD
- 34: Chardonnay, Elk Run Vineyard, Mt. Airy, MD
- 35, Chambourcin, Chaddsford Winery, Chaddsford, PA
- 36, Chardonnay, Conneaut Cellars Winery, Conneaut Lake, PA
- 36: York White Rose, Naylor Wine Cellars, Stewartstown, PA
- 37: Niagara, Calvaresi Winery, Bernville, PA
- 37: Cabernet Franc, Fiore Winery, Pylesville, MD
- 38: Cabernet Sauvignon, Allegro Winery, Brogue, PA
- 40: Naughty Marietta, Nissley Wine Cellars, Bainbridge, PA
- 44: Seyval Blanc, Buckingham Valley Winery, BucKingham, PA
- 44: Riesling, Mazza Vineyards, North East, PA
- 48: Riesling, Presque Isle Wine Cellars, North East, PA
- 48: Catawba, Penn Shore Vineyards, North East, PA
- 72: Rockfish (Seyval, Chardonnay, and Vidal blend), Boordy Vineyards, Hydes, MD
- 72: Ranier Red/White/Rose, Tomasello Winery, Hammonton, NJ