Before he grew grapes, Elwin Stewart tried to heal grapes.
The central Pennsylvania winemaker worked for years as a plant pathologist, conducting research at Penn State University on grapevine trunk diseases. Through that work, he became intimately familiar with the workings of vineyards across PA, Virginia, and New York, and developed a passion for this fickle crop.
In 1998, he and his wife Barbara Christ decided to turn that zeal into something more tangible: They launched Happy Valley Vineyard, planting three acres of grapes that first year. Today, they have almost 10 acres of vines on a beautiful piece of land in Centre County.
While the couple started off growing grapes for other wineries, it felt like a natural transition to move into winemaking.
“Local grapes, local vines, local wines,” says Elwin, crystalizing the duo’s philosophy. “Our focus at the onset was to produce wines from grapes that we grew well on our property. To this day, we still adhere to that — 90 percent of our wine volume is [estate-grown].”
The couple chose varietals that would thrive in the valley’s continental climate and their farm’s limestone soil. Currently, they grow only one Vinifera vine, Riesling, along with a stable of hybrids including Cayuga, Vignoles, Vidal Blanc, Traminette, Chancellor, Chambourcin, Noiret, and Corot Noir. For 16 years, they grew the German red-wine grape Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger), and in 2020, they’ll replant the varietal.
From those grapes, Happy Valley makes everything from dry fruity whites to oaky full-bodied reds; every other year, they make ice wine from their Vidal Blanc grapes.
“Once we’ve picked everything else in the vineyard, we cover our ice-wine vines with bird netting,” explains Elwin. “The normal harvest time [for Vidal] would be in early October. For ice wine, [the grapes] stay out in the field under protection until near Christmas time. We look for three or four days of freezing temperatures — the grapes must be frozen completely when they’re picked and pressed.”
Pressing the frozen grapes releases highly-concentrated liquid sugars — as Christ puts it, “You could put your pancakes underneath the press.” The resulting dessert wines have a smooth, intense flavor and aromas of apricot and honey.
Another thing that distinguishes Happy Valley is the couple’s commitment to sustainability. The winery boasts two photovoltaic systems — which generate 70-80 percent of its electricity needs — and is serviced by electric golf carts. Christ and Stewart even have an electric car, used for local errands, that they recharge using their home-captured solar power. They also designed their site to take advantage of the natural geography and reduce their carbon footprint.
“The orientation of our vineyard is generally north-south which allows us to pick up the westerly winds in our area, which dries out the vineyard after rain or heavy dew,” explains Elwin.
“When the grapes are developing, they get equal amount of sunlight on each side of the trellis,” adds Christ.
Happy Valley is a member of the Central Pennsylvania Tasting Trail, a partnership of local wineries, breweries, and distilleries. The members meet once a month to collaborate and plan. Their efforts are one way that the winery attracts customers to its idyllic spot only three miles from downtown State College.
“Because of the university, we get a lot of parents and visitors,” says Christ. “One of the sororities planned a weekend event where their parents could come out to tour and taste. The other thing that we’re finding is that students graduate and then like to have something from the area — our online sales are often going to [an alum] who would like to have a taste of Happy Valley.”
With business going so well, the couple recently decided to expand, opening Bella Vino Wine Bar in nearby Bellefonte, a charming town known for its Victorian architecture; the Big Spring, a natural spring water source known for being the best tasting water in the state; and being the erstwhile home of five Commonwealth governors (plus a California governor and a governor of Kansas).
“We’ve had off-site sales at various places where we rented space, and that’s never really worked out well,” explains Stewart. “Barb and I and one of our staffers were driving around Bellefonte and we found this building for sale. It looked appealing and we thought, rather than rent, we should buy. It’s a nice extension of our business, and we have a consistent and growing clientele over there.”
The wine bar is another sign of how this business has evolved in ways that the couple couldn’t have anticipated back when they were planting those three acres of grapes twenty years ago.
“At the outset, our desire was to make really good wines and to continue improving, vintage after vintage,” recalls Stewart. “We’ve been able to do that. But we did not expect it to grow and become the thriving business that it is. We have a lot of gratitude for the people who are interested in buying locally grown, locally made wines.”