Fathers and Sons in PA Wine Land

PA Wine Land is filled with family-owned vineyards and wineries. In honor of Father’s Day, we chatted with some father-son teams about working in tandem, making the decision to go into the business, and how to keep relationships strong in the face of so much togetherness.

John Nissley and his son, Jonas Nissley: Nissley Vineyards

The story of Nissley Vineyards in Lancaster County is actually one that involves three generations of fathers and sons. Back in 1971, grandfather, Dick Nissley made wine as a hobby. One day, he begged his son to try his homemade product.

“My question was, ‘Well, if you think it’s so good, why don’t you sell it?,'” recalls that son, John Nissley. “He replied, ‘Can you do that?’ I said, ‘Yes, they passed the Limited Wineries Act in 1968.'”

So, in the mid-1970s, Dick and John planted the grapes that would become Nissley Vineyards, one of the state’s first commercial wineries. Almost 50 years later, as John’s generation — which also included his three sisters, Joyce, Judy, and Mary Lee — were looking to retire, grandson Jonas Nissley stepped up to the plate.

“When every member of the family works in the business like ours does, and everybody also lives on the property, it is almost impossible to separate the business from life,” says Jonas. “Our family has worked very hard over the past 40 years to establish one of the most respected wineries in the state, and I could see that I would be disappointed in myself ten years down the road when I looked back at the decision not to come home and continue it. There are no other children on the Nissley side of the family besides me, so really, there was no one else to take the reins.”

John, who worked with his father, and now works with his son, has decades of experience navigating these complex but ultimately rewarding waters.

“The best thing is that in your heart you know working together is the right thing,” he says. “I let Jonas make his own mistakes and also make his own victories.  At the same time, encouragement applied at the selected time can make a big difference.”

John Skrip II and his son, John Skrip III: Clover Hill Vineyards & Winery

“When I was little — about 12 years old — I remember wanting nothing to do with the winery,” recalls John Skrip III, second-generation winemaker at Clover Hill Winery. “If I was in trouble at school or at home, one of my punishments was to work in the vineyard. I would get all the ‘glamorous’ jobs: cleaning the picking shears, pruning, gathering berry samples, and washing harvest lugs to name a few. Even if I wasn’t in trouble, I still had to work. It was tough, the other kids in my class were hanging out or playing sports, and I was on winery duty.”

Fast forward to today, and John Skrip III happily toils along with his sister, Kari, at Clover Hill, a beautiful property nestled in the Lehigh Valley. The vineyard was founded by their parents John and Pat Skrip, who bought the 25-acre tract of land at auction and planted 1,000 grapevines as a hobby. The plants flourished, and as the vineyard grew so did their family.

“In 1985, I was working full-time-plus in a construction company which I owned,” recalls John Skrip II. “When I came home from work, I tried to spend some time in the vineyard. The vineyard was my pressure release. The vines didn’t talk back to me. But family is and was of prime importance, and so I always made time to play with the kids and to be there for them. It was important also to have dinner together most nights and to hear from each of the kids as to how their day went.”

What was originally envisioned as a retirement project for the couple became the family’s main livelihood. Meanwhile, John Skrip III left for college at Penn State to study Marketing, still intent on avoiding the wine industry.

“I remember going to a job fair with my suit on and resume in hand,” he says. “It was at that moment that I realized I didn’t want to be in a suit every day for the rest of my life. At the same time, a light bulb went on and I realized that there was a really cool job in the vineyard and winery waiting for me.”

After graduation, John Skrip III headed to California State University, Fresno to study enology, then started his career at Clover Hill. That was 25 years ago. Working with his father is a big reason why he stayed.

“It is very rewarding to work with your family,” he explains. “It is a great feeling to accomplish something with your family, to share in the hard work, and to enjoy the rewards together. We can say anything to each other, so even though our family business meetings may have a ‘spirited tone,’ we say what’s on our mind and get it out there for discussion.”

Bringing in the younger generation has also been good for business. When John Skrip III took over in 1993, the winery expanded its vinifera program, planting varieties such as Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. In early 2000, they released their first sparkling wines. They also started making port and ice wines, and have launched two Vihno Verdes (a crisp, light Portuguese-style wine with a spritz), ideal for summer.

Now looking to add to the father-son mojo is John Skrip IV, currently studying enology at California State University, Fresno.

Bob Mazza and his son, Mario Mazza: Mazza Vineyards

“When I decided to come back to the family business, my dad gave me some of the best advice,” recalls Mario Mazza, a second-generation winemaker at Mazza Vineyards, on the shores of Lake Erie. “‘Go make mistakes with someone else’s money first.'”

That guidance led Mario to a masters degree in Oenology at the University of Adelaide in Australia, followed by a couple of years in the down-under wine industry. Despite the lure of beautiful beaches and an enticing job offer, Mario always knew he wanted to come home to help build something with his father, Bob Mazza.

“I had the chance from a young age to work alongside my dad – anything from vineyard planting to putting a new roof on the winery,” he says. “In hindsight, I realize it gave me a great appreciation for the effort that went into building the business.”

Bob wasn’t surprised his son decided to come back to the winery.

“We’ve been working together since he was probably seven or eight years old,” recalls Bob. “He was hanging around the winery, helping out when he could. When we had additional locations in other areas, like Pittsburgh, he would come down on weekends and help me stock stores. It was a natural progression that he would come into the business.”

Since they teamed up, the winery has flourished.

“I think that I’ve been able to help us grow as an organization and with regards to the quality of wines we are producing,” says Mario. “That being said, I could have never accomplished that without the amazing business that my dad built and his willingness to give me enough latitude to make decisions and changes. While I often get credit for our expansion into the distilled spirits and craft beer spaces (with Five & 20 Spirits & Brewing), the reality is that my dad, even after decades in the business, was as enthusiastic and supportive of those moves as I was. It’s been pretty cool to see him re-energized by some of the new projects we’ve worked on together — I think we tend to feed positively off of one another.”

Over the last three or four years, Mario has taken over the day-to-day management of Mazza Vineyards.

“I guess that’s a good succession plan,” says Bob. “He’s running the business, and I’m there if he needs me, but I’m not there to get in the way. Mario is a very driven, very confident, very thorough, and very organized. Not to say that I’m not any of those things, but he takes it to a different level.”

Karl Zimmerman and his sons, Bill and Ben Zimmerman, Shade Mountain Winery

Karl Zimmerman, patriarch and co-founder of Shade Mountain Winery in Middleburg, has not one, but two sons (in addition to two daughters who also work in the family business). Mom and Dad live on the property, and all the kids are within a 20-minute drive. With 70 acres of vineyards, it’s a good thing the next generation decided to join up.

“That’s something that differentiates us from other wineries,” says Bill Zimmerman, the third child and oldest son. “We grow all of our own grapes. We do all of our own winemaking. We do all our own bottling and processing. Everything is done by us, here.”

After a few minutes on the phone with the Zimmerman men, it’s clear they share a matter-of-fact manner and sly sense of humor. But they don’t all share the same taste in wine, which has turned out to be a competitive advantage. While Bill prefers dry varietals like Cabernet Franc, Ben was the creative force behind the winery’s popular Mint Iced Tea table wine (a combination of iced tea and mint wine that they recommend serving over ice).

“We try not to have just one strong style of wine,” says Bill. “In our area, we have all sorts of demographics and you get all sorts of different people. You get people who like dry wines, people who like sweet wines, people who like fruit wines. We sell 58 different wine varieties and they range all over the place. People who don’t even drink wine will come in and they’ll end up buying something because they’ll find something that they like. That’s kind of how our family is — everyone is different and likes something different so that probably helps out with the goal of variety.”

According to Karl, having his sons working at the vineyard keeps the whole family close.

“It’s a great joy,” he says. “It enables me to have a lot of quality time with the grandchildren, and take them fishing and do a lot of fun stuff. It’s great to have everybody around.”

And how about those grandchildren? A third generation of Zimmermans’ at Shade Mountain is not out of the question.

“They’re still pretty wee,” says Karl. “I’d like to think so, but fates work in strange ways. We’d hope so.”

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