Sunday, March 24, 2013

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 adventure.

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 Majesty

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 center.

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 year.

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 of tourism.”

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.

From Hobby to Hopping

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 Sue Zampogna. 

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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