“The real world can teach you pretty quickly.”
This is what Bill Zimmerman says about his experience as a winemaker. Bill is part of the Zimmerman family, who started Pennsylvania treasure Shade Mountain Vineyards in Middleburg. Family run to this day, Shade Mountain produces more than 30,000 gallons annually—a striking growth since Bill’s parents Karl and Carolyn converted their corn and soybean farm into a vineyard 27 years ago. The winery is managed by two generations of Zimmermans, each of whom specializes in different aspects of the business. “My brother and I are doing the winemaking and grape growing with my father. My sisters and my mother are doing the sales and the tasting room. Everybody’s staying busy.”
Bill is quiet and thoughtful—a man of few words with an acuity that peeks through as he speaks, like a gemstone glittering in a stream when you look at it from the right angle. After graduating from Bucknell University in 2003 with a degree in economics, Bill turned back to the family farm to help out full-time.
Since Bill’s return to the winery, Shade Mountain has grown in leaps and bounds, as has Pennsylvania’s entire wine industry.
Pennsylvania’s fantastic agricultural potential for vineyards, better grape genetics and an influx of artisans ready to change the wine world have resulted in a boom of wineries—and uncompromisingly great wine. Shade Mountain’s impressive slew of awards speaks to that quality, and business-minded wine lovers like Bill are making great wine a successful reality in Pennsylvania.
With such a wide variety of wines at Shade Mountain, it might be tempting to ask Bill which ones are the best. “They’re all good,” he says with a hearty laugh. “We make roughly 50 different varieties of wine. We do our grape wines, and then we have fruit wines as well. They’re all good in their own respective niche. Some of the dry wines that I think we’ve done really well with are our Cabernet Franc and our Chambourcin. We’re also proud of our Viognier, a white, and our fruit wines. We try to make wine that will appeal to everybody. We don’t want somebody to come in here and not find something that they like. Everybody likes something different. We just want people to come to our winery and find something that they can enjoy.”
Given the breadth of Bill’s responsibilities at Shade Mountain, his quiet demeanor suits him. It’s clear that his actions speak for themselves. “We grow about 30 different grapes. You need to get the grapes off of the vines at the best point to make the best wine and you’re factoring in the weather: you’re dealing with frosts, freezes, drought stress and hurricanes—you’re trying to make the best decisions possible.”
As a winemaker and grape grower Bill can exact influence over every step of the process, from vineyard to bottle.“A lot of our winemaking is really done out of the vineyard. You only have so much control because Mother Nature is really the boss. You have to work with her. We grow the very best grapes that we can to make some pretty nice wine.”
“The harvest, in the beginning of winemaking, is probably the most interesting. Bringing in the grapes, figuring out what you want to do with them, accounting for what shape they’re in: acid levels and sugar levels dictate the quality of the wine you make.”
These are the words of a craftsman who has seen harvest after harvest. Bill began working on the vineyard as a young man before heading off to college. Now his experience comes full circle as he helps lead the creation of a rather large portfolio of wines.
With a wife and child, and a baby on the way, Bill is a busy man. Still, he finds time to visit other Pennsylvania wineries. “It’s good to see what other people do. It’s educational, and typically within our tight-knit industry it’s encouraged to work together. It’s nice to have others around us. If people need grapes or are having problems in the vineyard, it’s always nice to have people to talk to, someone to lend an ear or provide some advice when you need some.”
Pennsylvania wineries are growing, and much of that growth is sprouting from the very synergy that Bill describes. The bonhomie and interdependence that have developed among Pennsylvania grape growers and winemakers are a testament and a boon to how much energy is behind the explosive growth in one of the nation’s top wine-producing states.
“I think the state wine industry has grown quite a bit,” Bill says. “It’s grown a lot in the past 10–20 years. As everybody goes along and gets more education and more experience, the wines continue to get better. Overall, I see some good things coming out of the future of Pennsylvania wine.” With winemakers like Bill it is clear that Pennsylvania can produce some of the best wine in the nation, and he intends to do just that.