The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Wine Tasting in Western Pennsylvania

June 13, 2014 No comments » [ssba]

Ponte, setting the standard

Pennsylvania, the state I now call home, is a beautiful state.  The terrain is green beyond belief for most of the year; fall brings colors to the trees that would make Bob Ross weep with joy.  Believe it or not, winter has its own beauty and on perfect, gorgeous days, everyone – and I mean everyone – is outdoors.  That’s nice to see.  Of course, I will always miss and love my hometown of San Diego.  Sure, it’s brown, there are fires and earthquakes, but oh how I miss the beach and the endless sunny days…and In N Out.  I’ve lived in the Pittsburgh area of western PA for a little over seven years now and, California girl that I am, I embrace this place a teeny bit more every year that I’m here.  Heck, I recently had to scold a certain relative for smack-talking the ‘Burgh and calmly list the many benefits of living here.  However, I do have my issues with Pennsylvania and wine.

I, an adult of legal drinking age for 12 years, cannot have out-of-state wine shipped to my home.  Instead, I must buy wine from a designated, government-controlled Wine and Spirits store, where the wine choices can vary from month to month to month.  Yeah, that great dry rose I bought two weeks ago?  It’s gone now…who knows if I’ll ever find it there again.  This also means that there is no wine or liquor available in grocery or convenience stores, just the Wine and Spirits places.  Oh yes, and us Pennsylvanians have to buy beer from a completely different store called a Beer distributor.  Hashtags:  Out-of-date, ridiculous, get with the program PA, do-I-really-have-to-shop-in-fifty-different-stores-to-throw-a-party?

These laws and regulations go back to the end of prohibition when states were given the freedom to make their own laws regarding alcohol.  Fast forward to 2005 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was, in fact, unconstitutional to block the shipment of wine to resident’s homes.   Yet, here we are, nine years later, and legislation has been delayed because our dear old PA Liquor Control Board can’t figure out how to collect taxes on these shipments.  Sigh.  And so, I wait.  And I bring home as much Ponte wine as I can fit in my checked bags whenever I visit California.  And I also casually visit Pennsylvania’s slowly growing community of vineyards and wineries, because, hey, they can ship to my home and their wine selection is consistent.

State-wide, there are more than 150 wineries and I’ve been to…2, so I’ll admit now that my assessment here definitely has room for discussion and argument.  Seeing as how I lived near and worked on-site at Ponte for 3 years, let’s just say I walked into these two wineries with very high expectations of how a great winery should look and operate.

Nissley Winery near Hershey, PA.  Photo credit

I’ll refer to the wineries as Winery A and Winery B.

The Good:

  1. Both A and B were not at all crowded.  In fact, on the day my husband and I visited, the server to guest ratio at Winery B was 1:1.  This gave us the pleasure of having all of our questions answered, our glasses refilled promptly and the opportunity to connect with our very friendly server.
  2. No tasting fee.  I’ll say it again: no tasting fee.  Three pours at A, six pours at B.  I was caught completely off-guard by this.  Needless to say, yes, I purchased bottles from both A and B.
  3. Kid-friendly.  Honestly, if it were up to me, I’d have left the little guy home with a sitter (I mean, these are wineries, after all), but that was not an option at the time.  But both wineries were happy to welcome him, too.  We brought lots of goldfish.  He was content.
  4. Our wine servers were genuine wine-lovers.  It was apparent that they loved to talk about wine, drink wine and share their knowledge with their guests.
  5. Beautiful grounds – particularly Winery B which boasted an enormous outdoor patio with covered tables and chairs, a pond and rolling hills.

Stone Villa Wine Cellars in the fall.  Photo credit

La Casa Narcisi Winery, Gibsonia, PA.  Photo credit

The Bad:

  1. No ice buckets.  Winery B encouraged its guests to bring thier own picnic (which my husband and I did), and enjoy a bottle of their wine out on the patio.  Great idea!  We bought a wonderful white blend – which was available chilled – but there were no ice buckets to offer guests.  It was a warm day; halfway through the bottle, we were drinking warm wine.  Blech.
  2. Vineyards were just for show!  Driving up to the gorgeous stone structure, which was Winery B, I noticed a small area of beautiful vineyards.  It wasn’t very big so I figured the bulk of them were beyond my vision.  Come to find out, most of the grapes they used to make their wines come from the Lake Erie area of Pennsylvania and the vineyards I saw were for show only.  There is a kind of magic knowing the grapes grown right on location are used to make the wines you’re tasting and that magic wasn’t at Winery B.
  3. Lots of fruit wines.  Big reds are my thing, not fruit wines and PA makes a lot of sweet fruit wines (apple, cherry).  Again, I’ve only been to 2 Pennsylvania wineries, but there were more sweet wines on each tasting list than dry ones.  That said, I found a delicious dry red at each winery and purchased a bottle of both.
  4. Closed during the week.  Winery A is closed on Monday and Tuesday, Winery B is closed on Monday.  This isn’t necessarily good or bad, just different from Temecula wine country.  Goodness, Monday and Tuesday are the best days to go tasting in Temecula, no?
  5. Electric fences around the pond, yikes!  Our server at Winery B informed us to stay away from the edge of the pond, especially our little guy.  “It’s surrounded by an electric fence, and I’m not sure if it’s turned on at the moment,” he said.  Okaaay, then…

Va La Vineyards, Avondale, PA.  Farm + Americana + vineyards=a perfect representation of PA wine

The Ugly

Nothing ugly to report, but it made for a decent blog title.

Being an ex-pat of the west, I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to get out there and discover my new hometown and find the things that make it feel like my home.  That absolutely includes wine.   I obviously have a lot more wineries to visit in order to feel like I have a good grasp on PA wineries, but as I said before, with Ponte Winery in my past, I have high expectations.  I’m looking for an experience, not just a good wine.  I’m looking for friendly servers and smiles and a feeling of being welcome.  A good variety of red/white/rose/sweet wines never hurts either.  And if you grow the grapes you use to make wine right on site, more power to you.

You’re on your way, PA!  Now, let’s just get the Liquor Control Board into the 21st century.

–Erica Martinez

–What is your favorite wine region in the U.S.?  The world?

Posted by , June 13, 2014 No comments

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