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Pennsylvania Wines

Posted by on August 20th

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PA wines are slowly finding their footing. The preponderance of sweet pink trash is being supplanted by high-quality wines. The history of these wines is just being written. This article covers what has been going on for the past decade or so.

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Paris Wine Bar

It’s been a decade since the Paris Wine Bar opened at 2303 Fairmount Avenue. It was the first wine bar to exclusively feature wine from Pennsylvania. It was a significant moment for local viticulture: PA wineries have never been accorded this level of economic support and visibility in a major city.

It would not be an overstatement that this was a historic first for our local wine industry. Although things have changed, in 2012 the opening was met with deafening silence from the media. The wine bar closed several years later.

Two people, a couple sitting in a bar having a glass of chilled white wine.

Bad Reputation

Why the silence? Because generations, the Philadelphia elites believed that Pennsylvania wines sucked. They were sweet or tasted awful. Or both. Local wineries are held to ridicule, and no one with aspirations of refinement and culture would ever speak well of a local winery.

How do we know this? Because everyone repeated the same BS, year after year.

When Terry McNally opened the Paris Wine Bar, she was also the owner of London Grill next door. She was one of the first Philly restaurateurs to embrace the “Farm to Table” ethos, long before it was trendy. Sadly, London Grill –a favorite haunt back when the Wine School was in Fairmount– did not survive the pandemic.

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Why the Haters Are Wrong

The idea that Pennsylvania could not produce good wine is bullshit. Sure, many people now recognize that. When it really mattered, very few people understood why people like myself worked as a winemaker here.

Weather Patterns

The region has similar weather patterns (Köppen climate classification Cfa) as the Piedmonte in Italy. That, along with the long band of limestone soil that runs through the Brandywine Valley, you have the foundation of high-quality viticulture.

Airflow & Schist

Add to that a decent amount of airflow, a few hills of degraded friable schist, or even a sandy valley, and you have the makings of top-shelf wines. Just make sure the vines have southwestern exposure, and that’s terroir in a nutshell.

What Pennsylvania Wines Need

What’s keeping local winemakers back? We are still suffering from many of the same problems we had back in 2012. It’s all about the cheddar, baby.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA downtown skyline from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

State Investments

Unlike other east coast wine regions like Virginia, the state doesn’t invest much in the state’s wineries. Tellingly, Pennsylvania offers a wealth of grant opportunities to farms, except for one’s growing wine grapes. This keeps funding for research and development of the PA wine industry continuing at a snail’s pace.

Local Wine Lovers

The other reason is you. And by “you” I mean in aggregate, the millions of wine buyers in the region. You buy Chardonnay and Merlot and rarely anything else. If you do buy local wine, it is going to be a sweet one. For a local winemaker, this sucks. The grapes that work well here are not the ones people will buy.

This is changing, but it has to change faster. You need to buy local and demand great quality wines.

Personal Experience

The first wine I made from PA grapes was a Cabernet Franc. Every sommelier and winemaker who tasted it agreed it was great. And these were my friends from San Fransisco, not Philadelphia. It was a great wine, better than some of my Napa bottlings.

It was shipped to the wine stores in Pennsvyannia. Very few people were willing to give a Cabernet Franc from Pennsylvania a chance. Only a few hundred cases were sold. In my mind, that was enough of a failure. It killed my desire to make wine in Pennsylvania.

It was at this point that I went on to build up the Wine School.

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Get the Money, PA!

Until the cheddar starts to flow, the PA wine industry will continue to tread water. Until then, amazing wines made from grapes like Bonarda, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, and Chenin Blanc will remain theoretical.

That is why a wine bar in Philadelphia meant so much, but why its failure was heart-breaking. Projects like the Judgement of Rittenhouse are showing a renewed hope, and many great wineries are thriving. We are at a juncture, and how the public perceives our local wineries will matter a great deal.

Economic Revival

It’s not just about drinking well. A recent report from Virginia showed that the local wine industry added $747 Million to the state’s economy every year. Most of that is from a grape that few people have heard of: viognier. Drinking local brings in the cheddar, baby. Our economy needs local wineries.

6 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Wines”

  1. We live in Chester County and have visited some of the winerys in the area. The other problem for the consumer is price. These small wineries charge as much as a good wine from an established winery. Look at the top 100 from a wine mag. Some of the 90 rated are $20-$30. Why buy local if it costs more?

    Reply
    • Why should you spend more on a local product? That’s a personal choice. Personally, I prefer to keep my $$$ in the local economy. Why does it cost more? Largely because there aren’t subsidies for grape growers in PA, unlike most other agricultural products. Also, there isn’t an economy of scale yet. Once enough people are willing to invest their $20 in a local winery’s product, then the prices will come down.

      Reply
  2. Thank you M.J. for saying what so many of us in the industry have been feeling for so long. My husband and I came to PA (from the NY wine industry) in 1982 to start Chaddsford Winery…and I can only say it has been a long 30-year struggle for recognition. I only disagree with you in where the problem lies…it is not in the wine consuming public — we have had wonderful support over the years from consumers (and also the PLCB). The hard nut to crack has been restaurants who have shied from offering local products and thus “validating” their quality and worth to the public. With a few exceptions, like Terry McNally, the local wineries have made few inroads in that community. A big thanks to Terry and London Grill for this bold step – I truly hope Philadelphians support it!

    Reply

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