Collier’s Weekly: The Curious Rise of Pennsylvania Winery Culture

Great events and relaxing times can be found at suburban wineries — even if their main role is to allow a little bit of wealthy-life fantasy.


About 15 years ago — through circumstances which, I assure you, are not glamorous — I ended up at a party thrown by an absurdly rich couple.

I’ve been to my share of McMansions and tony townhomes, but this was the first time I was invited into the home of a true multimillionaire. I was expecting white-glove service, opulent decor and rare delicacies — something out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Instead, it was like a pretty good graduation party.

Good-enough picnic food (fried chicken, mac and cheese) waited over chafing dishes in the garage. Tubs and coolers filled with mediocre light beer were strewn about the property. A well-known, Pittsburgh-based band performed on the back patio. Somebody got the fire pit going.

That’s when I learned that most absurdly wealthy folks are generally into doing the same things anyone else does; they just don’t have to worry about the bill. More importantly, they enjoy their unremarkable leisure activities in extreme comfort: Beautiful homes with well-manicured outdoor spaces, drinks and food always within arm’s reach, someone else to clean up afterwards.

Most of us don’t have that level of comfort (and we certainly don’t have the freedom to shrug off the bill). Fortunately — if curiously — there’s now a whole category of businesses dedicated to allowing you to relax like the other half, at least for the occasional evening.

Several Western Pennsylvania wineries seem dedicated to looking and feeling like very expensive suburban homes. The careful, commodious seating areas — all outdoor, but mostly cooled and covered — ape the look of thoughtful home landscaping. Drinks and snacks are cheerfully served at profitable yet reasonable prices. Bands play on patios to moderately interested audiences. And, at the end of the night, you can leave your empty wine bottles and picked-over cheese trays for someone else to clean up.

I don’t know how I feel about this.

That’s no knock on the venues themselves, which are lovely — and frequently offer great entertainment. This weekend, I visited Vinoski Winery in Belle Vernon to see the rockabilly revival act Reverend Horton Heat. I’ve seen the group several times before; they were entertaining as always. The tickets were affordable; the evening was lovely.

It was just bizarre watching them play on the veranda of an understated suburban building, standing at a balcony clearly designed for dramatic wedding portraits.

To be clear, it was a great night. The wine was pretty good; an informal hot-rod rally was in process, with beautiful classic cars scattered about the lawn. We parked camp chairs near a shady bush and watched the show over hot dogs and a respectable pinot grigio. I’d do it again, particularly with such a good band on stage.

There are several similar establishments scattered around the region, all with similar offerings. (Always atop a hillside. All these places offer great views of nowhere in particular.) And they’re clearly popular — I expected a moderately attended show, but there were hundreds there, ranging from punk rockers standing beneath the balcony stage to half-interested locals chatting at reserved tables.

Like I said, though, I don’t quite know how to feel about this trend — or, more accurately, I have mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I’m constantly advocating for people to get out of their houses and into their communities, and these are great places to do just that. In relatively quiet areas, these wineries are bringing live entertainment, community connection and admittedly lovely nights; they’re also clearly successful small businesses. Moreover, the ability to enjoy basic pleasures in comfortable surrounding should not only be the purview of rich folks like those I visited on exactly one occasion 15 years ago. People of moderate means should be able to sip wine and listen to music in a well-appointed backyard.

On the other: There’s a kind of sanding-down of a lot of things at work, here. The crowd at the Reverend Horton Heat show was extraordinarily relaxed — and remarkably inattentive, with all but the diehard fans seeming to look at the music as background noise to a social occasion. There’s food at these places, but they’re not really restaurants; there’s wine and beer, but they’re not really bars. There’s community, but of the sort where you may never say much more than hello to the folks at the next table — and, obviously, you’re only getting in if you have the cash for a few bottles of wine. A community festival or park is egalitarian; a winery may not be as exclusive as a rich person’s backyard, but it’s not as though all are welcome to linger.

I think I ultimately find places like this, particularly those as enjoyable and affordable as Vinoski Winery, as a boon to their communities; if nothing else, no band as good as Reverend Horton Heat has likely played in Belle Vernon recently. But I hope that, as these wineries proliferate, they find ways to become community hubs for their whole communities — and offer programming and events that are more than background noise. There’s an opportunity here, it should just be seized carefully.

And let me reiterate: Pretty good wine, there. Sometimes you get local wine and it’s like grape juice and vodka; this wasn’t bad at all. They know what they’re doing.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly