Vine Time: Chatting with Pennsylvania Grape Growers

This article was originally published on 07/17/19

Ask three winemakers the same question about their craft and you’ll often get three different answers.

However, in the course of some recent chats that we had with Pennsylvania wine-grape growers, the same quote popped up consistently: “Wine is made in the vineyard.” While there is a ton of work that happens once the fruit is plucked from the vine — pressing, fermenting, aging — wine is still, at its core, an agricultural product. Good grapes make good wine, and cultivating those good grapes can be quite tricky.

Juiced Up

At Arrowhead Wine Cellars in Erie County, the grape growing actually came long before the winemaking. Owner Nick Mobilia is a third-generation farmer. His father and grandfather grew grapes, apples, peaches, cherries, and vegetables which they mostly sold at a large on-site farm market. They also sent grapes to industrial canneries, where juice and jelly is made.

When he took over the business, “grapes going to the cannery weren’t making any money,” he recalls. “One cannery went bankrupt. I [was] just out of school and I lost my first couple crops to bankruptcy.”

“When you grow Concord, Niagara, and Catawba for the cannery, you are a production grower,” adds Mobilia. “You need to grow tons per acre to survive. When you switch over to the hybrids and grow wine grapes, quality is what is in demand. Prices go from $1,500 to $2,000 a ton, where Concord is like $250 a ton. So to make a living on Concord, you need to grow eight-to-nine tons to the acre. With wine grapes, you need to only grow two-to-four tons to the acre, but there’s so much more care that you need to give those grapes.”

Over the next decade, Mobilia started looking into building his own juice plant, hoping to sell directly to consumers and capture that extra value. He and his wife Kathy borrowed money from a bank, raised the building (complete with refrigerated rooms), and bought presses, filters, and tanks. They made apple juice and sold it to supermarkets, and then started selling grape juice to home winemakers.

Some of those hobbyists eventually started wineries and continued buying their juice from Arrowhead. The farm, which started with four grape varieties, now sells 20 — including Concord, Niagara, Steuben, Fredonia, Delaware, GR7 (also known as Geneva Red), and Noiret — and does business with 60 wineries in eight states. They have 110 acres of vines under cultivation; Mobilia’s brother and other partners also grow grapes for them, including Riesling and trickier hybrids such as Vidal Blanc, Vignoles, and Chambourcin.

Mobilia and his team can hold up to 150,000 gallons of grape juice at their facility. They then offer that juice to wineries, selling about 300,000 gallons of juice per year.

“I was delivering to these wineries and telling Kathy, ‘We should really go one step further and start making wine ourselves,'” recalls Mobilia. “We have everything we need except the showroom.”

Kathy left her job to run the tasting room and the farm hired a young winemaker.

“Truthfully, making wine made us better juice suppliers,” says Mobilia. “Now we know what a winery really needs. It’s not just pressing grapes, putting it on a truck, and sending it someplace. We learned about sugars, pH, and acids, and the mold and mildew that are in grapes. This allowed us to produce better-quality juice to deliver to our customers. It was like a circle that was almost complete.”

Out of the 300,000 gallons that they process, Arrowhead uses about 30,000 gallons for their own wine. The farm has a full-time chemist and a full-time winemaker on site, enabling them to conduct detailed chemical analysis of their products. Every outgoing truckload of grape juice includes a data-rich printout.

Growing grapes in Pennsylvania can be a challenge, which is one reason Arrowhead focuses on native grapes and hybrids — they are more forgiving. Growing high-quality wine grapes is much more labor-intensive than cultivating juice grapes for the mass market.

Growth Industry

If growing hybrids are tricky, producing high-quality vinifera grapes is another level. Joanne Levengood of Manatawny Creek Winery in Berks County pushed her family’s vineyard towards these more fickle fruits.

“Nobody thought we could grow vinifera here.” she recalls. “We [still] have a five-acre hybrid vineyard which includes Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Steuben, Foch, Chancellor, and Cayuga White. That was before my time — my uncle and my father decided on those varieties. They just picked them out of the nursery catalog and talked to some other local growers.”

“When I got on board in 1997, I wanted to grow vinifera,” she continues. “That’s what I like and that’s what I’m used to. We put in probably 12 different vinifera varieties, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Lemberger, and Pinot Noir.”

Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc have been the most successful, while Petit Verdot is Levengood’s personal favorite: “It has beautiful color and so much flavor.” Other grapes such as Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlot have been much harder to help thrive, and the past two years have been two of the toughest on record.

“Last year was the worst year ever for us because of the amount of rainfall,” says Levengood. “We would rather have short bursts of rain and then sunshine the rest of the day. If it’s gray all day it brings in more fungus and you have to spray more. We need the sun and heat. Grapes like it dry.”

In addition to the weather woes, the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species from Asia, has wreaked havoc on vines in southeastern Pennsylvania. (Click here for resources and information on combatting this pest.)

“We first heard about [the lanternfly] back in 2013 or ’14,” she says. “I thought this is going to be like the stinkbug — all this hoopla over nothing. That’s not right. We really try to be sustainable and not spray insecticides, but with the lanternfly, you have to stay on top of it. It’s not the best way to have a healthy vineyard — you’re killing all the beneficial organisms, too.”

Levengood is hesitant to plant new vines — even after they lost some plants to the recent cold winters — until they get the pest under control.

“I’ve always said that the wine is made in the vineyard — you can’t make good wine without good grapes,” she says.  According to Levengood, she knows pretty early — while the grapes are still on the vine — if the resulting wines will be special. “You can taste the grapes,” she says. “You’ve got the measurements, the sugars, the acid, the pH. You know how nice that fruit is right from the beginning.”

When the growing conditions improve, Manatawny is looking forward to planting new vines.

“I would like to figure out how to keep Syrah alive because Syrah is one of my favorite grapes,” says Levengood. “It’s a little susceptible to cold winter temperatures, which has been the problem. Bordeaux Reds do really well. We planted a little bit of Malbec and I’d like to expand that program — then we’d have all five Bordeaux reds.”

Family First

The weather has also been a struggle in the nearby Lehigh Valley, home to Clover Hill Vineyards and Winery. The Skrip family — parents John and Pat, and children John Skrip III and daughter Kari Skrip — owns this large operation, which has been producing wine since 1985.

“Over the last couple winters, we’ve had some very cold temperatures,” says Kari Skrip. “We’ve lost a little bit of our vineyard. We do plan on either next year or the following year putting in some new vines.”

Clover Hill boasts six different vineyards spread out amongst Lehigh and Berks Counties; about 70 acres produce fruit. The winery uses all that fruit and also purchases additional grapes, depending on the season. They produce between 75,000 and 85,000 gallons of wine per year. Right now, Clover Hill grows 12 different grape varietals. The key is balancing what grows well on the property and planting what people like to drink.

“It’s a delicate line,” says Skrip. “We grow some of the vinifera varieties and we also grow some hybrids and the native varieties. We grow Niagara and Catawba. Of the vinifera varieties, we probably had the most success with Riesling and Chardonnay. I love the style of Chardonnay that’s grown in our area. It tends to get a little more of a green-apple character.”

Skrip also mentions the vineyard’s two favorite hybrids: Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin.

“With the hybrid varieties, you get a little more protection against some of the diseases and also the cold temperatures that we see in the wintertime,” she explains. “They’re just a little more hardy and a little less fussy.”

Deciding which varietals to plant is a group decision made by the four family members and their full-time vineyard manager. John Skrip III is a trained enologist, so once they decide on the grape, he talks with their nursery supplier and chooses which specific clone to plant.

“These are certainly not easy discussions because you have four or five different opinions,” Kari says. “We all need to work together to figure out what will grow best and what customers will like. It’s a long process: It’s probably six years until we result a wine. You’re trying to guess what trends will be out there, what customers will be looking for, what the climate is going to do — which seems to be changing — so it’s not an easy choice to make. It’s certainly an expensive choice, too.”

“It seems as if the younger generation, millennials, they’re not so concerned with the varietal at all,” she explains. “So I feel a whole new can of worms has been opened up. I feel like there are a lot more options to choose from.”

“They always say wine is made in the vineyard and it’s so true,” Kari continues, echoing the central theme. “Like this year, for example, we have a lot of winter damage and a lot of stunted growth and had a cool wet start of the growing season. We know that our yields are going to be way down this year, though the fruit may still be very good if things dry out and we get some brilliant sunny days.”

Making sure that fruit is as exceptional as possible starts with spring pruning back in February and March — careful selections result in better vine health and the proper number of buds.

“We have a really good handle on what’s going on in the vineyard and what wines will result,” she continues. “When you have a great year in the vineyard, the winemaking is so easy. When you have a tough year in the vineyard, there are a lot of things you can do to manipulate and improve the end result. However, it’s so much easier when you bring in really beautiful fruit to start with.”