Meet the Winemaker: Sal Maiolatesi of Maiolatesi Wine Cellars

“September 21, 2007 is when we had our fire,” says Sal Maiolatesi. “We lost the winery.”

That fire is just one chapter in the story of Maiolatesi Wine Cellars, a story that started in Sassoferrato, a small town in Italy, and continues at a thriving winery overlooking the Endless Mountains in Lackawanna County, PA.

Maiolatesi’s great-grandfather was a blacksmith who specialized in building winemaking equipment. He eventually followed many of his townspeople across the ocean from the Le Marche region to Jessup, Pennsylvania.

“My great-grandfather and my grandfather both made wine, but they stopped when the grapes got expensive,” recalls Maiolatesi. “When I was 20, my dad said to me, ‘We have Nono’s press and we have some equipment, why don’t we try to make a barrel of wine?’ That’s how it started.”

“One barrel led to three barrels led to eight barrels, led to us giving it away at Christmas time and people asking if they could buy it,” he continues. “I fell in love with the fact that people enjoyed what I was producing. I knew when I was 24 that I wanted to turn it into a business. At 28, I opened the winery. At the time, I was the youngest sole proprietor in the state.”

The winery launched in 1991 out of the basement of Maiolatesi’s home. He credits some giants of the Pennsylvania wine industry, including Doug Moorhead from Presque Isle Wine Cellars and Bob Mazza of Mazza Vineyards, with helping him get off the ground, source grapes, and solve winemaking problems. It wasn’t the last time that the community would come to his aid.

Maiolatesi sold his wines out of a retail store in Mermelstein’s Marketplace, a local shopping center. In 2002, as the business grew, he moved the winemaking operation out of his home and into the large basement below the shops. Maiolatesi Wine Cellars was thriving, and then the unthinkable happened.

“A volunteer fireman who worked at a gas station down the street broke into the back of the building,” explains Maiolatesi. “This was a large shopping center and there were six other businesses. He lit the fire, went back to work, and waited for the call so that he could go help put out the fire.”

The perpetrator was a serial arsonist who was eventually caught and charged with setting seven fires in the area.

“They could not get it under control and everyone lost 100 percent,” he continues. “We lost all of our wine. We had 40 barrels of vinifera reds. We had 70,000 bottles of wine in inventory that all had to be destroyed. The ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms] sent four agents to watch us destroy everything. We filled seven 40-yard dumpsters with bottled wine that had to be taken to the landfill and destroyed.”

The timing for Maiolatesi could not have been worse. His winery was destroyed right at the start of harvest season. That morning, he had received two tons of Pennsylvania Pinot Noir grapes; the previous day a few tons of Pinot Grigio had arrived from Paradocx Vineyards.

“I lost part of the 2007 vintage off the bat,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stop making wine. I had commitments with growers — I had fruit that I had to purchase — so I had to set up shop under other people’s licenses.”

Maiolatesi was saved by the strong relationships he had cultivated within the industry. Gary Toczko from Nimble Hill Winery didn’t charge him a penny for use of his facilities. Paradocx Vineyards allowed him to bring barrels, tanks, and a press down to their winery in Chester County.

“They also had a house on the property and they gave me the keys,” says Maiolatesi. “They said, ‘Anytime you come down to work on wine, you have a place to stay.’ They charged me nothing. Zero. It was incredibly kind.”

And there was some light at the end of the tunnel: A couple of months before the fire, he had put down a deposit on a piece of land in Scott Township, and shortly after the calamity, he closed on the property. Maiolatesi broke ground in May of 2008 and the state-of-the-art winery was up and running by October 2008.

“We have a beautiful view of the Endless Mountains, where before our view was Business Route 6,” he says of the new location. “We built a large deck. We have a much nicer tasting room with a much larger bar — the bar went from six feet to a 21-foot-long curved bar made out of solid cherry.”

In the last year, Maiolatesi Wine Cellars has expanded their event space in order to host larger weddings and private events, and hired a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, Chris Dodd, who cut his teeth cooking in Austin, Texas, Colorado, and New York City.

“We were extremely lucky to find him,” says Maiolatesi. “We do wood-fired pizzas on Fridays and a full menu on Saturdays and Sundays. Everything is fresh. We bake all our own breads. We grind our own meat for burgers. We make all our own mozzarella cheese for pizzas. The food is absolutely amazing. He’s extremely talented. He has a passion for food like I do for wine.”

When it comes to the wine patrons taste alongside that enticing fare, the list is split almost evenly between dry and sweet/semi-sweet. That said, Maiolatesi’s takes special pride in his dry reds and whites made from vinifera grapes.

“Giulia’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is typically [made using grapes] from Waltz Vineyards, is an excellent dry red,” he says. “I’d also like to highlight our Grüner Veltliner — it’s grown locally by Nimble Hill Vineyards. We’re learning how to make that better and better each year.”

Learning, growing, and adapting is what it’s all about for Maiolatesi, who rose from the ashes to keep his dream alive.