In honor of Mother’s Day, we chatted with Joanne Levengood of Manatawny Creek Winery about parenting, building a family business, and her 20 years producing Pennsylvania wines.
“There are always ups and downs in owning your own business,” says Levengood, a winemaker and mother of 18-year-old twin boys. “The biggest benefit is flexibility. I worked seven days a week, but I was able to be there for the kids whenever they needed me. If they needed to be picked up from school at 3 p.m., I could do it. They needed me to go on a field trip with them, I could do it.”
That flexibility wasn’t always a given for Levengood, who spent years working as an environmental engineer in Boston before returning home to launch her winery in Southern Berks County. The venture was a collaboration between three generations. Her father, a longtime home winemaker, had decided to take early retirement. Meanwhile, her grandparents were feeling squeezed at the family farm, as neighbors sold out to developers. It felt like the right moment to take a risk.
The land has been in your family for 100 years — what made you interested in launching a winery?
It just seemed like a fun thing to do. My grandparents were farmers, so I had an interest in farming. All of the other farms in the area were being sold to developers, and my grandparents were completely against that, so they were thrilled at this whole idea of starting the winery so that didn’t have to happen.
My father made wine in his basement when I was growing up, so I’ve always drunk wine. I was tired of sitting behind a desk in a cubicle. I quit my job, moved to California, and went to school for winemaking at UC Davis. Then I moved back, and we started the winery.
What kind of wine were you interested in making? Did you have to adjust your plans based on the clientele?
We started growing hybrids, things like Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Chancellor, and Steuben. We made the decision at the beginning to make wines that would please everyone. We didn’t go into it thinking, “OK, we’re only going to make dry stuff and forget about the sweet wine drinkers”. The tasting room opened in 1998. We didn’t start growing vinifera — things like Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cab Franc — until 1999. When we started, we had to buy grapes from other vineyards. But right away we started making all kinds of varieties, dry and sweet.
What varietals have been the most popular over the years? And has that changed?
Our Riesling is very popular. It’s not overly sweet, it’s not too dry, and people know the name. Then there are people who drink Niagara and Concord — the sweet stuff — and are not going to change. That is still a huge part of our sales. It’s really interesting to see people who have been with us from the beginning, who started out drinking sweet wine, and have gradually moved to the dryer stuff. It’s kind of a natural progression.
What was it like diving into a family business?
It was an adjustment because I hadn’t lived near my family for a long time. But it was great because I moved back to Pennsylvania, then had my kids a year later. I’m not sure how I would have done all this without my parents watching the kids.
I was married at the time. We must have looked at 40 houses — the poor real estate agent! Then the house next to the farm went up for sale, and we put an offer in that same day. So I live right down the road from the winery.
Tell me about raising kids in this non-traditional career.
I ended up having a c-section. Two weeks later I was picking grapes. It was 1999, and it was the hottest summer. It was just brutal.
But it has been really good for me because I became a single mom when the kids were four. I took them to work. You know those hanging jumpers you hang in the doorway? One of these boys would spend hours in the tasting room bouncing away. He just wanted to bounce! And people who have been with us from the beginning, they remember that kid bouncing when he was probably one year old.
And since it’s a farm, the boys ran around. I think it’s a great way to grow up.
How has the local wine community grown and changed over the last 20 years?
People love buying local, and I think that’s only gotten more pronounced over the years. People are willing to spend a little more to support local businesses.
What’s your favorite wine right now?
I only drink dry reds. Right now we have a 2013 Syrah I like — we made a lot of Syrah that year, and it’s hard to grow around here. We also make a Meritage, that’s a Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. That’s all out of our own vineyard. It’s a really nice wine, I like drinking that one.