Then & Now: PA wineries reflect on their first harvest and preview 2018

Harvest season is upon us. Across Pennsylvania, vineyards are mustering their forces to pluck, juice, and bottle the literal fruits of their labor. Then, they seal them up and hope for the best. For some winemakers, this will be their first time playing the game of grapes-plus-time. They are fawns in the woods. For others, another unique, trying, fertile year.

The road between a winery’s first harvest and their current one is winding, no matter how long they’ve been traveling. We chatted with a couple of the state’s winemakers about their remembrances of that first year, and what they expect for 2018 vintages.

Extra Credit

Speaking of long roads, the seed for Buckingham Valley Vineyards & Winery was planted in a dorm room at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s.

“My good friend Wladimir Guererro and I would drink wine, play guitars, and dream of doing one or the other for a living,” recalls co-owner Jerry Forrest. “We decided we would have a better chance of success making wine. We shelved the dream as we both went to work in the corporate world. In 1966, with help from family and many friends, we planted five acres of wine grapes in Buckingham, PA.”

For that first growing season, more than 50 years ago, the duo planted 37 varieties of grapes, having no idea what would grow well.

“By today’s standards, it was a disaster,” recalls Forrest. “The wines were…interesting. Some were actually drinkable. Many were not. But consider that we had no experience, only rudimentary equipment, very little available information, almost no one to ask for advice, and very limited funds. Fortunately, we couldn’t offer our first wines for sale, as the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act had not yet been passed.”

Flash forward to today and a lot has changed at Buckingham Valley Vineyards. Forrest bought out his original partner and his wife joined the winery as co-owner. In the beginning, they were one of only three or four wineries in the state – today, there are more than 200. They started with a five-acre plot; now the family farms more than 45 acres. The first few years, they had less than 1,000 gallons in plastic tanks and used whiskey barrels. Today, they have more than 75,000 gallons in stainless steel tanks and oak wine barrels.

“We have grown naturally, and changed with the times, technology, and industry,” says Forrest. “Many of the things we take for granted today were not available fifty years ago. Equipment and supplies were difficult to source; most came from California or Europe. There was no Pennsylvania Winery Association or WineAmerica, no Eastern Winery Conferences or Penn State support. No source of Eastern grapes other than our own.”

Ironically, while production has gone up, their focus has narrowed. That first year, Forrest and Guererro grew 37 varietals. Now it’s less than a dozen. They have moved from hand-made and hand-me-down equipment to the latest technology — mechanical harvester, gentle stemmer-crusher, temperature controlled storage, and automatic bottling and labeling.

That staff helps Buckingham produce over 10,000 bottles a year of Methode Champenoise sparkling wine. It was a “long and costly learning experience,” but ultimately successful: Their Brut was chosen by the James Beard Foundation to serve at their annual dinner.

As for 2018, the growing season was wet and hot. Rainfall has been short, heavy, and frequent.

“It was a great growing year,” argues Forrest. “The major challenge was controlling fungus and having to spray more frequently. The cost of time and materials is higher this year. Our harvest will be early, heavy, and good quality. Because of all the above, the wines should be great!”

Would Forrest give his younger self any advice?

“Follow your dream, but be realistic,” he says. “Don’t be discouraged by naysayers. We were told that we couldn’t grow wine grapes in this area. We dreamed otherwise. Today we have a million-dollar family business.”

Fruit Forward

While Arrowhead Wine Cellars had their first harvest back in 1998, the history of the farm actually goes back much further. The winery’s owner and founder Nick Mobilia is the third generation of his family to work this land — his grandfather bought the property in North East, PA, back in the 1920s and established Mobilia Fruit Farms. The land is located between Lake Erie and the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.

“We get lake-effect weather, which is ideal for grape growing,” explains Mobilia. “The lake freezes in the winter, which keeps our grapes from blooming too soon and saves them from spring frosts. In the summer, Lake Erie absorbs the heat, and when you get a fall frost up over the hill, the warm breeze over the lake extends our growing seasons.”

Subsequent generations added to the farm’s acreage — the current incarnation is 232 acres. Before Arrowhead was a winery, the family grew grapes as part of the massive industry in the northwest part of the state.

“In the mid-to-late ’70s, we had two different grape processors go bankrupt on us after they had taken our crops,” recalls Mobilia. “That put us in a financial mess and we knew that we could not survive another loss. So we talked it over and knew there was a market for selling grape juice for wine.”

The family started selling Concord, Niagara, and Catawba grape juice to winemakers. That business grew rapidly. While he drove around delivering juice, Mobilia started to dream of his own winery — after all, they were doing everything but fermenting and bottling. In 1998, the family opened Arrowhead Wine Cellars.

“Our first harvest was a normal summer with adequate sunshine and rainfall,” recalls Mobilia. “The wines from our first crush were interesting, to say the least. There was so much we didn’t know about what a good wine should be, so we went to the state store, Fine Wine and Good Spirits, and started buying wine similar to what we were making. We had a chemist analyze the wine and used the information to guide us through bottling.”

Arrowhead’s first year, they crushed 14 tons of grapes and sold eight varieties of wine: Niagara, Fredonia, Concord, Catawba, Delaware, Steuben, and Chambourcin along with Cherry Wine. In 2018, the plan is to crush 140 tons of grapes — mostly grown on the family farm and by close friends. They also crush another 250,000 gallons to sell to other wineries. Their in-house wine list now features 30 varieties of wine, three hard ciders, and five varieties of pasteurized juice.

But no matter how much experience you have, Mother Nature always has some surprises in store.

“Everything was great until two weeks ago when the temperature soared to over 90 degrees for two weeks,” explains Mobilia. “That event ripened almost all the varieties at the same time and they need to be harvested. We are putting in long days to get caught up so the fruit does not get overripe. It’s a challenge, but it’s getting done.”

Fortunately, the current business has the necessary tools to roll with the punches.

“We picked the wine grapes by hand, just like my father did,” says Mobilia of the early days. “Finding enough people to help was the biggest challenge of all. In 1978, we purchased our first harvester. It picked the American grapes with ease, but could not pick the hybrids. In 2005, we purchased a new Korvan Harvester that picks both. Three people can do the work of 50 in a fraction of the time. It’s very expensive but worth every penny. We saw quality problems go away because three hours after the grapes were picked, the juice was in refrigerated tanks.”

“We saw productivity increase, we saw our employees eager to come to work,” adds Mobilia. “Arrowhead had become a place of pride for them, and I always remind them that we don’t have to be the biggest, only the best. We strive for quality not quantity for both American and hybrid varietals.”

Reflecting back on that first harvest — and all the things he has learned in 20 years of winemaking — puts Mobilia in a contemplative mood.

Growing wine grapes today is like riding a bike,” he says. “It gets easier each year, but every now and then you are going to fall. So you get up, learn from your mistakes, and get going again.”

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