Wednesday, February 07, 2007

More Grapes Needed In Pennsylvania and Throughout the Eastcoast

February 4, 2007
A growing need for grapes
As state's wine industry blossoms, so does demand for homegrown supply.
By Kelly-Anne Suarez Of The Morning Call

In April 2003, Kevin Bubbenmoyer, a professional photographer and wine connoisseur, planted 1,700 chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon vines on a 3-acre plot surrounding his childhood home in Orefield.

Months later, Antler Ridge Winery owner Steve Unis noticed the fledgling vineyard from the road and jumped to introduce himself. Although it would be years before Bubbenmoyer's vines would yield their first crop, Unis soon laid down an offer: He'd take everything Bubbenmoyer could grow.

The swift business deal underscores the predicament facing Pennsylvania winemakers: As the number and size of wineries grow — the state ranks eighth in production — so does the need for grapes.

While wineries in other states can turn to places such as California to restock their supplies, state law requires Pennsylvania wineries to use at least 75 percent local grapes. The remainder may come from vineyards from outside the state, but only within a 350-mile radius.

The restrictions make the difficult task of securing a crop of good-quality grapes even trickier, said Percy Dougherty, an American Wine Society national judge from Lower Macungie.

Pennsylvania wineries aren't looking at changing the law. But with their industry generating $661 million a year, they're on a mission to persuade more people to grow grapes. To that end, the Penn State Cooperative Extension Office has been crisscrossing the state, holding seminars to draw wine hobbyists into the grape-growing business. One such session in South Whitehall drew 100 people last month. The group's demographics reflected the trend among the wine industry's new recruits: middle-age, upper- to middle-class couples.

''Napa just passed Disney as the No. 1 tourist attraction in California,'' Extension wine-grape agent Mark Chien told the crowd as they scribbled notes. ''That says something about what wineries can do for a region.''

Fast growth

The Pennsylvania wine industry, like the rest of the United States, has experienced rapid growth in the last decade. In the late 1990s, the state had 42 wineries. That number has more than doubled to 110, including nine in the Lehigh Valley. There also are 30 independent vineyards that just supply grapes.

Most state wineries fall into the ''boutique'' category. They're family-owned and run, bottling only enough wine to sell off their own shelves. Pennsylvania's entire annual production of 800,000 gallons could fit in just one of E. & J. Gallo's many California tanks, Chien said.

And that's OK, said Lee Miller, owner of Chaddsford Winery, which produces 85,000 gallons a year in Chester County. Yet despite the relatively small demand, Miller remains unsatisfied with the state's limited supply of grapes.

The 25-year-old winery is one of the most successful in the state, with five retail locations — the maximum permitted by the state Liquor Control Board. Often, the grapes offered are plucked from vines planted decades ago, making it difficult to keep up with the trends.

Even growers cognizant of the whims of the masses can't fight nature: New vines need three years to mature.

Jack Fulton of Williams Township is one such grower. The Vigne del Monte owner supplies 150 winemakers each year from his township vineyard, including those out of state, and each year he has requests he just can't fill. Fulton joined Chien at the recent seminar to help pitch his trade to the next generation.

Miller is hoping something will be done. And soon.

''If Pennsylvania wineries want to grow, we need to be able to buy more grapes,'' she said. ''Otherwise, we're at a disadvantage.''

A reputation to maintain

However convenient, allowing wineries to buy grapes from California is not the answer, said Dougherty, who is a Lehigh County commissioner. Wine grapes absorb the flavors of the soil in which they're planted. Hence a California cabernet tastes fruity, while grapes from the same type of vine planted on the East Coast will yield an earthier blend.

The concept is called terroir in French, and ''that's what real aficionados want in a wine,'' Dougherty said.

Using grapes from outside the state would ruin the good reputation the Lehigh Valley is building. Dougherty said Valley wineries nabbed 11 of the 15 top honors in a recent state competition, thanks to having some of the best soil around.

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