Keystone Edge: PA WILDS: Wineries Thrive Among Elk, Forests and Creeks
PA WILDS: Wineries Thrive Among Elk, Forests and Creeks
Tataboline Enos | Thursday, March 07, 2013
This story is presented in partnership with the Pennsylvania
Wilds, a two million acre landscape composed of 12 distinct and beautiful
counties, each with its own unique heritage, character, charm and outdoor
The Pennsylvania Wilds may be best known for its wild places
and wildlife, but as more people trek to the region to explore its woods,
mountains and waterways, it is driving growth of another kind of tourism asset:
a robust trail of wineries.
The Pennsylvania Wilds spans two wine regions – the
Groundhog and Upper Susquehanna – and has long been peppered with a few unique,
family-run wineries. But several more have opened or expanded in the region in
recent years, creating jobs and helping define the visitor experience in this
evolving outdoor recreation destination.
Growing From Rails to Trails
At Bee Kind Winery, which opened in 2011 in Clearfield
County, visitors can paddle, bike or drive to the winery – and often do. Their
“Rails to Trails Red” is one of their best sellers. Business has been
excellent, said owner Joseph Kendrick. Bee Kind started its first year at a
1,700-gallon capacity and ended it at 11,000 – and is still racing to meet
demand, he said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
The Clarion University Small Business Development Center,
which serves eight of the PA Wilds’ 12.5 counties, has worked with 12
pre-venture wineries in recent years, seven of which are now in operation, said
Director Kevin Roth. The original capital infusion from the wineries totaled
$750,000, he said; the most recent employment data shows the wineries created
33 full-time and 30 part-time jobs. Low interest loans available through the PA
Dept. of Community & Economic Development helped a number of the businesses
get off the ground, according to their owners.
Out-of-town visitors and regional efforts to bring them here
are fueling growth, many of the wineries say.
Elk Mountain Winery, which opened in St Marys in 2010, said
it went with an elk theme because of the new Elk Country Visitor Center, which
was then about to open 20 miles away. The facility, a premier elk conservation
and interpretation center on the East Coast, was built by the PA Dept of
Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) as part of a larger strategic
effort by local and state partners to grow sustainable nature tourism in the
Pennsylvania Wilds that creates jobs, diversifies rural economies, improves
quality of life and inspires stewardship. A large wild elk herd lives near the
Elk Mountain Winery co-owner Kevin Wolfel said it was clear
before the center opened it would be a major attraction. He was right. The
Keystone Elk Country Alliance, the non-profit wildlife conservation group that
operates the center for DCNR, estimates upwards of 200,000 people visited last
Wolfel said his business has had visitors from all 50 states
and 14 countries so far. They leave straight pins on a map on his winery
wall. “We are shipping wine to quite a
few people that were here once just to see the elk, now they are hooked on our
products,” he said. “Even the non-wine drinkers still pick up a bottle or two
just for the whimsical names on our labels … It just goes to show you the power
Elk Mountain Winery has expanded twice so far, opening
outlet stores in Benezette and Benton, Pa.
Other wineries have opened around the center as well. In
Benezette, at the base of Winslow Hill where the visitor center is located,
Doug and Sylvia Ruffo opened Benezette Wines in summer 2012. An elk dons their
label, along with a small PA Wilds logo. One of their reds is called “Old Fred
36,” a nod to an old bull elk that frequented the area for many years before
dying in 2011. Doug Ruffo said he has had customers from more than 30 states
and four foreign countries – not bad for a winery in a town with fewer than 300
residents. Many families return to the area every year, he said.
“People have been very excited to see us here,” Ruffo said.
“It gives them another reason to visit. We have had many people have their
first elk experience while enjoying a glass of wine on our deck.”
Twenty miles south, in DuBois, Wapiti Ridge Wine Cellars
also went with an elk theme (‘wapiti’ is a Native American term for elk).
Owners David and Michelle Albert said their love of nature helped inspire the
winery name. The business has seen a lot of out-of-town visitors since opening
in December 2011, Michelle said.
“I've met people from California to Germany. They have been
a large part of our business the first year. Our name is still getting out to
the local area, so I'm excited to see what our second year brings,” she said.
Elk aren’t the only draw in the Pennsylvania Wilds, of
course. In the northwestern part of the PA Wilds, it is the Allegheny National
Forest, Allegheny Reservoir and the National Wild & Scenic Allegheny River
that people come for. There, Alan Chapel opened Allegheny Cellars winery after
the manufacturing plant he’d worked at for many years closed.
Chapel said prior to opening in 2007, he’d visited another
winery in the region – the Winery at Wilcox, about a half hour away – and spoke
to the owner. “He was doing a very successful business there, so I knew that
the winery business was viable in our area,” Chapel said. “We found a building
right on Scenic Route 6 that was perfect for us. We also knew that the traffic, combined with
the way Route 6 and the PA Wilds were being promoted as tourist destinations,
that we would have an even better chance of success.”
Allegheny Cellars expanded last year, opening an outlet
store in Belle Vernon, Pa, and hopes to open two other outlets in the future.
Chapel said he is also working on facility upgrades to increase efficiency,
most recently purchasing a forklift to move pallets of wine and bottles; and a
box van to take to festivals. Chapel said visitation plays a key role on his
bottom line from July to December, “but it’s the locals that keep us afloat
early in the year.” He said he initially thought locals who wanted to imbibe
would prefer beer or liquor to wine. “Wow, was I wrong… and thankfully so!”
Roth, at the SBDC, said in many cases wineries have been
started by people who first made wine as a hobby for family and friends. That
was the case for Allegheny Cellars and for its neighbor, Flickerwood Wine
Cellars, about 20 minutes away. Flickerwood co-owner Ron Zampogna made wine his
entire life. After nearly four decades with the US Forest Service, he retired
and his kids convinced him and Mom they should go commercial. “Our children
talked us into this venture as they felt their Dad’s wine was that good,” said
The entire Zampogna family now works at Flickerwood. The
winery opened in 2000 and has pretty much been expanding ever since, adding
employees at both their main branch in Kane and at their Tasting Room in
Kennett Square. They now have 8 full-timers and 10 part-timers. Sue Zampogna
said tourists make up a large part of their foot traffic. In her neck of the
woods, the historic Kinzua Viaduct at Kinzua Bridge State Park is a major draw.
The Viaduct was once the tallest railroad bridge in the world and an important
tourist attraction before a tornado ripped part of it down in 2003.
As part of the effort to grow nature and heritage tourism in
the region, PA DCNR reinforced what was left of the bridge and installed a
viewing deck with a glass floor where visitors can look down on the valley below.
The “Sky Walk” opened in 2011 to much fanfare. “The two months after the Sky
Walk opened, was amazing,” Zampogna said. “Every weekend was like a festival
weekend. Fall Foliage brings many people to this region, more so now that the
Sky Walk is open.”
As part of their 13th anniversary celebration this year,
Flickerwood applied to use the Pennsylvania Wilds trademark logo on a new wine
it is producing called “Wilderness Red.” If all goes according to plan, the
wine will be unveiled at their annual FlickerFest wine festival May 25-27 – the
first Pennsylvania Wilds branded wine to roll off the shelves. Zampogna said
she expects it to sell out.
Beyond the Keystone Grape
Pennsylvania has seen strong growth of its wine industry
over the last 30 years, going from 27 wineries to 123, according to a 2007
report by Pennsylvania Winery Association. A 2009 study by the PA Wine
Marketing and Research Program says Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation for
the amount of grapes grown, and seventh for the production of wine.
Rhonda Brooks said seeing the industry’s growth inspired her
to open Deer Creek Winery in Clarion County, in the southwest corner of the PA
Wilds, in 2009. Named after a crick on their property, Deer Creek has grown
considerably, she said; its wine is now sold in six locations.
While there is competition between wineries to capture
visitor dollars, there is also power in numbers. Like antique stores or artisan
shops – having several wineries creates a trail experience, which itself becomes
a lure for travelers.
“Our customers love that they have more than one option,”
said Kathleen Hall, owner of one of the newest wineries to open in the PA
Wilds, the Red Bandana, near Cook Forest. An accomplished artist with a gallery
in Pittsburgh, Hall was introduced to the PA Wilds the way many are: by coming
to camp here as a kid. She later bought a camp of her own, a charming old
school house, she said.
“Then my life completely changed when I took a vacation at
my little school house and went out with my next door neighbor who quickly
asked me to marry him,” Hall said. “So I went from total city girl -- and I
mean City Girl -- to country! After crying for a few years since I missed my
gallery and all those fun cultural experiences, it inspired me to start my
winery and rebuild my gallery.”
Today, people can enjoy art, music, cheese and wine at the
Red Bandana, which boasts indoor and outdoor café style seating and rustic
country views. Just a few miles away is a place known nationally for its stands
of old growth trees. Further south, in Foxburg, visitors can enjoy the
atmosphere of a river town at Foxburg Wine Cellars, which opened in 2003, just
as regional tourism efforts were gaining momentum.
And that’s the beauty of the winery experience – no two
places are alike.
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