When tasting wine, connoisseurs hold their glasses up to the light to look at the wine’s color and clarity. I don’t always know what I’m supposed to see, but at Naylor Wine Cellars in Pennsylvania, I held up my white wine and it was crystal . . . No. I have to say that it was most definitely cloudy. Very clearly cloudy.
During a tank-side chat about the steps in the winemaking process, assistant winemaker Ben McIntyre quickly clarified that I wasn’t imagining things. It was all part of the Tour de Tanks event held at 26 Pennsylvania and Maryland wineries in March, during which guests are invited into cellars and backrooms to learn about those various winemaking steps. It’s a follow-up to the Wine Just Off the Vine event held in November. Last fall, visitors sampled these wines just days after they were put into barrels. We sipped those same wines-in-progress, aged by five months.
Using York, Pa., as our home base, my tasting companion and I made plans to spend two days visiting six wineries along the Mason-Dixon Wine Trail that surrounds the city. The wineries don’t open until noon, so we spent the morning browsing through the shops in downtown York and downing a hearty breakfast at the newly renovated Central Market.
Then we set off on the trail, where interesting wine facts poured from winemakers’ mouths: why some use barrels instead of steel tanks; why the region makes so many fruity and sweet wines; and how snacks ranging from brownies to beef jerky to ancho-chili chocolate are paired with Chambourcins, Traminettes and other wines. As one winery worker put it, you don’t just buy a ticket to taste. You pay for an education.
At each winery, we presented our Tour de Tanks ticket — a frequent-drinking card of sorts listing each participating winery — for stamping. We picked up our free wine glass at the first stop and took it with us everywhere, as directed. That meant making frequent use of “rinse stations” that consisted of everything from painted ceramic pitchers to big orange plastic buckets with spigots.
Used to simple tastings of a handful of bottled wines, I found it much more intriguing to step into dark cellars and brightly lit tank rooms to learn the backstories of the vineyards and vintners, and to taste both finished and unfinished wines.
The wineries varied from a country home to a former barn to the basement of someone’s house just off the interstate, and friendly winemakers answered questions about the grapes and the soil as well as about their businesses and themselves.
And really now, how could someone whose great-grandfathers were a cooper and a beer brewer not wind up in the business, as is the case with Jim Miller, the owner and winemaker at Moon Dancer Vineyards and Winery in Wrightsville, Pa.?
Moon Dancer was our first stop after setting out from our base in York, on roads that wound past stately houses and trailer homes, rising at one point for a view of one of the widest stretches of the Susquehanna River.
At the top of a gravel road, we reached a French country chateau framed by vineyards. After sampling from five bottles in a tasting room, the last one a warmed spice wine, we headed downstairs. “It’s the first sobriety test of the day,” said my friend Sid at the top of a steep staircase.
The cellar was a sight to behold. Candles flickered atop nearly every barrel, creating a golden aura. From behind a table laid with cheese, crackers, grapes and locally made beef jerky, Miller talked about the land, the Pennsylvania white oak barrels made in California and how he had learned to make wine years earlier from a book called “How to Make Wine.”
We moved on to Allegro Winery in Brogue, which has been in business for more than 30 years, helping ourselves to the hot tomato basil soup on offer — perfect for a raw March day — before taking a tour in the next room with owner and winemaker Carl Helrich.
When we were about to leave, Helrich issued a challenge involving a Bordeaux blend he is proud of, Cadenza 2010: He said that I should serve it to a friend who’s a wine connoisseur, tell her or him that it’s a French Bordeaux and see whether she or he disputes it. Only then should I say that it’s actually a Pennsylvania wine. I told him that I’d take the bottle home and give it a shot.
Naylor was our third stop, and as we entered the nondescript building, the smell of wine hit like a physical force. Standing among the steel tanks, McIntyre poured us that cloudy glassful, explaining that it was an unfinished, yet-to-be filtered wine, but eminently drinkable.
Before we were allowed to taste it, though, he had us sniff the wine and guess what we were detecting. One person called it “grapey,” another “sweet.” McIntyre smiled. Yes, the wine was fruity, hence the powerful grape aroma. But sweet? “Your mind is playing a trick on you,” he explained. “The learning experience here is, you can’t smell sweet.” The memory of grape juice or Concord grape jam made us all assume that the wine was sweet, he said. It was not. But it would be by the time it was bottled.
We went along to another “teacher” to taste some reds. He pulled the rich crimson liquid from a barrel with a “wine thief” — it looks like a turkey baster without the rubber top — and told us to take a sip of a Chambourcin, then a bite of a brownie and then taste the red again to see whether we noticed a difference. Most of us did.
Sid and I suddenly realized that we were off schedule and raced to Logan’s View Winery, trying to beat the clock. We thought we’d allotted plenty of time for four wineries in five hours, but between the chats and the sips and the second sips . . . and the third sips . . . we were lagging behind, and the drive between each winery added 25 minutes or so.
We pulled up to Logan’s View at 4:57, afraid that we’d be turned away, since closing time for all the Tour de Tanks wineries is 5 p.m. Instead, we got a warm welcome from one of the half-dozen owners — there are 18 in all— who were hanging out. They told us it’s typical to get a rush of people at the end of the day.
At this winery, as at nearly every one we visited, we were asked whether we preferred dry or sweet wines. Sweet wines are better sellers in the area, apparently. I’m sure I tasted more varieties of sweet and fruity wine in two days than I have in years. At Logan’s View, the fruit used in the wine is grown locally, and we tasted blends with such names as Strawberry Blonde, Blackberry Nights and Logan’s Blue.
Our final winery, on Sunday, was in a converted barn. Basignani had the feeling of a rustic, high-ceilinged pub with long counters, and the walls were lined with empty, dusty wine bottles. Two friendly dogs roamed in and out at will.
A small group of us walked outside and around back to join the barrel tour with Vincent Basignani, the owner’s cousin, who explained that when the yeast is introduced to the grapes’ juice, it’s “very violent. You can hear it bubbling.” He also mentioned that the winery gets shipments of 190-proof brandy alcohol in trucks labeled “Hazardous Material.” Clearly, making wine isn’t just rewarding, but dangerously exciting, too.
Perlman is a freelance travel writer who blogs at www.boldlygosolo.com.