Meet the Winemaker: Jef Stebben of Maple Springs Vineyard

Maple Springs Vineyard might be located in Bechtelsville, Berks County, but the inspiration for the venture started almost 15,000 miles away.

While running a gobal advertising agency, founder Marianne Lieberman traveled to New Zealand and South America. “She realized that these non-traditional regions were making some great wines,” says Jef Stebben, winemaker at Maple Springs. “This got her thinking about making and growing wine in her home state of Pennsylvania.”

In 2008, Lieberman planted the first two vineyards on her property. In 2010, she brought a professional winemaker on board to help expand that operation from 2,000 to 10,000 vines. That was Stebben, who collaborated on designing the winery.

He didn’t always plan on a career in the wine world.

“When I discovered wine, I was an engineering student,” he recalls. “I was making my own beer and wine at home. As I pursued my education, I realized that engineering was probably not the direction I wanted to go with my life.”

Stebben heard about the Fermentation Science Program at The University of California, Davis and enrolled, earning his BS degree in just three years.

“I loved every aspect of it — growing the fruit, caretaking of the wine as it develops during fermentation, the wonderful (and even the terrible) smells of fermentation, and of course the beautiful flavors and aromas that reward your hard work and diligence,” he says. “I also really enjoy the ability to influence and curate the direction of a wine all the way from the vine to the bottle.”

Maple Springs specializes in Vinifera varietals (these are traditional European grapes). It’s taken a lot of hard work to figure out what grows best at the property — in winemaking, the tiniest variances in climate, water or soil can have a tremendous impact.

“Every site is unique,” says Stebben. “Even across the state, there are so many different microclimates. Our site tends to be a bit cooler than others in PA. Our budbreak is two to three weeks later than other areas like Lancaster, and our harvest is only slightly later. This short growing season has an influence on the varietals we can grow well.

“I can make wines here with beautiful aromatics that would never develop in a warmer climate,” he continues. “This is especially true in our Grüner Veltliner and Albariño. The subtle character of these grapes would be lost if they were grown in a warmer area. I could never make wines like these in California.”

Making the best wines from the grapes that flourish on this particular plot of land requires a thoughtful process.

“As a winemaker, I think it’s my job to respect the fruit,” explains Stebben. “We will never make the same wine twice, as the fruit we have coming in from the field is different every year. We have some nice tools in the winery — sorting equipment, a gentle press, and jacketed tanks that allow us to control the temperature of the wines — but the best tool I have is judgment and restraint.”

For example, the winery’s team has noticed that their red-wine grapes exhibit ripe character at lower sugar levels. That means Stebben can craft beautiful wines with naturally lower alcohol content, something restaurants and consumers love.

Stebben believes that Pennsylvania’s wine industry is at a crucial moment.

“I think we are really at a crossroads,” he says. “My goal is to produce quality wines from Vinifera grapes that can stand on their own on a world stage. I think we can do that here in PA, but there are a lot of obstacles in the way. We still live in a world where the financial bottom line matters, and this is a limiting factor for a lot of wineries. They need to produce wines that sell to their target consumer, which may or may not be the best wine for the grapes they have.”

“It’s my hope that by working together, wineries can not only raise the quality of PA wine but raise the consumer expectations of what we produce,” he continues. “When I go to tastings, often the hardest part is getting a prospective buyer to taste a PA wine. Once they do, they are usually blown away by how much we exceed their expectations.”

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