Of Discerning Taste
Sommeliers decide which local wines will make their lists
In April, there was a "judgement" for sommeliers in Philadelphia, the third of its kind in as many years. Wine experts tasted nearly 100 Pennsylvania wines, submitted by 25 wineries, to decide which bottles belonged on their coveted lists. They blind-tasted wines produced in the state using grapes grown in the state — and they were surprised.
“To taste all of these wines at once was an advantage,” says Steve Wildy, sommelier for Vetri Family Restaurants and Urban Hospitality. “I was actively seeking out PA wines. But, it’s clear that there’s serious talent out there.”
Of the top 10 scoring wines, several varietals shone — Albariño, Carmine, Saperavi and Teroldego — next to high-scoring Rieslings, a Cabernet Franc and Rosé.
Wildy was a special fan of the Rieslings. “I hadn’t had too many Pennsylvania Rieslings, and I know there’s an association with Finger Lakes Rieslings. But there were a handful that were great and a few that were stellar. It really changed my perception.”
Alexandra Cherniavsky, beverage manager at The Love in Philadelphia, likes Fero Vineyards’ Pinot Noir and says that Galen Glen is producing some of the favorites in the state. She offers Galen Glen Grüner Veltliner by the glass in her restaurant. “It tastes like it came from Austria. It’s world-class.” (Galen Glenn’s Grüner Veltliner grapes are the oldest planting east of the Rockies.)
Michele Konopi, sommelier at Jean Georges in the new Four Seasons, prefers the Grüner from Penns Woods Winery, also calling it worldly. But, Vynecrest’s Riesling, another Pennsylvania wine, was her second best-selling white wine and the 4th overall best-selling wine by the glass during her time at Barclay Prime. It scored in the top 26 at the blind tasting, and two judges gave it a perfect score.
Aimee Olexy, owner of Talula’s Garden, Talula’s Daily, Talula’s Table, and The Love, has her eye on “the crisp whites coming out of PA — and a lot of plummy reds.”
Having wines on the “right” list offers legitimacy for the winemaker, says Scott Zoccolillo, wine director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. “But rising tides raise all the ships; we’re all promoting the region, in general.”
Still, there’s a stigma when it comes to PA wines. “Compared to how things felt five to 10 years ago, there’s an insane amount of quality in Pennsylvania wine,” Wildy says. “But there’s a lot of stigma with your home state wine, and this causes people to have a slower acceptance rate when it comes to ‘drinking local.’”
Wildy says there’s a narrow spectrum of what our market wants, and this market isn’t known for making wine. We grow grapes in all 50 of our states, but consumers — especially local consumers — put down wine from Pennsylvania. “California is a winemaker’s dream,” Konopi says. “Their conditions are consistent, so their wines are consistent. In Pennsylvania, you have to love what you’re doing, you have to be more adventurous. Our climates are different.”
The sommeliers say that part of our struggle in PA winemaking is the small size of the operation. “These are farms. It takes a while to produce with consistency,” Olexy says. “Pennsylvania winemaking started naturally, with farmers making juice.” The restaurateur was a judge at the Unionville farm show back in the day, when all of the wines tasted like the natural wines that are so trendy now.
All of the sommeliers were unanimous: The Pennsylvania winemakers needn’t go with the flow.
“Our winemakers need to get past the urge to make a Bordeaux blend and an oaky Chardonnay,” Wildy says. “The real charm is finding the road less traveled. That’s not to say there aren’t great Bordeaux-style blends and Chardonnays being made in PA, but we have an opportunity to grow grapes and make wines that are specific to our region.”
Olexy agrees. “It used to be that Pennsylvania produced oddball, novelty wines.”
Wildy is in favor of seeking out grapes and wines that are distinct to Pennsylvania, outside of the Cabernet and Chardonnay. He points to Mazza Vineyards’ Teroldego as an exclusive regional standout.
Konopi thinks that Pennsylvania’s Cabernet Francs are delicious enough to make our region famous, the sommelier is partial to Saperavi, a black grape native to Georgia that can handle extremely cold weather and produces a deeply red wine. Fero Vineyards is currently sold out of its 2016 varietal.
The problem, Konopi says, is that “business men won’t order something they can’t pronounce.” While sommeliers are trying to push the best of what our region has to offer, winemakers are still selling more Cabernet Sauvignon than Viognier.
It’s up to the sommeliers and beverage directors to preach the gospel of these local bottles. “We know that people are looking for something on a wine list,” Wildy says. “It’s our job to turn them on to what we’re excited about, some of the unique wines they maybe haven’t heard of.”
Konopi stands behind her wine list by backing it with her own personal preference. “I will offer a taste to an out-of-towner, and say, ‘If you don’t like it, I’m going to drink it later.’ That’s an easy way to get them to try something new or local.”
Olexy thinks that winemakers should visit the restaurants more often. “Pop in and ‘pimp’ it,” she says of her wish for more wineries to talk tableside to her customers.
The restaurant owner is not afraid to use the mainstream appeal of “buy local” to sell her diners on PA wines. Cherniavsky uses this tactic on sweet wine lovers. “If they like concord wines, they already know they like local wines. Then, you can introduce them to the wide variety of exceptional wines produced here. Concord is the gateway drug.”
So with all of the exceptional wines being produced in PA — and the top sommeliers pushing them — why isn’t Pennsylvania known as a top wine region? Wildy says there’s a lack of market presence because there’s a lack of efficiency. “These small wineries are mostly passion projects,” he says. “They can’t make things in a commodity fashion. With smaller operations, the cost of labor carries a higher price tag.”
Olexy pushes that when you’re in the restaurant business, you’re in the marketing business. Restaurant owners and beverage directors have to find the value. “You’ve got to drink for the price, like any other region,” she explains. When a bottle from Italy has a wholesale sticker price of $8, and a bottle from Pennsylvania is $18 — wine list makers are asking if it drinks $10 better per bottle and how they can sell that to a customer. “If the prices are high, do the consumers buy them?” Olexy asks. “I buy the ugly green beans and feel like if you’re going to spend more for the local food, go the extra mile on the beverage, too.”
And, a label upgrade could go a long way: “The packaging isn’t there,” Olexy says. “Farmers aren’t marketers. We have the juice, the terroir, but not the branding.”
She does, however, think they’re stepping up their game when it comes to tourism. “Pennsylvania winemakers have started giving a wine experience like you’re in wine country. They have tasting rooms. They’re destinations. We need that.”
Chernaivsky says that the tourism business is crucial to the future of Pennsylvania wine. “The wineries aren’t making a large margin on the bottles. For the most part,” she says. “It’s promotional — seeing a local vineyard on the wine list drives traffic to the winery, where a guest might buy a whole case.”
Still, Wildy says that PA wines are producing at a competitive price point. “Through the tasting, I was shocked at how affordable things are,” Wildy says. “There were a lot that were in a ‘by the glass’ category.”
Zoccolillo agrees: “A lot of these wines taste more expensive than they are.”
In the future, Zoccolillo and Konopi are in favor of giving the tasting panel more time, two days at least. “We’re getting better winemakers, better quality across the board,” Zoccolillo says.
As far as stocking the wines they tasted, Cherniavsky is getting in the Maple Springs Albariño in next month, and Wildy says the panel and the direction of winemaking in Pennsylvania has him reworking the wine list at Terrain. “I could see us with a wine list that is one third to one half PA wines in the next couple years.”
And then it’s up to us, the consumers, to order them. Olexy sees local wine as a component in a healthful, holistic food movement. “These are from our region. These are premium wines. We should be drinking them with the same thoughtfulness as mindful eating.”
“There are places I go because they have PA wine,” Cherniavsky urges. “Drink with an open mind. There are amazing wines coming out of this state. And there’s something for everyone.”
Top Wines of the 2019 PA
(listed in alphabetical order)
Chaddsford Winery 2017 Cabernet Franc (Chadds Ford, PA)
Fero Vineyards & Winery 2017 Saperavi (Lewisburg, PA)
Fero Vineyards & Winery NV 1812 (Red Blend) (Lewisburg, PA)
Flickerwood Wine Cellars 2017 Riesling (Kane, PA)
Galen Glen Winery 2018 Riesling (Andreas, PA)
Galen Glen Winery 2018 Cabernet Franc, Stone Cellars (Andreas, PA)
Galer Estate Vineyard & Winery 2018 Rosé (Kennett Square, PA)
Maple Springs Vineyard 2018 Albariño (Bechtelsville, PA)
Mazza Vineyards 2017 Teroldego (North East, PA)
Vynecrest Vineyards & Winery 2016 #39 (Red Blend) (Breinigsville, PA)
Wayvine Winery 2016 Carmine (Nottingham, PA)
Wines of the 2019 PA
(listed in alphabetical order)