Pennsylvania Wines: The Next Generation

If you’re a young person interested in a career in Pennsylvania wine, you have an array of options. The industry needs more than just winemakers — it needs entrepreneurs, managers, marketing expertise, and risk takers willing to push legacy wineries into the future.

Look no further for inspiration: We chatted four upstarts in the PA wine world, learning about their career paths, their favorite varietals, and their hopes for the next generation of Pennsylvania’s wine industry.

James Wilson, Wayvine Winery & Vineyard

Not many wineries are founded by people who can’t legally sample the product, but brothers Zach and James Wilson are not your typical winemakers. Nine years ago, when Zach was just 19 years old, he came up with the idea to plant grapevines on his family’s farm in Chester County. A novice, he accidentally ordered four acres worth — that’s almost 4,000 vines.

“Being a close family, our parents and I got behind him and put the vines in the ground,” recalls James, who was 16 at the time. “From that point forward, we have not looked back, adding two-to-three acres annually, reaching 18 acres of grapevines in 2017.”

Wayvine specializes in small-batch dry wines — they grow 12 varietals of Vitis Vinifera, including Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Barbera, Merlot, Cabernet France, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Carmine.

“We are obsessed with growing the best grapes and keeping our vineyard maintained to the utmost standards,” says James. “From there, we try to allow the grapes to do the work, keeping the winemaking as natural as possible, with little-to-no additives and limited filtering of the wines.”

One of the things that makes this venture so successful is the relationship between the two brothers.

“Honestly, I feel like I am the luckiest dude out there,” says James. “Zach and I are truly best friends. We both know what we want to accomplish with this and there is nothing that can stand in our way.”

They also have the support of their parents — mom Nancy is the vineyard’s only paid employee and mans the tasting room (which also features the Wilson Vineyard Gallery, curated by the brothers’ aunt, Sally Wilson). James gives extra credit to his mother for helping turn an apartment above the winery into an Airbnb vacation rental — it boasts views of the vineyards out every window.

Being young winemakers helps the Wilson brothers understand the young consumer, and integrate current trends without sacrificing their product.

“By keeping the operation 100 percent estate-grown with our own two hands, the wines have exceeded our expectations,” says James. “Our brand is who we are, through and through. I mean, I have our logo tattooed on my forearm.”

The business continues to grow, and the brothers have had success selling their wines to some of the top restaurants in Philadelphia, including Vetri, The Love, Harp & Crown, Tria, and Plenty Cafe. Construction is almost complete on a new 6,000-square-foot winery, housed in the family’s old milking barn.

Kyle Jones, Nissley Vineyards & Winery

Kyle Jones, cellar master and assistant winemaker at Nissley Vineyards, lived in Central America for several years doing nonprofit work. That unpredictable environment helped prepare him for the wild ride of growing grapes and making wine.

“One of the main joys I had in that experience was the intense challenge it presented daily,” he says of his experience abroad. “I felt that my mind was always being activated at a high level. I was not speaking my native language, and I was working on projects that were each unique because of the time and place in which they existed. Winemaking offers me something very similar. In our production environment, I have to always be on my toes and have the presence of mind to face challenges in a positive way.

“The job demands you to be a chemist, biologist, engineer, janitor, mechanic, accountant, and artist all at the same time,” he continues. “It truly is exhilarating, but not for the faint of heart. It is a dirty job with long hours and the constant threat of failure. All of that had me hooked after a few months on the job.”

The tasting room opened in 1978, and 2017 is vintage number 40 for the family. It also marks a moment of major transition as the business is being handed over to the third generation. To prepare for his new role, Jones enrolled in an Enology and Viticulture program at Harrisburg Area Community College.

“Winemaking is a science, and all science strives for innovation,” says Jones. “Winemaking is also a tradition and art form that necessitates a form of reverence. All that being said, as winemakers we strive to be better with each vintage. One of my professors, Bob Green, once said something to the effect of, ‘I’ve been in this industry for at least twenty-five years, but in all reality, I’ve only had twenty-five chances to get it right.’ We get one shot, every year, to make something great.”

As a young winemaker, he feels very hopeful about the industry’s growth.

“Pennsylvania produces some spectacular wines, and I believe the industry is beginning to coalesce around what makes us unique and what we have to offer to the mass market,” he says. “There are more and more wineries popping up every year, and we owe it to ourselves and to customers that every bottle that hits the shelf is as good as it can be.”

He is always on the lookout for other young winemakers to connect with.

“It’s a tough industry to break into if you aren’t born into it,” he explains. “A lot of people my age bounce around to different regions doing harvest internships and paying their dues with hard labor. I got lucky and happened to have positioned myself for a leadership role at my current employer. Winemaking needs more mentorship. It is a small industry and one cannot possibly learn everything in one lifetime.”

Andrea Creato, Penns Woods Winery

Of course, running a 21st-century winery requires much more than just a talented and enthusiastic winemaker. Andrea Creato is the general manager at Penns Woods Winery in Chadds Ford, Chester County. The Georgia native worked for a small winery in her hometown while she was in college at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.

“I immediately fell in love with every aspect of the industry, from sales to production,” she recalls. “I love that local wines offer such a sense of place. Providing a wine experience for customers based on grapes grown locally is exciting to me.”

She moved to the Philadelphia area in 2010 and approached Penns Woods about a part-time position in the tasting room. Before she even started, Creato was offered a full-time position and left her job as a pastry chef.

Penns Woods would turn out to not only be a great place to work, but a great place to find love. Creato’s now husband, Davide Creato, came to the United States from Italy in 2011 to take a job at the winery. That relationship only deepened her passion for wine, as the couple traveled the world exploring local wines.

“On my first visit to Italy with him, he introduced me to Trebbiano and Pecorino (the wine, not the cheese),” she recalls. “I love finding and trying varietals that aren’t well known.”

That said, Creato has a few all-time favorite grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Sylvaner and Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir is my go-to red for sipping on. We are releasing our first Pinot Noir at Penns Woods this summer, which I think will be a game changer in our wine line up.”

Creato loves tracking the tastes of customers and thinking of ways to get them excited about the next hot thing.

“Our customer base is branching out more every year and is becoming increasingly interested in dry wines,” she says. “They are loving the uncommon varietals such as Chambourcin, Viognier, and Grüner Veltliner. Our White Merlot, which is a bone-dry rosé, is by far our top selling wine. Rosé is popping right now, and the fact that our White Merlot is dry makes it even more appealing to our customers. ”

“Penns Woods has a very youthful team, which is beneficial from the technological and creative standpoint,” she adds. “The industry itself is rapidly changing with tastes and trends, therefore it is important for us to constantly evolve and stay on top of the trends to keep our customer base happy and excited. It helps to be young at this point because the wine industry is keeping us on our toes.”

Christian Klay, Christian W. Klay Winery 

“Some of my very first memories are of sitting in the new vineyard and digging holes for the new plantings,” recalls Christian Klay. “I was about six years old and hadn’t yet caught on that digging holes in the dirt was actually work!”

Those vines were going into the ground at a winery named for…Christian Klay.

“I was about 12 years old when the winery opened,” he says. “It seemed a bit strange to have it named after me and I really wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. As time went by, I began to have more and more of an appreciation for the business, even though I wasn’t allowed to drink our product. Most of this appreciation was thanks to my mom, Sharon, who let me tag along to learn everything about the industry.”

Klay studied political science and computing at West Virginia University, after graduation he decided to come home for a year to work for the winery. Being re-immersed in the family business provided some unexpected inspiration.

He asked himself, “If mom and dad can make their own wine, maybe I can make my own whiskey?”

Ridge Runner Distillery officially opened officially on July 4, 2015, and sells vodka, rum, white whiskey, apple pie whiskey, peach pie whiskey, root beer, and an aged Bourbon.

Despite his solo project, the winery and the distillery are deeply connected — it’s hard not to be since the buildings are separated by only a few hundred feet. The close relationship allows for some exciting collaborations.

“We are very excited to use our grapes and wine in various products. We are planning a line of brandies and can distill the leftover grapes into grappa after a pressing,” explains Klay. “While a separate business on paper, I consider the winery and the distillery as one big family business.”

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