For Dr. Michael Kavic of Kavic Winery, inspiration struck at an unlikely moment: He was waiting for a flight.
“I was in Italy back in 2000 and was reading a magazine article in the Milan airport,” he recalls. “They were talking about an urban winery — that is a winery that wasn’t sitting on a vineyard. I had never heard of such a concept. We thought we’d like to try something like that.”
Kavic and his wife Patricia eventually transformed his erstwhile office into their very own urban winery in Allegheny County, just 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Though Kavic spent his career as a surgeon, winemaking is part of his family legacy. Both grandmothers — widows and survivors of the Great Depression — made wine at home, and he and his wife spent 30 years as amateur vintners.
We chatted with Dr. Kavic about how a surgical career translates to winemaking, where that spare building came from, and the company’s in-progress vineyard.
PA Wine Land Post: Do any skills from your surgical career translate into winemaking?
Dr. Michael Kavic: Absolutely. Winemakers are becoming more comfortable with laboratory analysis. My background is chemistry (as an undergraduate) and surgery (at the graduate level).
If you think about it, winemaking is very, very old. The first winemaker was probably Noah. But winemaking in Pennsylvania is relatively new. We’ve come on a long way from just trial and error, to making wine with a more analytic, evidence-based approach. Because of that, the quality is much more uniform and the product itself is better overall. For example, nowadays when you talk to a winemaker, they know what you’re talking about when you talk about the pH of the wine or the total acidity or Brix [sugar] levels.
And where are you sourcing your grapes?
Our grapes are all sourced in Pennsylvania. I really could never see the sense of calling yourself a Pennsylvania winery and buying grapes from California or overseas.
I was going to start out making just dry red wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir. My wife and I really thought about it and [decided on] a broad-based approach. We started off making 10 or 12 different varietals — red and white, dry, sweet, semi-dry, semi-sweet.
So what are some of the varieties that you’re most proud of?
2016 was a good year for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Merlot was pretty good that year, too. And we use a grape called Blaufränkisch, which is similar to a Pinot Noir. Another name for that grape is Lemberger, but I prefer Blaufränkisch. As for whites, we started with Chardonnay, Riesling, and Traminette.
So how did you have this building lying around?
The building was part of my medical office at one time and it was also a laboratory where I taught minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery. Back in the early ’90s, [the technique] wasn’t being taught in medical schools. We trained surgeons from all over the world in that building.
After a few years, laparoscopy became mainstream — medical schools and surgical residency began teaching it — so there wasn’t a need for the private courses.
You’re also adding a vineyard to your operation.
We actually have a vineyard. But to get mature grapes suitable for winemaking, the vine has to be in the ground anywhere between five and six years. Our vineyards were put in about five years ago now, so we’re anticipating getting a decent crop next year.
We’ve had challenges. You remember the polar vortex of two years ago and last year? It killed a lot of grapevines. This year, at the beginning of spring, we had a prodigious amount of rain for Pennsylvania. These are the challenges and problems you have to deal with. But I think we’re learning how to do that.
At our vineyard, we have two blocks of vines. One is Marquette, a red grape hybrid similar to a Zinfandel developed at the University of Minnesota. And the other block is Vidal Blanc, which is a very nice, cold-hardy white wine.
On that note, can you talk a little bit about your clientele and how you attract visitors?
It’s really mixed. We don’t advertise extensively. Almost all of our business locally is word of mouth. But the Internet is a powerful tool. We’re close to Pittsburgh International Airport and we have people from all over the country stopping by because they’ve seen or heard about us on the Internet.
I would think that surgery is a job where you constantly have to learn throughout your career, otherwise, you’re going to be left behind. It’s interesting that you found a way to continue learning.
What really pleased me with the winery is the opportunity you have for self-learning and continuing education. Like I said, people in the wine business are becoming much more sophisticated with their use of analytic tools.
There’s a certain presumed romance with winemaking, but in the end, fermentation is a scientific process — so there’s a lot you can do to understand it and guide it.
There is that, but there’s still an element of romance to it. Our home here is on top of a small mountain and we overlook the vineyards. Goodness, when the sun comes up, that’s beautiful. It just makes you feel good. It’s a pleasure to be involved with growing something — you feel like you’re contributing in some way.
And then your product goes out in the world and makes more people happy.
It does. With winemaking, it’s almost like we’re in the happiness business.