Why visit a Pennsylvania winery? The reasons keep growing as producers look to provide a ‘fuller experience’ – The Morning Call

It wasn’t too many years ago that a visit to your favorite Pennsylvania winery involved finding a spot at the bar and tasting through many of the selections, then making a purchase and leaving.

Today, the expectations have evolved from a drive-by to more of a come-by-and-stay-awhile mentality, a fact that the Deputy Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) Office of Marketing, Tourism, and Film noted in a recent interview.

“There is such a high demand right now for authentic outdoor experiences,” said Carrie Lepore, who was responsible for reviving the Pennsylvania tourism brand in 2016 and introducing the state’s current tourism mantra: Pursue Your Happiness. “And I just think that wineries are perfectly positioned to really capture that. At this moment in time, what wineries offer perfectly aligns with what consumers are looking for as we head into summer travel season.”

There’s plenty to choose this summer that involve Pennsylvania and wine, starting with festivals that begin this month and include the Tapas and Wine event hosted by members of Lake Erie Wine Country this weekend, Saturday’s Taste of Pennsylvania Wine & Music Festival in York, and the Wine & Jazz Festival at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square on June 3-4.

Many more this summer will follow. Several of the state’s wineries bring in big-name rock groups, with two of the most prominent located in central Pennsylvania, at The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey in Dauphin County and Spyglass Ridge Winery in Sunbury, Northumberland County. Others will offer their usual summer mix of food trucks, music and special events, with several of the most prominent being Bella Terra Vineyards in Hunker, Westmoreland County, Springgate Vineyard and Winery outside Harrisburg in Dauphin County, and Crossing Vineyards and Winery near Newtown, Bucks County.

Christine Carroll and her husband, Tom, have been running Crossing Vineyards, about a 45-minute drive from downtown Philadelphia, for 22 years. Even prior to the pandemic, she said, “we had started to notice a change in the kind of experience people were looking for at the winery. Instead of simply buying a wine tasting, they were looking for entertainment.”

That desire, along with a business DNA that has always included wine education, has led to new events such as Yoga and Mimosas, Shaken and Stirred (A Cocktail Making Class) and Pairing Wine and Popcorn.

“In addition, to make a fuller experience, we have expanded our light-bites menu, and now offer beer and wine flights for returning customers or those who prefer not to do a wine tasting,” Carroll said. “We offer fun classes and events to attract customers, as well as drink and snack specials.”

Later Thursday hours and live music every Friday and Saturday are standard now, both there and at wineries elsewhere across the state.

Shade Mountain Vineyard & Winery is one of the state’s oldest, with its roots digging down more than 30 years. Located in Middleburg, Snyder County, it features characteristics that describe many of the state’s producers: a rural setting framed by plenty of scenery, family-owned, and loads of selections that are sourced from vineyards that cover almost 70 acres.

Jenny Nicola is one of four children of Carolyn and Karl Zimmerman, all of whom have been contributing to the growth of the business for, well, probably, as long as they can remember. She said there are still people who come to taste locally grown and produced wine, “but more people seem to be looking for a place to spend an afternoon sipping on wine and spending time with friends and family. In the warmer months especially, we see people from an hour’s radius escape the city and enjoy the serenity of a vineyard setting,” she said. “People truly enjoy the fresh air, greenery and solitude that a vineyard nestled in rural American provides.”

In an effort to bring customers back to the winery, she said, they have scheduled live local entertainment outside every other Sunday during the months of May to August in addition to bringing in food trucks on those Sundays as well. “Also in an effort to bring customers in, we have been offering ‘fun’ food and wine pairing flights. Recently we had a whoopie pie and wine pairing flight that was quite successful, as it was something different for customers to enjoy.”

Keeping in the theme of buying local, those pies were made by Heimbach’s Country Store in nearby Selinsgrove. It’s these kinds of changes that have caught the attention of the Pennsylvania tourism staff and what they promote.

For years, Lepore said, tourism was based on three pillars: “our history, our greater than great outdoors, and our cities, most notably Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. We consider these are three pillars our three treasures. Everything from a tourism standpoint ties back to these pillars.”

But since the launch of the new campaign, Lepore said they have discovered one more pillar: culinary.

Dutch food in the Lancaster area. Pizza in northeast Pennsylvania. Of course, the diversity of restaurants in Pennsylvania’s cities. Add drink to that love of the state’s many foods.

“It’s more than just tourism,” she said. “It’s also a sense of pride. Food and drink informs who and what we are, it tells our story. It’s not just on pages in the history books but a consumable history of who and what we are.”

Dean Miller and Jake Gruver purchased a historic property in Halifax, less than 20 miles north of Harrisburg, in 2011. Two and a half centuries before, Robert Armstrong established Gobatsburg Farm there, which included a stone house, summer kitchen, ice house, barn and several other buildings on 200 acres. Those buildings remain, including a 200-year-old bank barn, all providing the backdrop for Armstrong Valley Winery.

In a sense, it’s the next chapter in a very long story. Miller said they weren’t sure how a winery in the middle of nowhere would do when it opened more than 10 years ago. To start, they sold wine in a small tasting room and offered a covered but not enclosed outdoor sunroom space. Once visitors began to ask if they hosted events such as parties and weddings, they enclosed the sunroom and renovated the barn. Over time, they would add a small patio on the side of the barn downstairs, put in a pavilion behind the barn and add a courtyard area for outdoor music and general seating on nice days.

“We grew out of our old ‘clothes’ and had to make room,” Miller said. “To our amazement, the winery has become a destination,” he added. “People come to have some wine, enjoy some music, meet with their friends, attend a party, have a wedding, enjoy the scenery, bring food and relax in the afternoon, stop in at one of our festivals, and even being their RV to stay overnight [we are a Harvest Host stop]. It was a lot of hard work to get to this point, and continues to take work, but we find it was well worth the effort. When there are people coming from as far away as Philadelphia, you know you are doing something right.”

Unlike Armstrong Valley, which certainly fits in with the recent surge of new wineries that has grown the total across the state to more than 300, Clover Hill Vineyards & Winery in Breinigsville, Lehigh County, can sell its own history. The winery, run by the Skrip family, opened in September 1985.

“We have always tried to keep a strong focus on the fact that we are a family-owned vineyard and winery,” said Kari Skrip, who is largely running the operation now with her brother, John III. “We love growing, producing and sharing Clover Hill wines. We do not want to deviate from that.”

While they have not altered their business model as much as others – “We are a farm and a place where customers visit to enjoy a great wine at a reasonable price in a beautiful setting with good customer service” – the pandemic has prompted some changes there , too.

“We have always tried to keep a strong focus on the fact that we are a family-owned vineyard and winery. We love growing, producing and sharing Clover Hill wines. We do not want to deviate from that.”

Kari Skrip, Clover Hill Vineyards & Winery

“I doubt we will ever go back to the days of lining up at the bar for wine tasting,” she said. “That has been replaced by wines served by the wine flight. Also, we realized that customers love something new or special. At this point, we are still creating a new monthly sangria that can be enjoyed on site or to go by the carafe.”

Wineries — from the Philly suburbs and Allentown through central Pennsylvania and out to Erie Wine Country — are anticipating a return this summer to the numbers they were getting as recently as 2019. Based on how the tourism department is adjusting its target, and the price of gas, many of those visitors figure to come from inside the state.

Pre-COVID, Lepore said, 80 percent of the department’s advertising dollars were spent out of state. Post-COVID, that percentage of out of state vs. in-state has shrunk significantly, she said.

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For those who do tour, there are plenty of resources, including the website and social media pages of the wineries in addition to the tourism department’s visitpa.com site, the Pennsylvania Wine Association website, and the Pennsylvania Wine Land guidebook.

A Wine Land app should be ready to download by midsummer.

Lepore said there’s plenty to market when it comes to the state’ wineries, even if it’s not the first destination to come to mind when consumers think of wine vacations.

“We’re definitely working to increase the rankings in people’s minds,” she said, “with 300 wineries, the first largest grower of grapes in the nation, and the diversity of our wines and grapes. Pennsylvania is a top location for wine vacations for winery tours in the country, and absolutely in the Northeast.”

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