“There are two kinds of wine: the kind you like and the kind you don’t like,” Bonnie Pysher says in her matter-of-fact twang. “You could spend a thousand dollars for a bottle of wine, but if you don’t like it what good is it?”
“I don’t have a college education. I never had chemistry,” Bonnie intimates. “But whatever I do works because we went from making 3,000 gallons of wine a year to over 60,000.” Bonnie is the head winemaker at Bangor-based Franklin Hill Vineyards, one of Pennsylvania’s premier wineries. Franklin Hill is also one of the oldest wineries in Pennsylvania, with humble beginnings in 1981 following a successful venture as a vineyard. For 34 years Bonnie has been making wines at Franklin Hill, and her depth of experience offers wisdom and skill that no book can teach.
Pennsylvania is fifth in wine production in the United States, but in Bonnie’s words, “I don’t think people realize that you can grow grapes in Pennsylvania. It’s all about your climate and your soil. There are certain places that you can grow grapes and they come out absolutely beautiful, and then there are other places that you can’t grow them. Our soil back at the winery is almost exactly like what you‘d find in Germany, so we have very Germanic style wines. Find a grape that grows in your Pennsylvania climate and it’s magical.”
Winemakers like Bonnie elevate the quality of Pennsylvania wines by beginning with the end in mind.
By growing the right grapes for the given terroir and doing everything possible to nurture the fruit for a stellar harvest, Pennsylvania winemakers excel at crafting finer wines from start to finish. It’s clear that Bonnie and her team have found the right grapes: a visit to the tasting room quickly makes it clear why the winery has grown so much and won so many awards.
Bonnie has a bubbly personality, so it’s hard to imagine her being shy the way she describes. When she started at the winery, Bonnie confides, she was hesitant to interact with retail customers and wanted to “hide in the back.” Things have changed; today Bonnie is charmingly brazen (but never brash) with a grace and congeniality that are immediately likeable.
To add to that charm, Bonnie is just downright interesting. “What I’ve always loved about Franklin Hill is it allowed me to try my hand at stuff. I’ve played mechanic, electrician, plumber . . . you name it! Outside of Franklin Hill I have four grandsons who I absolutely adore. I do a lot of stuff at my church. We have a free dinner every second Sunday of the month, and I’m in charge of that. My thing outside of work is feeding people.”
When she’s not helping the community through her church, you might find her tooling around in her custom classic car or making deliveries to over a dozen local stores for her Grammy Bonnie’s Beans, a business that she recently started on the side that sells pickled green beans. “I have a muscle car. I finally got a ‘69 Nova! Everyone’s like, ‘Oh is that your husband’s car?’ and I’m like, ‘No, that’s my car. He has a ‘70 Impala convertible.’ Mine is definitely a muscle car: it’s 4-speed and it’s loud. I love it. I painted my car green and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I thought, ‘Oh, I know—it’s my bean machine.’ So now every time I deliver beans in the summertime I take the Nova. My grandson loves it.”
Bonnie’s drive is born out of a passion for self-expression and always flies back to her home and family. The pickled green bean business could easily be a jumping-off point for her grandchildren to gain work experience—or perhaps they’ll pursue Pennsylvania winemaking. She drives a muscle car because she and her husband like them. She makes wine because it makes her, and others, happy. Bonnie defies convention by simply being herself. “I’m not like the traditional winemaker who says, ‘You gotta have all the dry reds and dry whites.’ Eh—you drink what you like.”
In a world where technical details are championed, Bonnie’s approach to winemaking is simple and empirical.
“People disagree with me on this, but I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery to it. I think it’s a matter of process. You’ve got to start with good fruit. That’s first. You have to be clean. I’m all about keeping everything clean back at the winery. There are four or five steps that you do to get the wines ready and make them stable. I love macro-engineering it all. Calculating it all out. Figuring out how much wine of each variety we need to make each year.”
Bonnie’s love for the job has been integral to Franklin Hill’s success and considerable growth over the last few decades. “When we first started we would make a batch of wine and it would be 60 gallons. Now I’d never make just 60 gallons of a wine. Right now I have a 180-gallon batch of wine back there and it just kills me. It’s a small batch, but it’s going to be a bourbon barrel aged red wine.”
The best examples of a craft are ones that are made for the enthusiast to enjoy. With a singular clarity Bonnie explains, “For every wine I make there’s somebody who likes it. So I have to do the best job I can to make that the best wine. I think it’s really hard for somebody who really likes dry robust red wines to make a sweet fruity Concord that the public likes. There’s a sequence to how I do it.”
A vision like this strikes at the heart of what exemplifies a great vintner, one who can view and work within the gestalt to continually improve the wines year after year.
There are now more than 200 Pennsylvania wineries and among them only a handful of women winemakers. “That’s a challenge, to teach people that women can do it. Elaine [Pivinski, the owner] has always been about empowering women; that’s why I became the person I am today. Now I want to pass that on. You can go places. You can do things. You just gotta have confidence.”