Meet the Winemaker: Jean Manspeaker of Briar Valley Vineyards and Winery

Life is a series of moments, and a select few of those moments can be life-changing. Winemaker Jean Manspeaker’s defining moment happened when she was drinking Sauvignon Blanc under a pergola.

Her husband, Tod, had accompanied her on a getaway to a rural winery. As they reminisced on a deck overlooking vineyards, she swirled her wine and relished the moment. She closed her eyes and a vivid memory of her grandfather tending his concord grape vines struck her. It suddenly occurred to her that nearly all of her most profound moments were related to wineries and vineyards, and she wanted to create those moments for others. From then on, she and Tod talked about possibly opening their own winery.

With inspiration from various visits to wine regions throughout their 27 year marriage—including nearby regions like the New York’s Finger Lakes and Virginia—the Manspeakers sought to bring the beauty of their travels to their home state of Pennsylvania.

Their opportunity to realize their dream came in 2006, when they inherited a working farm and decided to dedicate several acres for planting vines: Briar Valley Vineyards & Winery was born. While they both had farming backgrounds— Jean was raised on a dairy farm in Somerset County, where her father made wine at home, and Tod grew up on a Quarter Horse farm in Bedford County —they had yet to plant or grow grapes.

With passion and property, they were missing one crucial element: expertise. “It seemed as though everyone was telling us it was impossible and that we couldn’t do it,” Jean admitted.

They quickly found mentors and confidants and hired Michael Shaps from Virginia Wine Works as a consultant to get Briar Valley off the ground.

Luckily, Virginia winemaker, Jim Law Linden, from Linden Vineyards also found his way into Jean’s life. He soon served as a key source of inspiration. “I respected his knowledge on growing grapes regionally and his willingness to share his successes—as well as failures—to create award-winning vintages,” she says.

They proved the skeptics wrong and built lifelong friendships in the process. “With our passion and the expert knowledge surrounding us, we did it,” says Jean. “And we’re still doing it!”

Jean acknowledges that a hurdle for today’s Pennsylvania winemaker is “overcoming the reputation that somehow our state’s wines are all fruity, white and void of depth,” and she’s committed to showing that Pennsylvania wine has changed.

“I refuse to do ‘fruit bombs,’ or additives here. My heart is on the line, and it’s not always about the money. Our mission is to create good, solid wine.”

Jean aims to “educate expert and casual wine lovers alike that, yes, Pennsylvania is different from New York and Virginia, but we still have the right mix of viticulture in the state and have the ability to create wines with great finesse.”

As evidence, Jean recommends lining up Pennsylvania’s Rieslings, Pinot Gris, and Cabernet Francs with those of the West Coast, stating, “Ours hold tight to the acidity needed for comparison.”

Awards, recognition, and honors help, too. Jean acknowledges, “We love winning awards from our peers, and the competitions are nice, of course.” But what she really relishes is sending Jim Law samples for comments and recommendations.

“He was so impressed with our Cab Franc and said we should be very proud of that accomplishment. That meant the world to me,” she explains. “Our 2010 Cab Franc has balance in the mouth with a great finish. It has heart, and wine drinkers can taste that.”

If enthusiasm could be bottled up and corked, Jean Manspeaker would have no problem selling it. Her devotion, effort and passion behind creating phenomenal Pennsylvania wines is praiseworthy and frankly contagious.

To learn more or order Briar Valley’s wines online, visit the winery’s website, like its Facebook page and check in with the Pennsylvania Winery Association for new releases, events and pertinent wine-lover information. Briar Valley Vineyards & Winery is located at 107 E. Pitt St., Bedford, PA; (814) 623-0900.

—Ed Williams