I wrote this post in early 2012, but thought it deserved to be revisited and updated.
Philadelphians are justifiably quite proud and vocal about their (our) local beer scene. It is, arguably, the greatest place in the States to get high-quality craft beer – from local, national, and international crafters. Our spirits, from the likes of Art in the Age and Philadelphia Distilling, are also championed. But what about wine?
Pennsylvania boasts over 140 wineries and 11 wine trails, several of them quite close to Philadelphia (like Va La, at right). So why isn’t more PA wine found in bars, restaurants, and PA homes? Well, actually, it is found in many homes – though it definitely is missing from commercial establishments. I have visited several Philly-area wineries, and it is clear that people buy PA wines – and enjoy them. Local wineries often sell out of many of their wines, sold to people who live nearby and return frequently for more bottles. So, why not in bars and restaurants? Good question, and one whose answer, I think, is two-fold. First, it isn’t a bias against Philly-region or PA wines, but basically all American wine regions outside of California, Oregon, and Washington State. Second, it is a misunderstanding of wine, itself, and the ways in which it can be drunk and enjoyed.
Wine is produced in all 50 States, the greatest amount coming from California. In fact, the first, successful commercial winery in the US was in my home state of Indiana (Indiana territory at the time). That area now comprises part of the Ohio River Valley AVA. Indiana still makes a lot of wine, both in the South where a second AVA ( ) was recently named, and in the North where a winery (Shady Creek) that I recently reviewed is located. The East Coast is a big producer of wine, particularly New York state. Still, the West-Coast wine industry (while not the oldest – but see this interesting “history” and photo at left) is now more mature than other parts of the States, in part due to knowledge gained from competition with- and consultation and support from- long-standing European producers. It is also the largest producer with the greatest number of vineyards, the greatest number of vintners, the largest barrel-production, and even the largest “local” population of customers. All of this gives the California Industry the resources to grow high-quality grapes and produce high-quality wines. Production of high-quality wine breeds good publicity, a better reputation, more customers, more income, and, ultimately, the production of higher-quality wines. The California Industry achieved that saturation point many years ago; their producers have the “faith” of a consumer base, export potential, and experience to keep producing great wines. In a certain sense, this also allows for greater “forgiveness” of poor wines. If there is a perception that a wine should be good, many customers will perceive it as good. Or, if a wine is bad, it may be viewed (correctly) as an individual example of a bad wine rather than a blanket statement about the “state” of wine-making. In essence, California’s longer history of quality-wine production has raised its overall reputation and fostered greater appreciation of its Industry. Oregon and Washington benefit from some of these same qualities, as winemakers seek other (but similar) territory and proximity breeds familiarity with both product and producer.
From this standpoint, the New York State wine industry – particularly the Finger Lakes Region – is probably the furthest along the maturation curve of East Coast producers. There are nearly as many wineries in the Finger Lakes
Region as in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Some of these have large-scale production, facilitating access to them by non-locals. Many of these have longer histories than other commercial wineries on the East Coast, too. For instance, Dr. K Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars , founded by the eponymous vintner (right)is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Such a long existence also enables mature “old vines”, which many people feel produce more complex flavors in wine. It also fosters experience with the local terroir and micro-climate, and promotes the growth of their reputation from sustained, excellent wine-making. There are fantastic wines coming from this region – many of which have been recognized as such in wine competitions. Does this mean that all Finger Lakes’ wines are good? Absolutely not. As on the West Coast, there are still good wines, bad wines, and many that fall somewhere in-between.
What about Pennsylvania winemakers? For starters, few wineries in PA are well-known outside of local circles. Most estates are relatively small, as are production levels. Wines that get produced at some of these places sell out in house, with little to none left over for restaurant lists. In addition, the wineries are relatively new with young vines. The two oldest, Penn Shore and Presque Isle, both near Lake Erie, began in the late 1960’s. Closer to home, in the Philadelphia Countryside Region, Stargazers Vineyard opened their winery in 1996, though the
first vines were planted in 1979. Blue Mountain Vineyards, found at many local markets and at Reading Terminal, planted their vines in 1986. Wycombe Vineyards, who quite possible have my favorite labels of all time (see examples here), have young vines dating only from this millennium. The same is true of Washington Crossings Vineyard. Of course, that youth does not mean that the wines produced are not good. Local wineries produce some very good wines, as documented in reviews and blogs, and some get acclaim outside the region. The same is true of New Jersey wines (since “local” doesn’t end at the Delaware!). Recently, Keith Wallace at the Wine School of Philadelphia conducted a blind tasting of comparable New Jersey and French wines. To many peoples’ surprise, the New Jersey wines did quite well. As the vines mature and the acclaim grows, more and more high-quality wines will be produced in PA (and NJ).
The second reason I think local wines are lacking on menus is a misconception about wine – and how it can be drunk and enjoyed – that leads to the perception of lower quality of “the local” relative to imports – whether national or international. As the saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt”, and with local wineries everything is exposed – warts and all. We see all the wines produced – not just those deemed appropriate for export, national distribution, or a commercial audience. Many tasting rooms in PA highlight fruit wines along with the more “serious” varietal bottlings. We see the tables wines, the sweet wines, the sangria bottles, the spiced wines. Many of them are quite fresh and are meant to be drunk immediately; some are even seasonal. There seems to be an expectation that all wines produced in more mature wine regions are serious drinking wines. This simply isn’t true. Such wines do exist elsewhere, but they are kept local. The country wines and fruit wines are just kept at home, on the table for daily meals and social visits.
In my opinion, access to these fresh, young wines is a unique benefit of living within a wine-producing region. While an ageable, pedigreed barbera may be a wonderful addition to a meal of ravioli with wild boar ragout, it does not belong at the beach. A hot day in the sand and surf is much better spent with a low-alcohol peach wine, or a pail of Whitewash from local Paradocx Vineyard. Craving a cured meat and cheese plate? Try it with a high-end Cali cab, or a structured, earthy Cabernet Franc from local Stargazers Vineyard. Daytime drinks at the bar with friends can be quite fun with a slightly sweet, frizzante, Brachetto d’Acqui Wine, or try it with a slightly sweet, lightly sparkling Traminer from local Penns Woods Winery. Or experiment with a varietal you have never tasted – another benefit of visiting local wineries – as these grapes do not often make their way to retail store or restaurants. A recent visit to Brookmere Winery on the Upper Susquehanna Wine Trail yielded a single varietal Carmine, as well as a Carmine blend. In short, wine can be drunk anytime, in any number of situations. That means that wines with varying characteristics are suitable for drinking – not just those that are bone dry with high alcohol and strong tannins. In beer terms, sometimes a pilsner or kolsch is preferred over a porter or stout. For all wines (and beers), drinking is about enjoyment – personal enjoyment.
As the “locavore” and slow-food movements progress, perhaps local wines will become more popular – not just for the taste but the intangible benefits of procuring food and drink from local sources. One of these benefits is forging relationships with the winemakers and purveyors. I have had the opportunity to meet several of our local vintners, and visit their beautiful properties. There is a satisfaction to consuming goods produced at places one has visited, by people one has met. In Philly, local wines are becoming more prevalent on menus, though they are far out-numbered by West Coast and foreign wines. The opening of the Paris Wine Bar is, perhaps, a harbinger of increased interest in the local wines. There, “kegs” of PA wines are the only wines on the menu. Two other local restaurants, Alla Spina and Earth – Bread & Brewery, do or have carried PA wine on tap.
At my bar, Jet Wine Bar, we have had tremendous success with local wines. Our best seller for most of our first year was Stargazers Cabernet Franc, made from their old vines. Sadly, those vines are no more. However, we still sell wines from Stargazers, and their Sparkling Chardonnay was one of the “winners” in our informal cheesesteak and wine pairing endeavor. We currently carry Cabernet Franc from Karamoor Estate, and a nifty Niagara from Armstrong Valley Winery. We carried a Chambourcin Reserve from Penns Woods that was much liked by our clientele; at least
one of our regulars ordered a case from the winery after trying a glass at Jet. In addition to the above, we have carried wines from Wycombe, Washington Crossing, and Blair Vineyards – all with success. A recent “tasting trip” with customers was quite enjoyable, and we “discovered” a new favorite: Galer Estate Winery.
So, when you see local wines on the menu, give them a try. Depending on your personal preferences, you may or may not like what you taste. But, there are some excellent wines to be drunk and many benefits to “drinking local”.