Small is Beautiful? Scratching the Surface of Pennsylvania Wine

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Pennsylvania wine? Do they make wine in Pennsylvania? Is that even a thing?

These were the sort of comments we often heard when Sue and I told friends and family that we were going to try to learn a little bit about Pennsylvania wine while we were in the Valley Forge area for our nephew’s wedding. Even some of the Pennsylvania natives we met were caught by surprise.

A Wagnerian Vision

Most people equate U.S. wine with California, which makes some sense because that state has the most wineries (more than 4500 according to the January 2019 issue of Wine Business Monthly) and makes about 90% of the nation’s wine. But there are actually more than 10,000 wineries in the U.S., so there are more wineries outside of California than in it. There are wineries in every single state and the District of Columbia, too (urban wineries are also a thing).

Wine’s wide domain is a triumph of the vision of Philip Wagner, the founder of Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards, which I wrote about in my book Wine Wars  in a chapter called Martians and Wagnerians.  Wagner imagined  America as a country where wine was made everywhere and consumed everywhere and while his vision hasn’t been fully realized the raw materials are there to see for anyone with a little curiosity.

Pennsylvania, for example, has 285 wineries, which puts it in 6th place in the U.S. wine league table based on number of wineries (not volume of wine) after California (of course), Oregon, Washington, New York, Texas, and Virginia.

1683 And All That

There are at least two ways to look at the history of Pennsylvania wine and both are revealing. Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy highlight the date 1968 in their excellent survey, American Wine.  That was the year that the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Limited Winery Act, which gave wineries the right to sell directly to consumers and through a limited number of retailers, avoiding the requirement to use wholesalers and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s monopoly stores.

Pennsylvania wineries would be relatively small and use only Pennsylvania grapes, but they could be economically sustainable because of their favorable market access. Pennsylvania already had grapes — it was the #4 table grape producing state. Now a wine industry could begin to emerge.

Robinson and Murphy only briefly reference Pennsylvania’s much longer wine history, which is discussed in greater depth in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America (Vol. 1, From the Beginnings to Prohibition). Here 1683 is the critical date. That’s when Andrew Doz planted a vineyard for William Penn. The European vines soon died, alas, but not before creating a natural hybrid with a native variety, which was named Alexander and became the basis of America’s first commercial wine production. Benjamin Franklin was an enthusiastic proponent of the Pennsylvania industry both here and abroad. Wine runs deep in Pennsylvania.

Finding Wine at Penns Woodspennswoods3

We only had time to visit one winery (now that really just scratches the surface), but a well-informed friend helped us choose a target that she thought would tell us something about Pennsylvania wine’s past, present, and future potential. So we pointed our rental Hyundai Santa Fe toward Chadds Ford and Penns Woods Winery.

Italian wine importer Gino Razzi decided he wanted to make wine, not just sell it. He started in 1997 with Symposium, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which received 95 points from Wine Spectator. This success prompted a search for the ideal Pennsylvania location — not too far from his business in Philadelphia — and in 2000 he purchased and re-named the Smithbridge Winery in Chadds Ford. An additional vineyard was developed 20 miles northwest near Coatesville. The first Penns Woods wines appeared in 2004.

Penns Woods produces 4000-4500 cases per year depending upon Mother Nature’s generosity, selling most of it directly at the historic country house tasting room and to wine club members. About 20 percent is allocated to on-premise and retail accounts, where there is strong demand.

We visited on what started out as a sleepy Saturday morning, but things soon heated up. Seated tastings took place on the covered patio, where small groups can learn all they want about the wines and the winery. A bride party suddenly arrived and headed to a long table out in the meadow where concerts and other events take place. These guests purchase wine by the bottle or glass without the guided formal tasting. The bride and her friends seemed to be having a wonderful time and we had a great time, too.

Penns Woods make a large range of wines and wine styles from dry to sweeter and from the European grape varieties that William Penn struck out with to hybrid varieties that were once the only game in town hereabouts. So, for example,  we tasted Pinot Noir (a recent experiment that showed nice spice and good potential) and also Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid that we learned was a favorite of Carley Razzi Mack, Gino’s daughter and business partner.

We were especially fond of a distinctive 2016 Gruner Veltliner from a Bucks County vineyard and a 2015 Cabernet Franc Reserve from 30+ year old vines.

Small is Beautiful

Penns Woods impresses us on many levels. First, the people we met at Penns Woods know who they are and what they want to be. That means a strong focus on quality in all the winery’s products and operations. They are also firmly rooted in their region and they appear to want to nurture relationships with their customers as much as they nurture the vines themselves. Penns Woods represents Pennsylvania very well.77541

What’s the future? Well, I think the adage that “small is beautiful” might apply here and perhaps to Pennsylvania more generally because of the way that the wine laws steer the market.  Success isn’t measured only by scale but also by the quality of the wines, the quality of the relationships the wines help build, and the satisfaction that these things bring.

We have only scratched the surface of Pennsylvania — lots more to taste and learn. American wine is nothing if not diverse and I am sure this is true of Pennsylvania. Impossible to generalize based on just a couple of wines and wineries. But this much I can say:

Penns Woods and other Pennsylvania wineries are helping fulfill Philip Wagner’s dream of a healthy, civilized America covered with vines, filled with wineries, and populated by wine-loving citizens.  Isn’t it about time you made a visit to a Wagnerian winery near you? Cheers!

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Thanks to Rachel Kuehn, sales manager at Penns Woods Winery, for taking time to answer all our questions. Special thanks to Denise Gardner for her good advice.

Congratulations and thanks to Anna and Jeffrey, who exchanged vows on a rainy day in Valley Forge. Your celebration gave us an excuse to scratch the surface of Pennsylvania wine!

3 responses

  1. Hey Mike! How is it going? Safe flight? Nice newsletter as usual. Keep in touch and say hallo to Sue. Alessandro
    Alessandro Torcoli Direttore Civiltà del bere
    Editoriale Lariana Srl Via P.L. da Palestrina 12 20124 Milano Tel 02.76.11.03.03
    http://www.civiltadelbere.com
    Follow us! http://www.civiltadelbere.com Facebook https://www.facebook.com/civilta.delbere Twitter https://twitter.com/Civiltabere Instagram https://www.instagram.com/civiltadelbere Pinterest https://it.pinterest.com/civiltadelbere
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  2. Hi Mike,

    I am a winemaker at a local winery not far from Penns Woods. I was very excited to hear that you came to the area and I agree that Penns Woods is a great example of what we can do. There is a new generation of winemakers coming up through the area and putting our stamp on the local industry. We absolutely hope you come back for a more detailed investigation.

    Other wineries I recommend in the Philly(-ish) region; Galer Estate, Va La, 1723, and where I work, Grace Winery. If you come by please reach out!

    Thanks again,
    Andrew Yingst

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