When Gino Razzi took up wine-making, he wasn’t sure he could make a high-quality product from grapes that were grown in Pennsylvania. But 15 years after Razzi launched the first vintage from Penns Woods Winery, the label regularly wins regional and national awards.
And business at the Chadds Ford vineyard is booming. On weekends visitors gather at an outdoor barn bar for live music, and attend events like cupcake pairings and vineyard yoga classes. Penns Woods wine is sold at a growing number of restaurants, and last year the owners added about 40 seats to its 26-seat tasting room. Its wine club, once about 50 members, is capped at about 550 this year.
Some of the changes at Penns Woods came after Razzi, an Italian-born wine importer who started making wine as a side business, brought on his daughter, Carley Razzi Mack, in 2010 to handle marketing and the tasting room. She was surprised by how fast the customer base has grown.
“There’s a bigger audience for what we’re doing than maybe we thought," she said.
Once a modest industry associated mostly with hobbyists, Pennsylvania’s wine scene is flourishing. The number of wineries in the state has grown from about 50 to 300 over the past two decades, and companies like Penns Woods are finding their products are more in demand by both consumers and restaurants than they once were.
Part of that is because the scene itself is getting older, even as some of its players are getting younger. “As the vines are getting older in these younger vineyards, every year you’re getting better quality," said sommelier Alexandra Cherniavsky, beverage director for Rittenhouse’s The Love, which this month is offering four Pennsylvania wines by the glass and another four by the bottle.
The industry has also benefited from people like Razzi Mack, who bring new ideas and marketing strategies to a family business.
Throughout October, 25 restaurants in and around Philadelphia (plus a handful of others statewide) are featuring local wines or hosting events for Pennsylvania Wine Month, including Jet Wine Bar, Tria, and the new Jean-Georges Philadelphia, which is selling Penns Woods’ Chambourcin Reserve by the glass.
Pennsylvania Wine Month isn’t new, but this year it has more support than ever from bars and restaurants, according to Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Winery Association. She said winemakers have become more adept at forming relationships with bar owners and sommeliers, who can not only sell the wine, but also educate customers about it.
Like craft breweries and distilleries, wineries also are finding more ways to attract customers. Chaddsford Winery, located about 10 miles from Penns Woods, draws visitors with food truck festivals and movie nights. Once there, attendees can hear how the wine is made, or learn about grape varietals.
“The desire to know what you’re consuming has been a strong driver to local wine,” Eckinger said. “People are starting to delve more into what it means to eat local. And for these wineries, having staff that is able to communicate the stories behind it helps to assure the consumer that they’re buying something they can feel good about.”
And as local winemakers gain experience and the vines age, their wine is improving. Several Pennsylvania wines won big at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition this year. Some newer winemakers, like the founders of Chester County’s family-run Wayvine Winery and Vineyard, go to school to study agriculture so as to better understand the business. Each harvest can bring more information about how the climate affects the grapes.
And area restaurants, especially those that focus on regional food, are responding.
The Love, which emphasizes seasonal and local eating, is hosting a six-course dinner Oct. 22 with food sourced from within 100 miles of the restaurant, paired with wine from Galen Glen Winery of Schuylkill County. Cherniavsky also serves as the Pennsylvania wines ambassador, meaning she works with the state wine association on providing recommendations and education. She also focuses on spreading the word to her staff and the restaurant’s customers. Often, she said, guests who are skeptical about local wine will easily change their minds after hearing about a wine’s origin, and tasting it.
“We know where our meat and cheese and apples come from, why shouldn’t we also know where our grapes come from?" she asked. “We wouldn’t put something on the menu if it wasn’t great.”
Several restaurants are hosting dinners with local winemakers on Tuesday, Oct. 22: South Philly’s Bar Amis is hosting a four-course dinner with pairings from Wayvine Winery; Martha, the Kensington bar that has been a pioneer in offering hard-to-find Pennsylvania wines, is serving a five-course meal with pairings by Lancaster County’s Vox Vineti winery.