David Falchek’s entree into the wine world was a happy accident. Now the executive director of the American Wine Society (AWS), the Wilkes-Barre native’s first job out of college was writing for a newspaper in Seneca, NY.
“Being in the Finger Lakes put me in the orbit of a really fast-growing wine industry,” he recalls. “After a while, I was asked by a magazine if I would write technical pieces for a trade publication about cold-weather viticulture and enology. That got me into writing about wine for a national audience.”
Then he moved back to northeastern Pennsylvania and made an exciting discovery.
“When I left the Finger Lakes, I felt a little bit downcast because I thought, ‘I’m leaving wine country,'” he recalls. “But then I become close friends with people like Sal Maiolatesi [from Maiolatesi Wine Cellars], Gary Toczko at Nimble Hill Winery, and Jeff Home at Grovedale Winery, and I realized that I didn’t leave wine country. Pennsylvania is every bit as much of a wine region as the Finger Lakes.”
After a few more years in media — which included penning a consumer-facing wine column — Falchek began his current gig in 2016. Founded 52 years ago, the American Wine Society is the oldest and largest organization of wine consumers in the United States. Their mission is to promote wine appreciation through education.
We chatted with Falchek about Pennsylvania’s superstar grapes, the power of millennial drinkers, and his surprising path into the industry.
What are some of your favorite Pennsylvania grape varieties?
David Falchek: In my role, I drink so many conventional wines: California Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot. I like those wines when they’re done well, but I really like off-beat wines. Off-beat is probably not the right word. Let’s say, “unconventional” varieties.
When I think about Pennsylvania, I think about Chambourcin. Some of the best Chambourcin in the world comes out of the Lehigh Valley. It’s a great variety and it’s different. So if people are tired of Merlot and Cabernet — or maybe those wines might be a little bit too over the top in terms of tannins, in terms of acids, in terms of alcohol — I think Chambourcin is just fantastic.
Pennsylvania is also the home to what’s believed to be the oldest commercial Grüner Veltliner vineyard in North America: my friends at Galen Glen Vineyard. Their Grüner is still a benchmark, but now I see so many other wineries that are really doing a fantastic job with Grüner.
The other white variety for Pennsylvania and other cool climates is Traminette. My favorite Traminettes in the world are being made in Pennsylvania. There’s no question about it.
And it’s not just hybrids, I think some of the PA Rieslings I’ve had have been absolutely spectacular. Toczko Vineyard Riesling from Nimble Hill Vineyard & Winery is easily one of the best Rieslings I’ve had in years.
We’ve spoken with winemakers who argue that millennial drinkers are much less obsessed with “big name” varietals. They feel like they have more freedom to pursue “unconventional” grapes and find things that work really well for their vineyard sites.
[Millennials] are the reason why rosé and Riesling are popular again, because they do not carry with them the biases that all Riesling and all pink wines are sweet. And younger drinkers value local. They don’t have the geographical bias of thinking that good wines must come from Europe or the West Coast.
So what can Pennsylvania do to continue to get its product in front of consumers?
Part of it is about the production level. If you look at your average Pennsylvania winery, they’re probably making 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of wine. Their business model is really designed around selling wine at their retail locations so they can capture the full retail value. Now, a growing number of wineries are selling wholesale to restaurants and retailers. I think it really has to happen in baby steps.
When I travel, even if it’s a remotely wine-producing area like Missouri or Illinois, I would hope that their in-state restaurants would support their industry. And you know, when you put a bottle on a restaurant menu, that bottle becomes an advertisement for your winery. And then maybe people will come and visit after they try it.
Personally, as a consumer — particularly if I’m in a wine-producing region of Pennsylvania like Lancaster or the Lehigh Valley or Erie — I’ll ask, “Why aren’t you carrying local wines?”
Are there any particular Pennsylvania wines that you’ve tasted in the past year or two that got you really excited?
I gotta tell you, that Toczko Vineyard Riesling is so good. And it’s subtle. In Pennsylvania, the really good growers and winemakers realize that they can make a juicy, fruity Riesling pretty easily and pretty reliably. But what I like about the approach that Nimble Hill took [with their Riesling] is that they made it with a great deal of restraint. Instead of going for big, juicy, fruity, peachy apple, they went for more subtle flavors. It’s much more floral with a little bit more citrus. The more you drink it, the more you sip it, the more it grows on you. It’s wonderfully elegant and refined.
Looking back, are you surprised that you ended up in a full-time wine career?
Absolutely. This was definitely not anything I could have anticipated when I was a young boy growing up in Ashley, PA. My first job out of college happened to be in Geneva, New York. I happened to be working in a wine region. I happened to be in a position to write about cool climate enology and viticulture. And then I happened to be in a position when the American Wine Society needed an executive director. Teaching people about wine is something I always feel strongly about. And here I am.