BERNVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Tom Calvaresi, founder of Berks County's oldest winery, knows it's tough to elbow his way into the glasses of a drinking public more attuned to Napa Valley pinot noirs and French Burgundies.
But those unwilling to try something new are missing out, he said.
Berks County is at the same latitude as northern Italy and parts of Germany and Austria, he said, all known for their wines.
So it may only be a matter of time until Pennsylvania claims a spot in the psyche of wine drinkers.
And that day is coming, say winemakers and growers such as Calvaresi.
Calvaresi of Penn Township, and Clover Hill of Breinigsville, Lehigh County, with a vineyard near Robesonia, won four medals each in the 2013 Pennsylvania Wine Competition.
Calvaresi's 2011 Niagara, a sweet wine, was named Best White and earned a double gold medal. Calvaresi also won a gold for its 2011 baco noir, a medium-bodied red, and a bronze for a 2011 riesling.
Clover Hill's NV (non-vintage) Niagara and NV Turtle Rock Red each won a gold. The winemaker also took a silver for its 2009 cabernet sauvignon and a bronze for a spiced apple wine.
The awards for the Niagaras are not surprising, said Denise Gardner, a Reading native who is an enologist for the Penn State Extension service.
"Most people associate Pennsylvania wines with the Concord and Niagara (grapes)," she said. "They are very grapey, great for people just getting into wine."
These grapes, she said, are native to the area and are the varieties grown by people's grandparents. But the region's vintners and winemakers are expanding to include other, drier varieties — chardonnay, pinot noir, chamboursin, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
Riesling, a semisweet white wine with a German heritage, also does well in the region.
"In Berks County there is a push for European varieties," Gardner said.
Clover Hill, which produces about 80,000 gallons of wine a year, tries to meet that demand. It has 100 acres of vines split among six vineyards, and grows a variety of grapes, including chamboursin, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and riesling, said Kari Skrip, Clover Hill co-owner, along with brother John.
The chamboursin, the main ingredient in their award-winning Turtle Rock red, and riesling are their favorites.
"It (chamboursin) grows very well in our climate and produces quite nice yields," Skrip said after returning from a day pruning vines at their Heidelberg Township vineyard.
They also grow riesling.
"Just like New York, we're a little bit cooler than California, and riesling tends to grow more acidity in cooler climates. You get big flavors."
Wine is a small part of Pennsylvania's economy, but one that is growing.
Based on a study by the Pennsylvania Winery Association, in 2009 there were some 14,000 acres of grape vines in the state, including juice grapes, being managed by 230 growers.
Since 2000 the number of wineries more than doubled, from 64 to 166.
"It's continuing to grow, and the wineries that are established are continuing to increase production level," said Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the association.
Winemaking contributes about $2.35 billion to the state's economy; employs some 10,500 workers earning $472 million; and attracts nearly 1 million visitors to the state, according to the study prepared for the association by MFK Research.
Rising interest in wine and local products has helped increase sales and production, Eckinger said. But rising quality has helped, too. The association launched the Pennsylvania Wine Quality Initiative a few years ago, a program that provides education and training to vintners and growers.
"It helps wineries by offering more training to address problems and fix them," she said.
Kari Skrip and Calvaresi agree. They are benefiting from consumer interest in locally produced products, and the maturing of their industry. Skrip says it all comes down to finding the right grapes to grow in the right climate.
"Pennsylvania was initially known for the sweet wines and people got the perception that that was all there was," she said. "But that is improving."
Made in America
Calvaresi produces German-style whites, chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, baco noir and sweet wines, such as Niagara.
Pennsylvania may be known for the sweet stuff, and there's nothing wrong with that, Calvaresi said, but it's his cabernet sauvignon that is served as the house wine at chef Emeril Lagasse's Chop House at the Sands in Bethlehem.
Calvaresi's daughter-in-law was invited to cook with the nationally known chef on his television show more than a year ago and she took him a bottle as a gift.
Next thing they knew — Bam! — it was on the menu.
Calvaresi doesn't grow the grapes; he buys them from mostly Pennsylvania vineyards. His cabernet sauvignon comes from Erie County.
"They're picked in the morning and pressed here the same day," he said.
When ready, the juice goes into "medium toast" oak barrels that give the wine a toasty, spicy character.
The barrels are made from American oak at a cooperage in Ohio.
"I like made in America," Calvaresi said.
Calvaresi learned winemaking from his grandfather, Alessandro "Jumbo" Calvaresi, who ran two food markets in Reading for 75 years - one at Tulpehocken and West Greenwich streets and another at 12th and Windsor.
Jumbo made wine in the basement of the store on Tulpehocken and 5-year-old Tom helped.
"Growing up in an Italian family, there was always wine," he said.
Twenty-five years later, Calvaresi left the automotive industry and started his own winery.
"I just wanted to go into business for myself," he said.
Since then, he's branched into other niche industries. His wife started Calvaresi Coffee and Tea at the Reading Fairgrounds Market a decade ago. Five years after that the couple started raising dogs — vizslas, natives of Hungary, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks.
Kari and John Skrip learned the wine business from their parents, John and Pat Skrip. John, who owned a construction company, started the vineyard as a hobby in 1975. Ten years later he sold the construction company and opened Clover Hill. He took vitology courses at Penn State, and visited vineyards in the Finger Lakes of New York, and California.
Kari studied viticulture in Australia and her brother studied winemaking in California.
Since they started, Clover Hill has gone from 1,000 gallons to 80,000 a year, making it the second-largest producer in the state, next to Chadds Ford.
"We've been fortunate," she said. "A lot of farms are going under, but grapes are, if done right, a farming business where you can make a living."
Information from: Reading Eagle, http://www.readingeagle.com/