This column appears in the April 2021 issue of Town&Gown.
It was just last fall that I was able to get an inside look at University Wine Company’s new location before it opened to the public. That was a fun day as I traveled around the county with my friend Celesta, hitting all the locations on the Central Pennsylvania Tasting Trail.
University Wine Company President/owner Jeff Proch was kind enough to give us a tour of the property, while crews were finishing up the details of the upstairs tasting room. I had a lovely time sampling various wines in the production facility below the tasting room, and getting a tour of the fledgling vineyard.
The facility at 504 Misty Hill Drive, State College, opened to the public in November. The beautiful building sits pleasantly at the base of Tussey Mountain between Boalsburg and Shingletown. I was glad to get back to see the finished product recently and catch up with Jeff to see how things were going.
University Wine Company in not new to the local wine scene. The folks at University Wine were a step ahead of the frozen-drink craze when they introduced their U-FREEZE Wine Slush in 2011. The success of that product allowed University Wine to branch out into a full range of bottled wines. They since have opened wine bars at The Greek restaurant in State College and at The Brew Coffee & Tap in Tyrone.
Opening the new tasting room in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a little bit of roller-coaster, says Jeff. After all, it wasn’t long after they opened that the three-week December shutdown of all indoor dining closed the tasting room.
Still, even in the cold of winter, people stopped by to grab a bottle to enjoy outside on the back patio with friends. The area outside the winery is now all set up for spring, with picnic tables and plenty of open space, perfect for a small gathering of socially distanced friends.
The inside of the tasting room is a showstopper. On sunny days, both the cozy fireplace and large windows provide warmth and light. Views stretch out from the vineyard to the far-away mountains and everything in between. The open, upstairs loft gives wine-sippers a wonderful view of Happy Valley, with Beaver Stadium off in the distance.
The location is a dream that was a long time in the making. Jeff was born and raised in State College before heading off to Bucknell University. After working in New York for five years, Jeff was pulled back to the mountains of central Pennsylvania.
“That was not where I wanted to be, not what I wanted to do,” he says of New York. “I have always had an interest in wine. My dad was in the PA wine industry. So, I worked with him to learn the business, and realized this is what I wanted to do, so I started my own winery. I went from the craziness of Manhattan to central Pennsylvania making wine. It has been a good change.”
After thinking about a home location for some time, University Wine found the perfect spot that is “far enough away to feel like the country, but close enough that it is easy to get to,” Jeff says.
The space allowed Jeff and his team to plant their own vineyard in 2017 and 2018. Staff member Colette Orlandi helped, saying the experience made her “feel like I was in Italy for a moment.”
They planted six different varieties of vines, and Jeff says “it is a little bit of an experiment to see which will grow well here and which won’t.”
Last year, the vines were hit hard by a late frost in the spring and an early frost in the fall. Jeff and his team were able to use the small amount of fruit they harvested to create a field blend that Jeff says “turned out really good,” but wasn’t available for purchase. He hopes to be able to use more of the fruit next year after a winter with mild temperatures.
Jeff says he’s glad to have a home base where he can share his passion for wine with customers.
“It is nice to finally have a home,” he says. “We have kind of been transient prior to this. It is a nice to have a facility for people to come and taste our product and hang out, enjoy themselves; plus all the production is right on site.”
The new Spirits of Happy Valley column will profile the burgeoning community of wineries, breweries, distilleries, and cideries in Centre County, along with the area’s bar scene.