Gather winemakers from 12 wineries in five states along with a few wine writers to taste through two dozen wines and — well, it’s not exactly a party. But I can say that it’s a lot of fun, and it’s educational.
The scene was the barrel room at Waltz Vineyards, in Lancaster County, Pa., where Jan and Kim Waltz enjoy hosting such events. I first visited Waltz six years ago for a similar seminar in which East Coast vintners learned viticulture tips from a leading grape grower and a winemaker from California. My second visit, in early April this year, was for eastern vintners to share their wines and compare notes. It was organized by Paul Vigna, who writes about wine for Pennlive.com and has become a leading voice on Maryland and Pennsylvania wines.
Participating were one winery from Virginia (Keswick); four from Maryland (Black Ankle, Boordy, Crow and Old Westminster); four from Pennsylvania (Allegro, Galen Glen, Penns Woods and Waltz); two from New Jersey (Heritage and Unionville); and one from New York (Paumanok). Aside from Vigna and myself, journalists included bloggers David Falchek and Carlo DeVito, and Linda Jones McKee of Wines & Vines magazine. The event was moderated by Joe Fiola, a viticulturist with the University of Maryland, and professor/agricultural agent Gary Pavlis of Rutgers University.
Vigna asked each of the participating winemakers to bring two wines. I expected a bunch of red blends and chardonnays, and there were plenty of both. But I was thrilled to experience a much wider and more exciting variety. The tasting was bookended by two scintillating sparkling wines that bowled me over.
The first was a 2014 brut made in the champagne method from chardonnay and pinot noir from Heritage Vineyards in New Jersey. Winemaker Sean Comninos explained that he wanted to make dry chardonnay and pinot noir, but the grapes weren’t ripening. So he decided to make bubbly, which uses grapes picked considerably earlier and less ripe than dry table wines.
The result was fantastic.
“I think there’s plenty of opportunity on the East Coast to grow great sparkling wine,” Comninos said. Heritage is located about 15 miles from Delaware Bay on sandy soils that climb to a whopping 196 feet elevation. “We take pride in being Mount Heritage,” Comninos quipped.
The sparkling wine that ended the afternoon was Lisa Hinton’s petillant-naturel, or pet-nat, of syrah from Maryland’s Old Westminster winery. The champagne method induces a second fermentation to create the bubbles in the bottle while the wine ages, while pet-nat gets its bubbles from finishing the alcoholic fermentation in bottle. The Heritage was a sophisticated prelude that set a high bar for the tasting, and the pet-nat was pure fun, an excellent coda.
I knew about Old Westminster, of course, but Heritage was a new winery for me. So was Penns Woods Winery of Chadds Ford, Pa. Owner Gino Razzi delighted me with a racy sauvignon blanc and a lush cabernet franc from what he said was the oldest vinifera vineyard in Pennsylvania, planted 47 years ago.
What did the winemakers get from the exercise? “I was very pleased with both the quality of the wines and the diversity of styles,” says Stephen Barnard, winemaker of Virginia’s Keswick Vineyards, who drove from Charlottesville for the event. Barnard presented his elegant 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve, which won the Virginia Governor’s Cup trophy last year, and his 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, which coated my glass purple.
“Fifteen years ago, we would not have been able to have a tasting of this type,” said Carl Helrich, owner and winemaker at Pennsylvania’s Allegro Winery, citing the wide range of styles. He particularly raved about the 2015 Riesling Stone Cellar Reserve GJT Vineyard from Sarah and Galen Troxell at Galen Glen Winery in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. “They are just cranking out great whites up there,” he said.
Several participants noted the willingness of wineries to experiment. “We had screw caps on big reds from Long Island, a variety of fermentation techniques from Pennsylvania, stem inclusion on cab franc from Virginia, pet-nat and nonvintage reserve wines from Maryland,” said Ed Boyce of Black Ankle Vineyards, picking up on the wonkier parts of the conversation. “Innovation is alive and well.”
This was a small sampling of wines from the East Coast, but it gave a good snapshot of how viticulture and winemaking has improved in recent years. Resolved: I need to spend more time in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.