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Central PA wineries experiment to stay ahead

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Winemaker Jake Gruver is co-owner of Armstrong Valley Vineyard and Winery in Halifax Township, Dauphin County. Its newer products include sweet and sparkling apple cider, and blended wines.
Winemaker Jake Gruver is co-owner of Armstrong Valley Vineyard and Winery in Halifax Township, Dauphin County. Its newer products include sweet and sparkling apple cider, and blended wines. - (Photo / )

As Pennsylvania's wine industry continues to expand, the product mix at established wineries also is evolving.

Local winemakers say they want to stand out while redefining the perception of wine in Pennsylvania, which is known for producing sweeter wines.

They also want to appeal to the changing palettes of their customers, many of whom are millennials and want to buy products they see on television and movies or in lyrics to popular songs. Popping bottles and hip-hop music have gone hand in hand for years.

The trends have led a growing number of wineries in Central Pennsylvania, including pioneers like Nissley Vineyards in Lancaster County, one of Pennsylvania’s largest wineries, to start producing more dry wines as well as new sparkling varietals.

Dry rosé varietals and fruity moscato wines, known as dessert wines, are beginning to bubble up more frequently, which could reshape future wine production in Pennsylvania. The state is now home to more than 250 wineries.

“The industry is continuing to mature,” said Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Winery Association.

That maturation process includes more grape styles being grown in Pennsylvania, including Albariño and Grüner Veltliner, among others.

As it prepares to celebrate its six-year anniversary this February, The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey in Londonderry Township is introducing its first rosé varietal and adding a new orange moscato.

Partner Mike Wilson, known to many as “Merlot Mike,” compared the moscato to a mimosa cocktail. The rosé is made from a Cabernet Franc grape.

“I think with more wineries popping up, competition forces creativity and innovation,” he said. “You get people willing to take risks. And when other people see the market respond to that, of course others try their own variation, which is great.”

Takes time

But launching new products isn’t a quick or easy process for wineries. From talking to customers and experimenting with new blends, to growing or buying the grapes and scheduling time to produce it, a new product can take months, if not years.

It took about two years to develop the new varietals at The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey, Wilson said. But he believes it will be time well spent and that the products will have staying power. If social media platforms like Instagram, where the hashtag #roséallday has been used in nearly 237,000 posts, are any indication, they will.

Since it opened in 2012, sales at the vineyard have shifted away from just sweet wine purchases to a more balanced lineup, Wilson said.

As people are becoming more educated about local wine and venturing beyond their comfort zones to try new blends, much like craft-beer enthusiasts, it helps established wineries figure out how to shift future production.

At least that’s how Jake Gruver, co-owner of Armstrong Valley Vineyard and Winery in northern Dauphin County, sees the industry’s recent evolution.

Armstrong Valley has been open seven years and makes about 40 to 45 different wines. Gruver doesn’t want to see that number grow. Instead, he would rather stop making slow-moving wines to make room for newer blends concocted by his Halifax Township-based winery.

“We’re trying to streamline and focus on more consistency with what we have,” he said. “We’ve done rosés. I want to do more of that. I think there is a market for that.”

He also would like to produce more sparkling wines.

Armstrong Valley recently planted 10 additional acres of grape vines, bringing its total to 20 acres. The owners also built a new wine cellar to accommodate production growth.

“I think you have to grow or else you will die,” he said. “We have to keep testing the market and offer more of what the market wants.”

State law changes

Gruver also would like Armstrong Valley to remain small, a road that could be challenging in Pennsylvania following state liquor-law changes, known as Act 39.

Among other changes, the law allowed supermarkets and convenience-store chains to sell takeout wine. The law also allowed wineries to ship directly to customers.

As competition grows, it may be harder for small wineries to get or keep their products in new retail outlets.

Last year was the first full year for the Act 39 changes, and many grocery stores were still converting or buying new liquor licenses and trying to figure out what products to carry.

Eckinger believes 2018 and 2019 will be “stronger barometers” for the Act 39 changes and how wineries make money.

Jonas Nissley represents the third generation to lead Nissley Vineyards. Product development at the Lancaster County winery includes production trials on a small-batch blend of wine grapes and kombucha, a fermented tea.
Jonas Nissley represents the third generation to lead Nissley Vineyards. Product development at the Lancaster County winery includes production trials on a small-batch blend of wine grapes and kombucha, a fermented tea. - ()

Jonas Nissley, the latest generation of the Nissley family to lead Nissley Vineyards, said wine buyers who purchase in bulk are still gravitating to the winery and its satellite retail locations. But those who just need a single bottle or two are buying more wine at grocery stores. That impacts foot traffic at the smaller wine shops.

And while he is expecting more Nissley wine will be sold through grocery stores this year, Nissley said he doesn’t see the family’s estate winery increasing its current production levels. Last year, Nissley produced about 46,000 gallons of wine.

Like other local winemakers, Nissley sees new varietals taking hold and representing a greater share of winery sales in the future. Nissley is planning a new rosé this year, as well as a sparkling strawberry moscato.

An existing moscato-style product called Masquerade has grown more popular over the last few years, he said. And the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board recently picked it up to sell in state wine and spirits stores, which should boost sales.

“The challenge for us (in releasing new products) is we’re focused on estate-bottled wines,” he said, which means grapes grown on the Nissley property. “We don’t want our wine list to get too long. The bigger the list, the harder it is to focus on quality.”

That said, Nissley, which makes about 25 wines, has planted some new grape styles in a bid to experiment more with dry wines.

Nissley also has begun testing a grape-based alcoholic kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented tea drink popularized by brands like KeVita that tout its health benefits.

The Nissley take on kombucha would involve a tea blended with wine grapes and wine yeast. It could be comparable in taste to some sour beers, which have grown in popularity.

Nissley hopes to eventually see it as a product served alongside craft beer in local taprooms.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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