Pennsylvania wine: its time has come

Pennsylvania wine: its time has come

Christine Carroll

Pennsylvania’s moderate climate and rolling terrain provide some of this country’s most favorable grape-growing conditions. The state produces at least 70 varieties, more than most wine regions, and ranks fourth nationally in grapegrowing, with more than 14,000 acres under production. Pennsylvania is also the home of the two highest elevation vineyards east of the Rockies.

So why does the average wine drinker still consider California the only “serious” wine-producing region in the United States? And when will consumers start acknowledging Pennsylvania for wines that have turned the heads of respected wine critics and won medals at prestigious wine competitions around the world?

A little history might help to answer this question. In short, the progress of Pennsylvania’s wine industry was inhibited by two major factors: phylloxera and the Prohibition movement.

America’s first commercial vineyard, the Pennsylvania Vine Company, was established in 1793 along the Schuylkill River by a Frenchman. Initially, European grapevines failed to thrive on the East Coast of the U.S.; only native American grapes and some European-American hybrids survived, yielding disappointing wines. Climate and soil were not the problem, the early settlers discovered in time. The cause was phylloxera, to which native grapevines were immune.

Experiments with grafted vinifera were conducted in the Eastern U.S. in the late 19th century, but by then the temperance movement had taken hold. Prohibition prevented the development of the wine business in Pennsylvania, but fostered the growth of the juice industry, which explains why, to this day, Pennsylvania is known for its juice grapes and not for its wine.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but Pennsylvania was the last state in the union to revoke its laws restricting commercial winemaking. In 1968, the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act was passed, and grapegrowers finally obtained the right to make and sell wine.

Now back in the game, Pennsylvania faced a host of new issues. In the early days, remembers Doug Moore-head, principal of Presque Isle Wine Cellars and historian of the Pennsylvania wine industry, winemakers used the juice grapes they had growing in their vineyards, including such varieties as Cayuga, Niagara and Concord. The resulting product was often fruity and sweet, and regarded by consumers as unsophisticated. Pennsylvania developed a reputation for growing good grapes, but not the varieties that could be made into “serious” wine.

The boom in California’s wine industry started at about the same time. Mass marketing created the demand for European winegrape varietals, making Chardonnay and Cabernet household words. As California’s star rose, the demand for French and Italian wines declined, and small, family-owned Pennsylvania wineries faced the task of competing their little-known labrusca and hybrid varieties with reasonably priced, nationally marketed vinifera. Wine buyers wanted what was accessible, affordable and familiar.

In response to changing market conditions, Pennsylvania growers expanded and replanted their vineyards. Growing vinifera, they found, presented significant challenges: reduced per-acre yields, susceptibility to fungal disease, increased insect and bird pressure. Vinifera’s lesser ability to withstand cold temperatures threatened late ripening varieties and affected vine survivability in winter. Vinifera research funded by California’s success was largely unhelpful to East Coast growers. Their problems were different and exacerbated by inexperience.

The job is easier today, according to Moorehead. Laser planting technology ensures uniform spacing, which allows for optimal vine development. Rootstocks are hardier and more disease resistant. Better clone selection is available, allowing a closer match between plant characteristics and specific site conditions.

Pennsylvania growers have succeeded with “fussier” vinifera varietals such as Pinot Noir and Viognier, but many find cold hardy types, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, simpler to grow. Good results have been noted with Chardonnay Dijon clones 76, 95 and 96 on 101-14 and 3309 rootstocks, and with Cabernet Franc, Clones 1 and 4 on 101-14, Riparia Gloire and 3309.

Success, however, is site specific. Much depends on a vineyard’s microclimate, including elevation, soil composition and drainage. The choice of trellising systems is also critical. Many swear by the traditional VSP method, while others insist on a divided canopy (Scott Henry, Smart-Dyson). Another important factor is nursery choice. Philip Roth, famed grower of quality Pennsylvania Chardonnay, favors Herman and Ute Amberg’s Grafted Grapevines in Clifton Springs, N.Y. Others prefer the large California nurseries, such as Vintage or Sunridge. One thing most grapegrowers can agree on: start with clean, healthy stock from a reputable company that will replace vines if necessary.

Still, growing vinifera on the East Coast presents a challenge. Finding varietals that thrive in a vineyard’s microclimate requires years of experimentation, and nurturing the young plants takes patience and capital. Add to that increased consumer sensitivity on the use of chemical sprays and their potentially harmful impact on the environment.

In spite of obstacles past and present, Pennsylvania’s wineries have stayed the course, and their determination is finally paying off. Pioneers like Eric and Lee Miller from Chaddsford Winery; Bob and Kathie Mazza from Mazza Vineyards and Jerry and Kathy Forest from Buckingham Valley Vineyards, to name a few, have gone quietly about their business, experimenting, perfecting and guiding Pennsylvania into the position it enjoys today: a wine region on the brink of discovery.

“We were told you couldn’t grow winegrapes (in Pennsylvania),” Forest is quoted as saying in a Philadelphia Business Journal article. “We were here before it was fashionable.”

In 2001, Pennsylvania’s wine industry received a huge boost. A small, little known winery in Chester County, French Creek Ridge, was awarded a gold medal for its 1997 Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine in the prestigious French wine competition, Vinalies Internationales. All the other medals awarded at Vinalies that year, one gold and 27 silver, were won by prestigious French Champagnes.

The news of French Creek Ridge’s triumph at Vinalies exploded onto the international scene. The most discriminating French wine judges had acknowledged the superior quality of Pennsylvania wine.

Today, recognition is the rule, not the exception. Awards won by other Pennsylvania wineries in recent international competitions include (to name just a few):

* 2004 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition: Gold Medal, Chaddsford Winery, 2000 Merican

* 2004 Starwine International Wine Competition: Silver Medal, Presque Isle Wine Cellars, 2000 Viognier

* 2005 Dallas Morning News International Wine Competition: Gold Medal, Crossing Vineyards and Winery, Wild Berry

* 2005 Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup: Mazza Vineyards, 2002 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine.

New Quality Initiatives

Recently instituted quality initiatives have kept Pennsylvania’s wine industry moving in a positive direction. In 1999, Penn State Cooperative Extension hired viticulture expert Mark Chien. A graduate of Amherst College, Chien came to Pennsylvania with a background in viticulture from UC Davis. He worked at the research vineyards in Napa Valley and Amador County, and in 1985 he migrated to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where he managed a farm with more than 100 acres of winegrapes. He has been a member of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) for many years, and was recently elected to ASEV’s Eastern Section board. His Web site, winegrape.cas.psu.edu, keeps Pennsylvania growers informed on issues such as crop management and pest control.

In 2003 a joint venture of the Pennsylvania Marketing and Research Board, Penn State University and the Pennsylvania Wine Association made possible the appointment of the state’s first enologist, Stephen Menke. He is currently involved in helping in Pennsylvania’s vintners improve the quality of their wines.

Also in 2003, a small band of wineries joined together to form the Pennsylvania Premium Wine Group (PPWG), a marketing-based organization dedicated to quality and to fostering consumer confidence in Pennsylvania wines. The idea was based on similar programs developed in Ontario, Canada and Chianti.

PPWG members agreed to submit their wines for judging by a panel of experts. To qualify for the taste testing, wines must be made from 100% Pennsylvania grown vinifera grapes and must meet certain taste and technical requirements. Wines accepted by the tasting panel wear a special Pennsylvania Quality Assurance or PQA seal, to identify them as comparable to other premium wines from around the world.

As of October 2004, 15 Pennsylvania wineries have obtained the Pennsylvania Quality Alliance seal for at least one of their wines. Included are: Allegro Vineyards, Brogue; Blair Vineyards, Mertztown; Blue Mountain Vineyards, New Tripoli; Brook-mere Farm Vineyards, Belleville; Chaddsford Winery, Chadds Ford; Conneaut Wine Cellars, Conneaut Lake; Crossing Vineyards and Winery, Washington Crossing; French Creek Ridge Vineyards, Elverson; Kreutz Creek Vineyards, West Grove; Manatawny Creek Winery, Douglasville; Pinnacle Ridge Winery, Kutztown; Presque Isle Wine Cellars, North East; Stargazers Vineyards, Coatesville; Twin Brook Winery, Gap and Va La Vineyards, Avondale.

Almost 40 years after the passage of the Limited Winery Act, Pennsylvania’s vintners are beginning to win critical acclaim, both nationally and internationally. World-renowned Australian viticulturist Richard Smart, for example, recently toured vineyards in southeastern Pennsylvania and called the area “an undiscovered jewel.” He praised the quality of Pennsylvania’s wines, and compared the region to Oregon and Washington before their “breakthroughs” in the early ’90s.

Roger Morris, wine columnist and writer for Saveur magazine, offers more words of praise for Pennsylvania: “Those of us on the East Coast who love wine and who get to travel worldwide to visit vineyards suddenly find we have all these very good Pennsylvania wineries in our backyard,” he said. “It’s like living in San Francisco when Napa Valley was coming of age in the early 1970s.”

The road to recognition has been a long one, but the taste of victory is sweet, especially for those who have nurtured Pennsylvania’s wine industry from its infancy. Doug Moorehead sums up the feeling by paraphrasing a line from his favorite e. e. cummings poem: “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for,” he says. “The others are already won.”

(Christine Carroll is a wine columnist, wine educator and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery in Washington Crossing, Pa. She is a member of Penn State University’s Enology Program Advisory Committee and the secretary of Bucks County Wine Trail, Limited. Contact her through edit@winesandvines.com.)

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