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Not quite Napa Valley

Pennsylvania's mom-and-pop vintners press on toward profitability

Thursday, October 01, 1998

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ELLSWORTH, Pa. - There are small wineries. There are really small wineries. And then there is the one that Al Paterini runs out of his three-bedroom frame house. Paterini, a 65-year-old retired coal miner, proudly sells $6 bottles of his popular Red's Special and other wines from his basement-turned-wine-cellar.

 
  At the Windgate Winery near Smicksburg, Indiana County, Jeff Prusasky, left, Dan Enerson (mostly hidden behind Prusasky, and Jim Mallory empty Foch grapes from bottom of a fermentation bin into a press. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Napa Valley it isn't. His tasting room isn't much bigger than a closet. His Concord, Niagara and White Lakemont grapevines look like a backyard garden. Sales his first year of business are only about $8,000.

But Paterini, who holds the unusual distinction of being a third-generation coal miner/wine maker, couldn't be happier. "This is my little piece of heaven."

More people are chasing Paterini's idea of paradise. The number of wineries nationwide has jumped 98 percent from 919 in 1980 to 1,817 in 1995, the latest year for which statistics are available.

"It's the sheer romance of wine-making," said Simon Siegl, president of the American Vintners Association. The boom is happening all over the country.

 
    Finding a few local wineries

Here are some area wineries listed by the Pennsylvania Wine Association. (There may be others that are not included):

Christian W. Klay Winery, Chalk Hill, 724-439-3424

Conneaut Cellars Winery, Conneaut Lake, 814-382-3999.

Lapic Winery, New Brighton (actually in Daugherty Township), 724-846-2031.

Oak Spring Winery, Altoona, 814-946-3799.

Paterini Vineyards, Ellsworth, 724-239-4656.

Quaker Ridge Winery, Washington, 724-222-2914.

Windgate Vineyards and Winery, Smicksburg, 814-257-8797.


For a closer look at the Christian W. Klay Winery, see Dave DeSimone's wine column: Regional wineries afford delicious diversion.

 
 

Most of the new wineries are mom-and-pop operations, and not all of them make it. One recent failure, owned by the Ripepi family of Carroll Township, Washington County, stopped making wine in June, citing a lack of demand for their product. The family still continues to grow grapes.

In Pennsylvania, there are about 60 wineries of varying sizes, including about 10 that have opened in the past few years, said Dick Naylor, past president of the Pennsylvania Wine Association.

Many of Pennsylvania's wineries are near Lake Erie, where the moderating temperatures from the lake are good for grape-growing. But wineries are also popping up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, despite skepticism about the wisdom of putting a vineyard here.

 
  Jeff Prusasky pushes down the lid on a wine press. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Dr. Daniel M. Enerson is one of the pioneers who ignored conventional wisdom. When he began planting his grapes in the midst of Amish farm country in Smicksburg in 1973, he got one piece of advice:

Don't do it.

Wine experts told the man who did bypass heart surgery that growing grapes was too risky. They said the vines he planted 1,500 feet above sea level on a panoramic bluff in Indiana County would freeze.

But this fall, Enerson, a 76-year-old retired heart surgeon, is busy crushing and pressing his Marechal Foch and other grapes. His 11-year-old Windgate Vineyards and Winery makes about 6,000 gallons of wine, sold under quaint names like Amish Country Red and Windgate Spiced Apple.

Enerson, who sounds like a professor even in his grape-stained work clothes, said he carefully selected a "microclimate," a cliff that pushes the cold air onto the valley. He has occasional weather worries - too much rain, which can lead to fungus. Or hail, which bruises the grapes.

 
Daniel Enerson, owner of Windgate Vineyards, says profitwise, winemaking "is like getting into missionary work." (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

"This is sorta a giant horticultural experiment," he said.

Windgate is charming, with a gift shop inside an Amish barn. But there is one hitch: It isn't making money.

Enerson said studies show that most wineries aren't profitable at 5,000 gallons but can make money at 10,000. So Windgate, which draws crowds with festivals and bands at the winery, will increase production to about 8,000 and begin selling its wine at a store in Indiana Mall this fall.

"If you want to make money, I wouldn't recommend this." Profitwise, he says with a laugh, "it is like getting into missionary work."

For now, the former surgeon, who commutes from his Fox Chapel home, is philosophical about living out his dream. "You might as well have fun if you aren't making money."

That's also the philosophy of Sharon Klay, an unlikely wine maker.

Twenty years ago, she and her husband, John, a doctor, were living on the 14th floor of a high-rise in Manhattan with a window box. Today she presides over a 216-acre farm in Chalk Hill in Fayette County with 100 different varieties of grapes.

"It's our parody of 'Green Acres,' " she said.

Starting a vineyard was her husband's idea, and she quips that she gets to live out his fantasy.

Christian W. Klay Winery, named after the couple's son, opened last year on a mountain 2,350 feet above sea level.

Sharon Klay, 51, is not just selling $12 or $15 bottles of wine with historic names like Nemacolin Castle and Washington Tavern Red. She is also selling a relaxing rural retreat, or "entertainment farming."

Once a month, she holds a "wine and dine" in which people take a hayride to the woods and feast on a gourmet meal with matching wines.

 
  Windgate Winery makes about 6,000 gallons of wine annually. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

She also holds dinner theaters and wedding receptions in the 1880s barn. Klay has all sorts of ideas swirling around head - maybe a wedding ceremony in the vineyards. Or a corn maze that lets people find their way out of fields cut into patterns. She hopes to make her winery a destination, and eventually a profitable one.

"You can buy a bottle of wine in the state store," she said. "You can't buy this romance."

If Klay is an entrepreneur selling a soothing experience away from the madding crowds, Paterini offers down-home hospitality.

His tiny winery is behind the fire station and around the corner from the car wash in Ellsworth, Washington County. Unless you were looking for it, you would never find it inside the tan house, originally company housing for Beth Energy, where Paterini once worked.

His clientele include coal miners and other locals, as well as tourists from all over the country, maps in hand. "I am surprised they do find it. Maybe they smell it."

Paterini, who grows half of his own grapes and buys the rest, makes about 1,000 gallons of wine a year. His best seller is Red's Special, which he describes as "old-fashioned Italian-style wine that our forefathers brought over from Italy."

Like any Pennsylvania wine maker, he knows homegrown wines are a tough sell. "I'll tell you, people go more for California wines than local ones. But once I introduce them to Pennsylvania wines, they love em."

Making wine is more fun than crawling around coal mines. "It tastes better than dust," he says. Plus he doesn't let the fall harvest get in the way of going to polka dances on Sundays.

The winemaker, who lives off his pension, is content to stay a tiny speck on the wine landscape. "This just keeps me out of trouble. Just as long as I do enough to stay even or can buy momma [his wife] a new purse, I don't care."



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