Taking a page out of The Three Musketeers playbook, a dozen midstate wineries last week popped the cork on Hershey Harrisburg Wine Country, a grassroots wine trail spread over five counties designed to enhance the region's appeal as a major tourist destination.
The “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” effort, aided by a $32,320 hotel tax grant from Dauphin County for startup promotion, is being spearheaded by the partners of The Vineyard at Hershey.
The Londonderry Township winery opened in February with a vision of better agricultural promotion — namely, marketing the growing handcrafted wine sector in Central Pennsylvania. The partners also sought to boost regional tourism in an area that welcomes about 10 million visitors every year, according to the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau.
“Collectively, we are working to lift the (wine) market,” said Jason Reimer, a Harrisburg attorney and partner of The Vineyard at Hershey.
Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 50 wineries in Pennsylvania, he said. Today there are more than 150. Reimer is on the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Winery Association in Harrisburg.
Nine of the 12 wine country wineries already belong to other wine trails that are more event-focused and serve extended geographical footprints, said Reimer, president of the wine country and parent company Central Pennsylvania Wine Marketing LLC.
The wineries experience spikes in business during and just after those special events. The goal of wine country is sustained exposure, which should translate to sales growth, winery owners said.
Each of the wineries is within a 45-minute drive of the center of Harrisburg or Hershey. The wine country subsequently has been pegged as a year-round supplementary activity for visitors here for the entertainment venues or groups in town for a convention.
“If you are coming here for business, let’s give you a reason to bring your spouse and give you a reason to stay an extra night,” said Reimer, who added that he expects the program to provide a steady boost to hospitality partners, area restaurants and transportation companies. “This is a destination. It’s about enjoying the experience year-round.”
The promotional dollars from Dauphin County will be used in tandem with the bureau’s “Just 88 Smiles Away”w campaign, a push to lure people from the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., region.
“It will hopefully attract more tourists, particularly those interested in wine and food,” said Amy Richards Harinath, a spokeswoman for the county commissioners. “This should boost tourism and local agriculture.”
Wine country also is providing residents with a reason to stay in town, Reimer added, as several of the local wineries are in their infancy and likely are unknown to many people. Others are expanding product lines. The winery members boast more than 100 blends.
“There still is room to grow,” Reimer said.
The “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality is shared by all of the wineries involved in the program.
“We’re all in this together,” said George Kline, owner of West Hanover Winery in Dauphin County. “We do our best to help each other.”
Kline’s two-acre vineyard, which is in its 23rd year, produces about 18,000 pounds of grapes in a good year. He is up to 11 wine varieties.
The new promotional vehicle is going to enhance everyone’s sales, he said. Other trail associations will continue to supplement that additional business, he said, citing a 25 percent increase in sales over January and February and a 100 percent jump in March because of the Mason-Dixon Wine Trail.
“We’ll probably see a 10 to 15 percent increase (in visitors) over the next three months (because of wine country’s launch),” Kline said.
Wine country offers the promise of more steady sales growth, said Tom Stutzman, owner of Red Shale Ridge Vineyardsh in Schuylkill County, which opened in 2007.
“By grouping together, we can get the word out,” he said.
Red Shale Ridge is expected to produce 30,000 bottles, spanning 10 varieties, this year, Stutzman said. He grows grapes on two acres in Hegins.
“This is really going to make a big difference,” said Tom Day, owner of Hummingbird Ridge Winery. The York Haven winery has been around for more than two years and produces 12 varieties of wine.
If one winery in this group does well, they all should do well, he said. Winemakers in this group are quick to recommend other wineries, he said.
The collection of wineries willing to work together came together fairly quickly, Reimer said. The idea for what tourism officials see as an unofficial winery association only came about in November, he said.
“It adds a real adult opportunity for a place anchored in Hersheypark and family entertainment,” said Rick Dunlap, a spokesman for the bureau. He said he expects wine country to join the list of entertainment options that includes local salon and spas, golf courses and the casino.
Ticket sales from signature wine country events are expected to sustain future product promotion, Reimer said. The program has Sweet Sensations of May running from May 5 to May 20, with ticket costs at $20 per person or $35 per couple. A Fall Festival will be held in October.
In addition, the wine country wineries are going to be part of existing wine events through Dauphin County Parks and Recreation at Fort Hunter in Susquehanna Township. The Music & Wine Festival is in June and the Jazz & Wine Festival is in September.
Reimer hinted at the possibility of developing signature events around the winter holidays. He said he is working with the bureau to develop travel packages.
He said he believes Central Pennsylvania wineries offer a comparable product to Napa Valley and the Finger Lakes.
“This will be great for packaging with the lodging facilities,” added Bob Wright, director of sales for York-based Bailey Coach, one of wine country’s transportation partners.
Bailey Coach over the last few years has provided transportation for wine trail events in Adams County, into Maryland and up to New York, he said. Sellouts are a frequent occurrence, he said.
“I think people like to visit different wineries in different places,” said Wright, who added that he expected similar results for wine country.
Hershey Harrisburg Wine Country is the 12th wine trail in the commonwealth.