Winemaker Interview: Jerry Pompa

Pittsburgh born and raised winemaker Jerry Pompa started his wine journey at his childhood home in the close-knit neighborhood of Morningside. After earning multiple degrees including an MS in Comp. Sci. at the University of Pittsburgh Jerry made his home in the Pittsburgh area. While building a successful career and raising a loving and supportive family his passion for winemaking only grew stronger. Jerry’s path to becoming a winemaker is very similar in many respects not only to winemakers here in Western Pennsylvania but around the world. His first exposure to winemaking was when his father brought home a bucket of wine grape juice from a supplier in the “Strip District” of Pittsburgh. Today Jerry returns to that same part of the city to procure his supply of wine grapes with the same goal every year of making the best wine he can possibly make. After thirty years of making wine, countless events, seminars, and shows that saw Jerry become one of the co-founders of the American Wine Society’s Pittsburgh-East Chapter no one can tell Jerry Pompa’s story better than Jerry himself. The following is my interview with him in his own words.

How did you get started making wine?

The short version is that about 30 years ago, my Father who owned a small Italian groceria on Larimer Ave in East Liberty, would go to the Strip (we called it the Yards then) and one of his suppliers gave  him a bucket of juice and told him…” put it in your basement and in the spring it will be wine”…so he gave it to me and said the same. I figured there may be a bit more to it so I did some research, bought a kit (carboy, yeast, hoses, etc) and made my first Cabernet.  Really not knowing anything about it I joined the American Wine Society, entered that first wine in a competition, won a 2nd pace ribbon and was therefore encouraged to continue.
I have made wine since. The first 10 years or so from juice but now from grapes. Again, the rest continues as a long story.

Winemaker Jerry Pompa Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

How would you describe your winemaking style?

Primarily “big” reds are what I make. I have made whites and in fact this year I am making a Rosé (like everyone else) using a saignee method from a red Sangiovese I am making. Other style comments would be dry, tannic, and intended to be good food wines.  Consistency drinkable wine is another goal, maybe not style but each year I am trying to make the best wine possible.

 

 Who and what influenced your style of winemaking?

I suppose a lot of personal taste.  Doing it for so long and visiting so many wineries around the world I have learned a lot and still learning. But all of those experiences have certainly influenced my style. I have a strong Italian heritage, again growing up in an Italian Groceria started by my Grandfather in 1905 (which I worked in from – I claim – before I could stand on my own until the business was sold in 1990) I have been around food and wine all of my life. So again we make wines to go with food. That is the biggest influence.
Other people that have influenced me are Eric Miller, Rick, and Ron Lanza, Ron Casertano, “the Winemaker’s Podcast” and many more.

Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

What are your favorite varietals to work with?

For the past 10 years or so I have a group of very close friends who help out with the winemaking. Together we decide on the varietals for the particular year but generally, my favorite to make are Cabernet blends.  We also make Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Super Tuscans, and others.  Again all “big” reds. But my favorite is Cab because of its ability to show so much fruit, integrate the oak, age well, have a beautiful nose and taste, go well with food, etc.

What are your favorite wines, regions, and producers?

I wish I knew more about French wines but in life, there is only so much time. My focus has been on California, Italy, and Australia for the most part. I enjoy wines from everywhere, red, white, dry, sweet, etc. I really consider it food on its own and have taught my children (now all drinking age 😉 the same.  It is all about how it accompanies a meal.
It is so hard to specifically name producers since I try so many and tend not to just buy from the same.  Windy Oaks from Santa Cruz makes an amazing set of Pinot Noir, Wooden Valley (the Lanza brothers) from whom we recently buy our grapes does a fantastic job with Petite Sirah, Sangio, Cabernet, and really anything they grow. Gregg Hobbs (no relation to Paul in California) from Australia does a fantastic Shiraz.  Domain Huet makes an amazing Chenin Blanc, Antinori wines of any kind from Italy are excellent. Really there is not any one  or two from a producer or region.

 

Do you have any tips for someone just getting into winemaking as a hobby or as a profession?

Wow, now that is a question. Those are 2 very different questions.  As a hobby, I have plenty to say.  As a profession, I would love to do it myself but without the large fortune, I would never be able to make a small fortune.
Actually, I don’t like to say that I make “homemade” wines. Yes, I make wines at home but really people have a preconceived notion that a “homemade” wine will taste “bad, strong, vin
egary, etc” and often they are right. I instead prefer to say I make “Handmade” wines. I am doing exactly what a professional would do except on a smaller scale and I don’t sell it. But the tips are first to buy the best fruit you can afford (actually spend more than what you can afford) since wine is mostly made in the vineyards. Winemakers can stylistically change a few things, enhance some characteristics, but mostly they can either guide the grapes into a very nice wine or screw it up. Most of the work is in cleanliness, sterilization, good process control (e.g. with regards to yeast nutrition, oxygen management, temperatures, bacteria, etc). I have taken many classes (some at Penn State Enology), gone to both amateur and professional conferences, and read many many books to learn the proper process and techniques and am adjusting and learning more every vintage.

Jerry with his “Crew” Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

What wines are you working on now and what are your expectations for them?

Our 2019 wines are an 87% Sangiovese/13% Merlot (and a small experiment Rosé from the same) and an 80% Barbera/20% Primativo (Zinfandel).  The 2018 vintage, still aging, is a Cabernet blend and a Petite Sirah.  Expectations are high otherwise why do it ;-). Seriously so far they are coming along very well.

The interview continues after photos. Please scroll down.

 

Can you share what you’re planning next as a winemaker?

Well, as far as what I plan next as a winemaker is not much different than now. So, for now, because of a very busy day job, I will continue to make wine as an amateur but one day I will work in “the industry”. Not sure if that will be making wine myself and selling it, or working as a winemaker for one of the urban wineries, or working for some company in the wine industry one way or another. This all very much depends on my day-job for now. As an amateur, my next step is to finish the 2019 vintage and start planning for the 2020 vintage.  The plan is to improve in some way each year.

What are some of your most memorable experiences as a winemaker?

Most memorable experiences… I have fond memories of the classes I have taken, the people I have met at conferences, the camaraderie in making wine with my close friends. As far as a single event, although I don’t spend much time competing in wine competitions, I did win best of show twice at a regional conference. If you are not familiar with best of show, they take all of the best wines (first place winners) and then judge them and select one over-all “best of show”.

Photo Courtesy: Jerry Pompa

 

You can follow Jerry on Instagram @jerrypompa

Down in Roccaland

     If you have ever had the good fortune to see your family name on the label of a wine bottle you can understand my interest when I saw mine attached to a premium Napa Valley winery. I started to wonder if there might be some family connection. I contacted Mary Rocca, owner of Rocca Family Vineyards to explore the possibility of us being related. I found Mary to be very kind and welcoming as we exchanged information about our ancestry. I learned a great deal about my own heritage and also about Mary’s. We found some amazing coincidences that would have never been discovered had we not reached out to each out. Mary generously sent a gift of her wine to be shared at my family reunion as an introduction between our families. I would like to say “Thank You” to Mary for all the time and effort she has taken from her busy schedule to assist me in this project. Although we haven’t identified any recent common threads we continue to search. Even if we can’t find any blood relatives uniting our families I will always consider Mary not only a friend but family. Mary has generously offered to discount the wine purchases of all of my readers when they enter either of these codes at checkout on http://roccawines.com  WPASHIP ($1 SHIPPING ON ANY ORDER) or WPA25 ($25 OFF ANY ORDER OF 2 BOTTLES OR MORE) These codes expire on 10/16/19 so don’t miss out on your chance to buy extraordinary wine from an outstanding Napa Valley winery with an insider’s deal.

Anyone that has ever dreamed of owning a vineyard and winery in Napa, California can only imagine the excitement that Mary Rocca and her husband Eric Grigsby felt when they

Mary Rocca at Rocca Family Vineyards Napa, California

decided to pursue that very dream. They began their search for the ideal Napa vineyard in 1996 while Mary juggled her dental practice, Eric his medical practice and not to mention their four young children at home. Their three-year search for the perfect vineyard came to fruition when they found a 21-acre vineyard deep in the heart of the Napa Valley. They renamed it the Grigsby vineyard and planted new rows of vines between the existing ones to essentially double their grape production. This vineyard is located between the warmer climate of the upvalley and the cooler maritime influences of the San Francisco Bay. The Grigsby vineyard is mainly Cabernet Sauvignon but also has 1 acre of Merlot and roughly 2.5 acres of Syrah. In 2000 Mary purchased the 11-acre Collinetta vineyard in the Coombsville appellation. The Collinetta vineyard is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (Clone 4 & Clone 337) but also has an acre of Cabernet Franc and an acre of Petit Verdot. Now with all the pieces in place Mary could focus on making her vision for Rocca Family Vineyards a reality.

     Many decisions had to be made when it came to what pillars the winery and vineyard

The Grigsby Vineyard

would be established on. For many of those choices Mary drew upon the deeply seated beliefs she had built her life and career on. First and foremost, Rocca wines had to be the best they could possibly be and show not only the most natural expression of the vines but also the environment in which they were grown. With that in mind, the choice to farm both vineyards with organic and sustainable viticulture was the only acceptable path forward. As conscientious stewards of the environment, everyone at

The Collinetta Vineyard

Rocca is acutely aware of the long-lasting and far-reaching effects that pesticides and herbicide can cause in the delicate balance of the ecosystem both locally and globally. The Grigsby and Collinetta vineyards have proven themselves by producing some of Napa Valley’s finest wine grapes and because they are organically farmed are U.S.D.A. organic and C.C.O.F. certified.

     In 1999 Mary hired Celia Welch Masyczek of Scarecrow fame as Rocca’s first winemaker and together they produced a long line of award winning and critically acclaimed wines. In 2008 Paul Colantuoni assumed the role of master winemaker at Rocca wines from Celia. With vineyard manager Sergio Melgoza nurturing the grapes and Paul’s skillful hand now making Rocca Family Vineyards wine the winery has continued on its accending arc vintage after vintage.

     If you would like to know more about the Rocca Family Vineyards story or are interesting in purchasing their wine please visit http://roccawines.com  Don’t forget to use the codes to receive a discount on your wine purchases. WPASHIP for $1 DOLLAR SHIPPING ON ANY ORDER or WPA25 for $25 OFF 2 BOTTLES OR MORE.

     Follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter            

Vineyard Manager Sergio Melgoza, Mary Rocca and Winemaker Paul Colantuoni (left to right)

 

Three Little “Pink” Birds

     To be honest, the reasoning behind making a single vineyard Rosé is completly lost on me. The beauty of making a Rosé is the artistic license winemakers can excercise in the way they meld the distinct characteristics of grapes to create a finely nuanced wine. Blending affords a winemaker the luxury to be able to “paint” their wines with fine strokes of flavor and delicate aromas not possible with a single vineyard Rosé. With the ever increasing popularity of Rosé around the world I understand the pressure producers feel to gain attention for their wine and themselves in a crowded market. 

The first wines ever made were probaly Rosé-type wines. It makes sense that when ancient civilations harvested their grapes they all were combined and crushed to render a mixture of every grape they could get their hands on. Have we really evolved so much over the millennia that we now feel the need to taste the terrior in our Rosé? The fact I am writing this post about single vineyard Rosé proves that it is an effective tool to get your wine noticed. 

Here are a few single vineyard Rosés that you might find interesting if you are curious and want to see for yourself if they have any merit or are just a marketing ploy. 

Single Vineyard 2017 Rose Languedoc Languedoc-Roussillon, France $11 Fruity with flavors of red berries and herbs but on the dry side.

2017 Jules Taylor OTQ Single Vineyard Rose Pinot Noir Branken Hill Vineyard Marlborough, Australia 92pts James Suckling 90pts Wine Advocate $20 Loads of raspberries and cherry flavors on fine tannins lead to a dry finish.

Aluvion 2017 Malbec Rose Single Vineyard $30 Medium-bodied with balanced ripe red fruit flavors and lively acidity.

Edge of Tomorrow

I recently visited with Jay Bell owner/winemaker at Bella Terra Vineyards in Hunker, Pennsylvania. Jay is one of the ambitious young winemakers making his mark on the

Wine rack in the Bella Terra Vineyards tastingroom

developing wine scene here in Western PA.

The first thing you notice when you arrive at Bella Terra is the ample parking that is usually in short supply at other wineries. Jay and his team make the comfort and convenience of their guests a priority. The description of the winery’s atmosphere seen the most on social media is “laid back”. Bella Terra took a huge step forward in their comfort factor when they opened the event center in May 2019. With room for nearly 200 people on the covered patio and the large roll-up doors that bring the outside feel into the air-conditioned bar area and meeting room guests can enjoy live entertainment while protected from the elements. Plans are already being made to expand the production area in the rear of the building to meet

growing demand. Jay has taken the first step to realize a life long dream of growing his

Local craft beers are available in the tastingroom

own grapes and is in the process of purchasing property near Bella Terra to plant a twenty acre vineyard.

Here are a couple things to look for the next time you visit the winery. Sweet Finley, Bella Terra’s most popular wine will soon be available in a two serving size can making it easier to transport, open and have a freshly opened wine in your glass. Jay has always been excited to offer his hard cider to customers but now he plans on adding a new twist by blending it with red wine to make a Rosê cider. If you are looking for a venue that is laid back and accessible check out Bella Terra Vineyards online for their hours of operation and event calendar.

http://bellaterravineyards.com         724-653-3658

A large calendar of events and food trucks can be found at Bella Terra Vineyards

New Saperavi Vineyards Take Root

Saperavi is dramatically expanding its footprint in North America as more vintners add vines to their vineyards and long-term plans. Growers are taking advantage of the increase in Saperavi vines on the market as other nurseries join Amberg Grape Vines (formerly Grafted Grapevines) to boost the supply of Saperavi stock. A special thanks to Jim Baker at Chateau Niagara for helping me in my search for American Saperavi producers. If

Saperavi Grapes

you are or know of a Saperavi producer please contact me at wpawinepirate@gmail.com.

The first stop on our quest for new Saperavi vineyards takes us to Fort Defiance in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where Tim Jordan is planting an acre of Saperavi this Spring (2019). Tim is the former head winemaker at Barren Ridge Vineyards and a PhD. of Entomology from Virginia Tech.He is planning to add four acres of hybrids and Saperavi to the existing six acres of vinifera in his family’s vineyard. He intends is to implement as many organic and biodynamic viticulture practices as possible in his new vineyard. He has partnered with his brother, Ben Jordan who is the head wine maker at Early Mountain Vineyards. They are bonded but not producing on site yet as they are “bootstrapping” the winery as they go. So goes the “Glamorous Life” of wine making without the deep pockets of corporate investors. Isn’t this what it is all about? Having a dream of getting to make all the decisions while charting your own course even if it is uncertain at times. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your dreams become reality. Although their stories are unique this is a shared truth for all wine makers. Tim’s 2016 block varietals are Chardonnay, Riesling, Petit Manseng, Blaufrankish, Cabernet Franc and Noiret. His 2019 plantings will be Chardonel, Regent, Chambourcin and Saperavi. Follow Tim on Instagram @valley.vines

Justin Falco is the winemaker/proprietor of Montifalco Vineyard in Ruckersville, Va and one of the ambitious growers that will be planting a Saperavi vineyard this Spring. Justin has always loved the wines of Eastern Europe, France and Switzerland. Because of all the friends and family he has abroad he wanted his winery to reflect his memories of the wine and culture there.  It is little surprise that he will be adding 2000 Saperavi vines to his Central Virginia vineyard that already boasts plantings of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Rkatsitelli.    http://montifalcovneyard.com Instagram @montifalcovineyard

I have followed the Saperavi vineyard that Dr. Rik Obiso planted three years ago at White Barrel in Christiansburg with great interest. This Fall will be the first harvest for those

Vineyards at WhiteBarrel Photo Courtesy: WhiteBarrel Winery

vines and will set the benchmark for what we can expect from Virginia Saperavi. Rik is involved with several research projects that will further the understanding of how “Old World” Saperavi can be best used in Virginia.   http://whitebarrel.com Instagram @whitebarrel

42º North latitude is ground zero for Saperavi in North America. That is exactly where the Saperavi vines of Shalestone Vineyards in Lodi, NY call home. Shalestone is on the east side of Seneca Lake in the “Banana Belt” and has a memorable tag line “RED IS

Photo Courtesy: Shalestone Vineyards

ALL WE DO”. They prove that statement to be true with the makeup of their vineyard. Rob and Kate Thomas have 6.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Lemberger, Pinot Noir. Their 400 Saperavi vines occupy a 1/2 acre plot within the vineyard.  http://shalestonevineyards.com

     Jeff Sawyer is following his passion for wine making in Sterling Valley, NY. He is well on his way to seeing his vision become reality with the establishment of Wellspring Vineyards. He planted 275 Saperavi vines in 2016, less than he wanted to because his original order for 600 plants couldn’t be fulfilled because of a shortage of vines. The following year brought a change of direction with Jeff planting 300 Dornfelder and 250 Gewurztraminer. Wellspring Vineyards now has 1900 vines comprised of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grurztraminer, Dornfelder and Saperavi growing on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario. With the first part of his plan in place Jeff is moving forward with his goal of starting a winery. He said in four or five years they will be known as Wellspring Winery. The proposed site is the perfect setting for a winery/tasting room and will have a great view for his guests. Jeff can be reached at   jsawyerstudios@aol.com

 

Rockin’ Down the Highway

     Just off Exit 146 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the foot of the Allegheny mountains lays the little town of Bedford. Nothing along the quaint business district in the center of town would give you any clue that something extraordinary is happening at 107 E. Pitt Street. That is the address of the tasting room for Briar Valley Vineyard & Winery, one of the best wineries in Pennsylvania. You might think that’s only my opinion of their classic European-style vinifera wines but I have a second opinion from someone with creditability greater than my own, Mr. James Suckling! Yes, you heard right, that James Suckling the world-famous wine critic.

     At a recent tasting of more than 800 non-West Coast wines Mr. Suckling gave Briar Valley Chardonnay 2016

Briar Valley Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay 2016

a score of 92 points calling it “Concentrated and fresh, this is an elegant cool-climate Chardonnay with bright lemon and herbal notes. Very long mineral finish.” Quite a coup for Tod & Jean Manspeaker owners/wine makers at B.V. Mr. Suckling went on to award B.V. Lemberger 2016 an 89 point score and B.V. Cabernet Franc 2016 87 points. These two Reds are among my favorite Pennsylvania wines. It is easy to see why Tod & Jean have recently expanded their winery with a new production facility because when you make wine this good you will need extra capacity.

You can find these wines and all the other quality wines that Briar Valley offers at their tasting room in Bedford, Pa, online at http://briarvalleywinery.com or at many fine dining restaurants around the state.

Turn the Page

Tom and Marti Macinski Photo Courtesy: Standing Stone Vineyards

     As I read an interview with Oskar Bynke, co-owner of Herman J. Wiemer Vineyard where he revealed the vision he and co-owner/winemaker Fred Merwarth had for their newly acquired Standing Stone Winery and Vineyards I had to accept the fact that change is inevitable even in wine country. The release of the 2017 vintages from Standing Stone Winery marks the first time since 1991 that Tom and Marti Macinski were not the owners of this iconic FLX property.

In the 1970’s this former Gold Seal Winery vineyard was planted with Riesling and Chardonnay by the legendary Gold Seal wine makers Charles Founier and Guy Devaux. Standing Stone Chardonnay and Riesling have always been highly acclaimed but it wasn’t those world-class whites that lead to my friendship with Marti, it was the dark red Russian wine grape Saperavi. Had it not been for the time Marti took from her busy schedule to answer my questions and keep me updated on her Saperavi program I would have never pursued my interest in Saperavi or have made as many friends around the world who also share my love of this extraordinary wine.

Thank you Marti and Tom for your devotion to making the best wine from the best grapes you could grow on the land you truly love. Please know that like the wake from a sailboat (that you now have time to enjoy) the ripples of your life’s work will be felt far beyond the shores of your beloved Seneca Lake.