Five Amazing Wineries Close to Home

Grab a glass, come along with us and set your sights (and palates) on some great grape tourism—a bunch of wineries, vintners and wines—right here in western Pennsylvania.



 

Rolling vineyards, impressive tasting rooms and terrific wine grapes aren’t necessarily the things that western Pennsylvania is known for. But we have all these things anyway (we just don’t like to brag). That’s why we felt it was high time for us to devote an entire story to the wineries, vintners and wines of our region.

In the following pages, you’ll find our picks for some of the region’s most worthwhile destination wineries. From La Casa Narcisi, an Italian-inspired winery just 10 miles from the city, to picturesque Stone Villa Wine Cellars in the foothills of the Laurel Highlands, here are easy day trips geared for great ways to experience regional wines.

Less than three hours from the city, you can sample the many award-winning wines of Lake  Erie Wine Country, which produces more than 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s grapes and is home to thousands of acres of beautiful vineyards. Then there’s the wine in the glass: Check out the 25 gold- and silver-medal winners of western Pennsylvania selected by the 2011 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.

No matter what you decide to sip or where you choose to sip it, we hope this tour of our regional wine country will show you that, here in western Pennsylvania, the glass is definitely half-full.

 

About the Winery: Located just 10 miles north of Pittsburgh, this winery’s beautiful setting, full-service restaurant with patio and tasting room draw a constant stream of visitors. Like other wineries in western Pennsylvania, it is the legacy of wine-savvy Italian immigrants—in this case, Raphael Narcisi, who left a small town in Italy to settle near Pittsburgh in the early 1900s and started making wine for his neighbors. His grandson, Dennis Narcisi, along with his family, built on this heritage to open the winery in 2001.

The deck and patio overlook the scenic Deer Creek Valley. The bulk of the winery’s production—around 100,000 bottles per year—is consumed by visitors. During the busy summer months, as many as 1,500 guests come through the doors between Friday and Sunday. Most of the wines are made with grapes grown in Lake Erie, although estate-grown Frontenac and Vidal Blanc are used in several dessert-style sippers. The lineup of wines includes 28 varieties that range from dry to sweet.

Winemaker’s Notes: Dennis Narcisi and his son, Tony, are the winemakers. Tony returned about five years ago after living in northern California, where he took weekend courses through the nationally known wine program at the University of California at Davis. The father-son collaboration is an easy one, says Tony.  “When we make wine, we use my father’s methods and incorporate newer techniques I might have learned about. If I have an idea that might improve the wine, we try it. My dad is very open to the new ideas,” he says. Laughing, he adds,  “It’s contrary to what a lot of people think about old Italian guys.” 

A recent bottling is a dry rosé they dubbed Brezza Marina (Italian for “sea breeze”).  “Our family is from Giulianova, Italy, a little beach town on the Adriatic, and when my father tasted this wine, he said it reminded him of the wine he would drink sitting on the beach at home,” says Tony. Together, the two produce nearly 30 wines.

What to Sip: Try the Riesling, which has been carried by Lidia’s Restaurant in the Strip District for the past five years. If you like dry wine, there’s a Chambourcin, which just released this spring, or try the whites, including a floral Traminette. The variety of fruit and specialty wines includes blueberry and peach wines, a late-harvest Vidal and port-style dessert sipper. In the tasting bar, visitors can sample five different wines at no cost. You can have a meal in the full-service restaurant with a patio or a picnic inside the pavilion. A brand-new, 6,000-square-foot building with indoor dining and banquet facility is scheduled to open in early September.

Info:
4578 Gibsonia Road, Gibsonia; 724/444-4744; narcisiwinery.com

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About the Winery: This winery, built in 1973 by Bob Mazza and his brother, Frank, has a Mediterranean style (the architecture is reminiscent of the kind found in the Mediterranean) and beautiful location among Erie’s rolling vineyards. It originated with Bob and Frank’s father, Joseph Mazza, who left behind 40 acres of vineyards in Calabria, Italy, to come to the United States in 1954. Through the decades, this family-owned operation has grown into one of the largest wineries in the state.

Mazza Vineyards works closely with nearly 40 grape growers in Pennsylvania to get the varieties it needs for the wines here. During your visit, you can see the tanks, walk the press floor and sample wines in the picturesque tasting room. The list of about 20 varieties includes red and white wines, ranging from sweet to dry.

Winemaker’s Notes: The current winemaker, Mario Mazza, is the son of Bob Mazza; he returned to the region six years ago after earning an enology—the science of wines and wine-making—degree in Australia at the University of Adelaide. His enthusiasm for Pennsylvania-grown grapes is a favorite topic. “Around Lake Erie, the Riesling is phenomenal, and our wines are very competitive with those from the better-known Finger Lakes area. Other grapes like pinot gris, Traminette and Vidal Blanc all do quite well.” 

The winery also respects the region’s traditional native grapes and pursues sweet wines with equal interest.  “In some circles, the connotation is that sweet wine means low quality, but we try to put that stigma to rest,” says Mario. “You can have a carefully made sweet wine that’s stylistically and technically correct and very well-balanced. By comparison, mass-produced dry red wines can be much worse in terms of defects like faults in aroma or lack of balance.” The winery is unusual in having more than one degreed enologist—Peter Szerdahelyi, who’s from Hungary and has worked in Italy, also makes wines for Mazza.

What to Sip: Try the Ice Wine of Vidal Blanc, which won a gold medal at this year’s Finger Lakes International Competition, and other award-winners such as the pinot grigio or Riesling. One of the winery’s best-sellers is Bare Bones White, a semi-dry white blend of Cayuga White, Traminette, Riesling and Vidal Blanc. This is also a great spot to sample dry reds, and the list includes quite a few, including Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Barbera and Nebbiolo. The tasting fee is $2 for six wines.

Sister Winery: The family operates other wineries under the umbrella of Mazza Vineyards, including South Shore Wine Co., a beautiful and historic spot located about three minutes down the road from Mazza’s Erie location. If you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll want to check out the open-air cafe and tasting room, which opened in 2007: The latter is an impressively restored Civil War-era stone cavern that dates back to the 1860s and originally housed Erie County’s first winery.

Info: 11815 East Lake Road (Route 5), North East; 814/725-8695; mazzawines.com

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About the Winery: Randy and Debbie Paul opened this picturesque winery in 2000—just 30 minutes from Seven Springs Mountain Resort. It’s an idyllic getaway: After sipping wines in the tasting room, visitors exit out the back of the winery to see lakeside patios and cabanas (yes, you can bring your own picnic). The outdoor area, which seats about 450, is usually packed on Friday and Saturday evenings—live music is offered on Saturdays and Sundays until the first weekend in October.

Stone Villa's wines are made mostly with grapes from Lake Erie growers. However, on this property there are about five acres of vineyards providing grapes used in Stone Villa’s wines. Randy, who was in the construction business for 30 years, is the definition of a wine hobbyist who became a professional. He credits his grandparents, who came to western Pennsylvania to work in coal mines—but always grew grapes and made their own wine—as his first source of inspiration. Stone Villa Wine Cellars makes more than 20 red and white wines, which run the gamut from dry to sweet.

Winemaker’s Notes: Randy prefers dry reds, like Stone Villa’s Palocitro, a blend made with Cabernet Sauvignon that’s named for his grandparents. But he’s quick to point out that his role is to help people find out what they prefer.  “A lot of visitors who come in don’t know what wines they like,” he says.  “We’ll work with them and what their likes and dislikes are, and for us, that’s part of the tasting room experience.” As Randy goes on to say,  “My job isn’t to tell people what to drink; it’s to get the best grapes I can find and make the best wine I can make. Some years, that might mean working with fantastic vinifera grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, but if it’s a cool or wet year, I might focus more on native grapes like Concord and Niagara.”

What to Sip: The winery’s biggest sellers include Villa Passion, a sweet blush, and Stonegria, a sangria-inspired wine made with five different grapes. Visitors may taste up to six different wines from the tasting list containing 12-15 choices. There is no tasting fee. For weekend entertainment, admission to the patio is as simple as buying a bottle of wine.

Info: 1085 Claypike Road, Acme; 724/423-5604; stonevilla.com

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You don’t always have to make a trip out of town to try some of these wines—some can be bought through your PLCB store. From Mazza Winery, there’s Niagara, Merlot, Country Red and Vidal Blanc. Wines available from Presque Isle Winery include two sweet wines, Creekside Red and Creekside Blush, and an off-dry Riesling with a good amount of acidity.

These wines are not available at all PLCB locations, though. Potential customers can visit finewineandgoodspirits.com or call their local store for availability.

 

About the Winery: This scenic winery is housed in a restored 1880s barn on the historic National Road, the first toll road from Cumberland, Md., to Illinois, which was a major gateway to the West. Owner Sharon Klay planted the first vines on the mountaintop property—originally part of George Washington’s property deed—in 1989. Today, of the original selection of 100, at least 50 grape varieties thrive among the vines. Some are just small plantings, while others are grown in larger quantities and used in the estate’s wines.

In addition to its tasting room, the winery hosts special events; new this year is the Highlands Harvest Festival (Sept. 17-18, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.) held with help from the Fayette County Buy Local Network. Enjoy an old-fashioned country event with a farmers market, cooking competitions, food and craft vendors, pumpkin painting and more—of course, you can buy a bottle of wine while you’re at it. The winery makes 17 wines, which range from totally dry to sparkling and sweet.

Winemaker’s Notes: A longtime member of the Pennsylvania Wine Association, Klay is passionate about growing grapes and the ever-increasing quality of the state’s wines.  “We are trying to spread the word,” she says. However, she goes on to explain, it’s not a simple story.  “New York state has essentially claimed Riesling as its predominant grape,” says Klay.

“In Pennsylvania, we have a situation that’s both good and bad. We can’t really lay claim to excelling in one specific grape because our ability to grow is so diverse. Even at this elevation, I harvest Chardonnay, Lemburger and Cabernet Franc; people are surprised because they assume vinifera grapes can’t grow here.” (Vitis vinifera is the proper botanical name for grapes that are European grape varieties such as those mentioned above; hybrid grapes include varieties such as Chambourcin and Vidal; and native grapes, also called Vitis labrusca, are indigenous to the region and include types such as Concord and Niagara.)

What to Sip: Try Summit Mist, a sparkling, dessert wine packed with grape flavor and a hint of black cherry, which was an award-winner at this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show. Other popular sippers include Washington Tavern Red, a fruity, medium-bodied, semi-dry red; and Sharon Klay’s favorite, the Blanc de Lafayette, a light-bodied dry white wine that leaves a pleasant hint of grapefruit. The tasting room, located on the lower level of the winery, overlooks the rolling countryside. There is no tasting fee. A retail area offers snacks, and outside, you’ll find picnic tables and a new pavilion for events.

Info: 412 Fayette Springs Road, Fayette County; 724/439-3424; cwklaywinery.com

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No, this trail isn’t a place to see furry creatures sipping Merlot. It’s a winding route that takes in 11 wineries around Central Pennsylvania, the region that famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil calls home. Among the destinations are the Winery at Wilcox, one of the state’s five largest. You’ll also discover small home-based operations like Allegheny Cellars, which, despite its humble size, recently won gold for a sweet rosé called Big Bend Blush at the 2011 Finger Lakes Wine Competition.

The Pennsylvania Winery Association website lists 10 additional options, such as the Southwest Passage Wine Trail, which takes in wineries in the beautiful Laurel Highlands. The Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail has an excellent website of its own, which includes a helpful trip planner and all kinds of resources.

Use the wine trails to organize your outing and pinpoint which wineries intrigue you. If you visit three or four wineries in one day, you’ll be able to compare and contrast the wines sampled at each and get a better feel for the different techniques each winemaker uses.

So, hit the trail! And tell Phil we said hello.

 

About the Winery: With a cozy, creekside tasting room, this winery is one of the best-known in the state, partly because owner Doug Moorhead is a figurehead and leader in the industry. Not only was he a pioneer, opening his winery in 1968 when the wine industry in the region was nonexistent, but since then, he has branched out into the winemaking supplies and equipment business. These days, Moorhead’s a primary resource for our region’s winemakers. (Interested in making wine on your own? Check the website for great educational information.)

Presque Isle has 100-plus acres of vineyards on its property, but its wines are made primarily with grapes grown by a network of about 25 growers around Erie that have long-established ties to the winery.  “You won’t find anyone more passionate about wine than Doug,” says current winemaker Kris Kane. "He literally has all the answers.”  The winery produces 34 different wines in a wide range of styles—from dry traditional styles aged in oak to sweet wines made with native grapes.

Winemaker’s Notes: The current winemaker, Kris Kane, grew up on a 300-acre third-generation grape farm in Erie, which originally grew mainly juice grapes native to the area, like Niagara and Concord. But in the 1980s, his family moved into growing Old World grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. Meanwhile, Kane, who focused on plant biology in college, hadn’t planned on going into the wine business—but after working in the vineyards one summer, he changed his mind. He traveled to Australia for harvest, learned key techniques, then returned home about three years ago to make wine here. Kane is easy to talk to and quick to offer comments that clarify the differences between sweet and dry wines. 

“If you taste Gewürtztraminer or Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the actual grape and the wine it’s made with might taste nothing alike," he says. "The wine gets a new flavor profile because of fermentation, which is where flavor notes like leather or cedar come in. On the other hand, sweet wines made with native varieties like Concord smell and taste grape-y; drinking the wine is similar to eating the grape. Even the wine’s aroma is reminiscent of walking through a Concord-grape vineyard, and people who grew up around here love that.”

What to Sip: Try Eskimo Kisses, an ice wine awarded double-gold at the 2011 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. Also try sipping the Riesling or Gewürtztraminer—Kane is a great believer in the region’s ability to grow excellent white, aromatic grapes like those. Fans of dry red wine will also find plenty to choose from, including Blaufrankisch, which does well in Erie’s cool climate. Visit the charmingly rustic tasting room, and the knowledgeable staff will guide you through the different varieties.

Info: 9440 W. Main Road, North East, Erie County; 814/725-1314; piwine.com

  Get directions to this winery with Google Maps
 

 

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