Fall’s Bounty: Good grapes from a hot, dry summer, and bucolic settings are helping Centre County wineries offer a cozy escape
It may not be a surprise that Pennsylvania’s craft wine industry is thriving, thanks to its agricultural focus.
Wineries in the Keystone State are often developed on sprawling grounds with an abundance of outdoor seating. In Centre County, wineries like Pisano Family Wines in Hunlock Creek, Happy Valley Winery in State College, Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery in Centre Hall, and Seven Mountain Wine Cellars in Spring Mills give locals and tourists a place to sample fine vintages in a bucolic setting.
This year has had more than its share of challenges for many, and the wineries in the region are no different. While a hot, dry summer was good for the grapes, social distancing has not been great for planned winery events. But, when the COVID-19 pandemic initially shut down restaurants and wine and spirits shops in the area, local wineries stepped up to fill the wine needs of the region.
Barb Christ and Elwin Stewart, owners of Happy Valley Winery, sold their wine online and over the phone for curbside pickup and continued to sell in local grocery stores. Sales were pretty strong in late March, April, and the beginning of May. When the state began to reopen, the two worked hard to safely open up their patio to meet the state’s social-distancing regulations, while continuing to offer curbside pickup and shipping for those who preferred to stay home.
Christ and Stewart started the vineyard on three acres in 1999. In 2010, they opened their tasting room and grow their grapes on more than nine acres.
“We grow 90 percent of our grapes with at least 10 varieties on the property. Most are French American hybrids, grapes selected that are highly adapted to cooler climate viticulture and adapt at surviving cold temps. Typically, our growing season starts in early May, when we first see a bud break,” says Stewart. “They go through several growing stages and we start harvesting them in mid-September; white grapes first, and the red grapes are the last to be picked about the middle of October. When we get the first killing frost, we need to be done picking.”
The couple grows dry, fruity whites and oaky full-bodied reds; their best sellers are one of each: Appalachia Red and Ice Wine.
While online sales flourished in the spring, the lack of tourism, big summer events, and football games have made it harder on sales. But they still have loyal customers and are working to entice them to their grounds even in the cooler months, by purchasing heat lamps, extending their patio, and putting in barriers around it to keep the wind out.
Mount Nittany Vineyard also saw a rise in sales in the spring, and amplified its business by offering specials on cases. Samantha Hulings and her friend Jessica Hoffman split one, ordering six bottles each.
“Because my husband and I have been to the winery before – and got engaged there – we've tried every wine Mount Nittany offers, so we knew what to order,” Hulings says. “But, Mount Nittany does a very nice job of describing their wines on their website and even suggests food pairings for a few wines. Normally we love it because the chalet-style tasting room is right up our alley – on the side of Mount Nittany, surrounded by woods.”
The winery celebrated its 30th anniversary in September. Linda Weaver’s parents started the vineyard on 30 acres in 1983, selling wine to small wineries. In 1990, they decided to open their own tasting room, and in 1996, Weaver and her husband, Steve, took over. Now they produce 16,000 gallons of wine each year and harvest anywhere from 12-15 tons of grapes annually, including Cayuga, Seyval Blanc, Riesling, Vidal Blanc, Itasca, and Muscat Valvin.
Hoffman and her husband have spent a lot of time traveling to wineries in the Northeast, but were eager to buy locally and split the case with Hulings.
“We did so due to the pandemic and trying to shop local as much as possible to support small, local businesses,” Hoffman says. “This is something we’re trying to continue to do even as businesses reopen. We had never been to Mount Nittany before, but we ordered wines we usually like – for us, mostly dry wines.”
Like Happy Valley, Mount Nittany came up with innovative ideas to bring customers to their outdoor seating once restaurants and liquor stores reopened. Wine samples were no longer safe, so they decided to sell wine flights and offer locally made food like Goot Essa cheese and Penn State salami. While the lack of outdoor events and festivals has impacted their business, Weaver says they are not planning to reduce production; their in-store and grocery/retail sales are still doing well.
At Seven Mountains, winemaker Scott Bubb says that their expansive outdoor seating has been a popular escape for people looking for a relaxing atmosphere in a hectic year. Like Happy Valley and Mount Nittany, spring brought Seven Mountains increased wine shipments and deliveries to grocery stores. As things began to open up, the winery was happy to make outdoor seating safer, following social-distance protocols.
As seasons change, Bubb is emptying the tanks and getting ready for the new harvest. He first made three gallons of Concord Wine when he was 19 years old, and 43 years later, his hobby has become his career. He’s taken courses and attended seminars on winemaking and has since won five Governor’s Cups and the Pennsylvania Farm Show competition.
Seven Mountains purchases its grapes from all over the country: California, Washington, the Finger Lakes, and Lake Erie. Bubb has created 40 different wines from the high-quality grapes, and says trying different blends with different ratios for bench trials can be a lot of fun.
“I like dry wines, but I also recognize that sweet wines have their place. We make a delicious Ice Wine and Black Raspberry Wine; they pair well with cheesecake or dark chocolate. A cordial glass is perfect for the Black Raspberry,” he says. “People might up their nose on sweet wine, but they are missing out. I prefer dry wine, but not opposed to sipping wine with dessert.”
While no one knows for sure what the fall and winter months of 2020-21 will bring, the local wineries are working hard to keep the supply up to the demand and offer a cozy, safe outdoor setting for as long as people are able to stand the temps.
Rebekka Coakley is a freelance writer.