Till We Meet Again

Isabella Grapes Photo Courtesy: Double-A Vineyards

In my last post, I explored the idea that you didn’t need to try wine from far away places to experience something new. There are plenty of grape varieties that were commonly found on kitchen tables and being made into everyday wines have fallen out of favor for a myriad of reasons can provide an interesting distraction from the predictable narrative of today’s offerings.

Isabella is a Vitis labrusca grape that was once prized for it’s ability to produce fruit that was marketable as table grapes, juice, and grapes for winemaking. Isabella is a large round grape with dark purple skin and a green-yellow flesh that is easily separated from its skin.

In many European countries, Isabella is still banned from being grown and it is illegal to make wine from its grapes. The importation of Isabella vines from North America was widely blamed for the phylloxera plague that ravaged vineyards across Europe in the mid-1800s. Despite it being outlawed in many European countries Isabella can still be found in vineyards and being made into various styles of wine, especially in Italy where the sweet dessert wine Fragolino is very popular. Isabella’s reputation as a desperado has necessitated it being known by more than fifty aliases. Those names range from Alexander and Fragola to Moschostaphylo and Kerkyraios but no matter what name you have known Isabella by it always displays that trademark “foxy” flavor that Vitis labrusca grapes are known for.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Today’s forecast for Western Pennsylvania was for sunshine and

Smoke from West Coast wildfires hazes Western Pennsylvania skies.

mild temperatures. The prospect of an extended period of sunshine and mild weather after a summer that set record high temps and a moderate drought was a welcome prospect. When I was outside doing some work around the house I suddenly noticed that while the temperature was in the ’70s the sky was not blue even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Later, a meteorologist on the local news gave me the explanation for the gray overcast conditions that had overspread the region. The reason was smoke from the wildfires on the West Coast. He said the smoke had risen and was swept eastward to the point that it was passing over the area at 30,000 feet. At that altitude, it didn’t affect our air quality but did filter out some sunlight leading to lower temperatures at the surface.

The smoke from the fires proved to be a curiosity for me but for the wine industry on the West Coast, it is presenting the possibility of being a disaster. The vineyards and wineries not directly impacted by the flames are subject to having their unharvested grapes damaged by “Smoke Taint”. Smoke taint is when grapes are exposed to smoke in the vineyard. Smoke in the vineyard doesn’t necessarily mean that the grapes will be damaged by contact with it. The grapes aren’t harmed by smokey soot settling on them but are injured because the smoke can be absorbed through their skin and goes directly into the grape’s sugars. It then gives the glycosides a smokey aroma, think what your clothes and hair smell like after you stood too close to a campfire. With that is in mind, growers aren’t finding much smoke damage from the wildfires, in fact, many are hopeful that any harm will be manageable. With the testing labs experiencing substantial backlogs of grapes for testing a definitive answer to the extent of the problem remains unknown. We will have to wait for the final judgment on the wine quality from the 2020 vintage in the affected regions.  

Dancing the Zweigelt Waltz

When a vintner is considering adding a new variety of wine grape to their vineyard the thought process involved in choosing which vines they eventually plant can be very tedious and time-consuming. The most important consideration when making that decision is the vine’s compatibility with their growing conditions but it’s not the only factor to study when making a selection. Of all the other variables probably the most important influence on a winemaker’s decision to grow a particular grape is their belief they can make a premium wine from it. Winemakers often begin their search for that “perfect” match in wine regions around the world that are similar to their own and are producing quality wines from the grape under consideration so they can use them as a guide.

Zweigelt (pronounced TSVYE-gelt) is beginning to attract attention from growers in the northeastern United States and a few Canadian vineyards in British Columbia and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Zweigelt is a cool-climate Austrian hybrid red grape developed in 1922 by the hybridization of two Austrian grapes, Blaufrankisch (Lemberger) and St. Laurent. Zweigelt is the most extensively planted red wine grape in Austria. It is a very fertile grape that requires intensive leaf control and yield regulation because of its prolific yields. Zweigelt is a good choice for growers as an insurance grape because it’s bud break is later in the spring than many other varieties when the danger of a killing frost has passed and it ripens mid-season before most of the bad weather that damages the crop later in the harvest. These are some of the reasons why the acreage of this red grape has increased substantially in Austria between 1999-2015 but has now stabilized in recent years. Zweigelt displays characteristics from both of its parents. Blaufrankisch makes a bigger, bolder and deeper wine while St. Laurent is described as being fresh, agile, and akin to a Pinot Noir but with more muscle. Zweigelt is generally made into a dry, medium/light-bodied wine with low tannins and medium/high acidity but can also be made in a sweet style or ice wine. In the glass, it has a violet/reddish color and flavors of red cherry, raspberry, black pepper, and chocolate with a spicy floral aroma.

Zweigelt is a fresh light wine that pairs well with a wide range of food, making it a great picnic wine. It is common to find Zweigelt as a varietal but it is also widely used in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to yield an Austrian spin on the classic Bordeaux blend. It is frequently blended with Blaufrankisch to double down on its Austrian lineage.

The great thing about wine is that there are so many completely different wines to explore. With that in mind, I suggest when judging a new wine grape don’t base your impression on a single bottle because with these unusual wines every winemaker has their own vision for the wine. It is a good idea to try as many samples as possible before forming your opinion. If you would like to taste an American Zweigelt consider trying one made in the Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York by Rob and Kate Thomas at their Shalestone Vineyards. http://shalestonevineyards.com

My Article in Michigan Uncorked

I would like to invite you to view my article about Saperavi in the Spring 2020 issue of Michigan Uncorked. An online version of the magazine can be accessed by going to http://michiganuncorked.com and clicking on the Spring issue link on the home page to read the free flip-page edition (I’m on page 6 + 7) or use this link to go directly to the front cover of the magazine http://online.fliphtml5.com/hllky/gjob/#=6This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Spring 2020 issue of the American Wine Society Wine Journal.

Thanks to Michigan Uncorked’s Editor-in-Chief Jim Rink for the opportunity to share my story with the readers of Michigan Uncorked. I hope you enjoy the article and it provides you a bit of relief from the uncertainty and stressful times we are experiencing. Be prudent and stay safe! 

 

 

 

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

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

The Pirate & The Pearl

I didn’t know of any Petite Pearl being grown or made in Pennsylvania so when I had

The tasting room at Greendance Winery Photo Courtesy: Greendancewinery.com

the opportunity to do a barrel tasting of a Petite Pearl wine that was grown and made just a short drive from my home I couldn’t wait to try it. First, a little background on the Petite Pearl wine grape and the winery growing and making it.

Petite Pearl is a relatively new red wine grape hybrid that was recognized by the federal government as a varietal in 2014. It was developed by renowned Minnesota grape breeder Tom Plocher and was introduced to grape growers in 2010. Petite Pearl has many of the traits vintners in the Upper Midwest value, mainly its cold tolerance (-32ºF) and the ability to ripen well in cool conditions. 

I visited Greendance – The Winery at Sand Hill in Mount Pleasant, Pa on a cold day in early March. I met with Rick Lynn, one of the owners of Sand Hill and his fellow winemaker Robert Blosser. Robert has been a winemaker at Greendance since it opened in September 2007. I asked Rick and Robert about the barrel fermenting technique they used to make their Petite Pearl. Rick said they destemmed the grapes and wrestled them into oak barrel then we all laughed when Robert told me of a mishap they had along the way. Even with all the modern technology available wine making will always remain an artful expression of a wine maker’s skill and intuition. They decided to put this barrel on Petite Verdot skins in an attempt to enhance the overall quality of the wine. Petite Verdot has a very thick skin and is very helpful in adding structure to a wine while increasing its acidity and tannin character. The skins used on this Petite Pearl had been used on a batch of Merlot before being added to the barrel and as a result we thought the remnants of the Merlot had rounded and softened the Petite Pearl. The wine I sampled was light-bodied and smooth with low acidity. It’s dark red color may have been lighted by the time it spent on the Petite Verdot skins but it still was a darker cool-climate red. In my opinion when this wine is ready it will be a very enjoyable wine and a solid first effort for Rick and Robert. They are already talking about the things they might try on their next harvest of Petite Pearl. Rick will be expanding his Petite Pearl vineyard this year to ensure he will have more grapes to work with as he hones in on how to coax all the flavors and aromas out of this intriguing new grape. The unrelenting desire to improve their wines with every vintage is the one trait that is a constant in every winemaker I have every met.

That day I got a bonus barrel tasting of Greendance Chardonnay that was made from grapes they sourced from Equivine Vineyard near Coatesville, Pa. Still early in its timeline

Greendance Chardonnay in new oak barrels

this Chardonnay displayed a very promising profile that should produce a good Pennsylvania Chardonnay.

If you are looking to spend an enjoyable afternoon in a picturesque setting consider visiting Greendance – The Winery at Sand Hill. For directions and a list of events go to http://greendancewinery.com

First Cut is the Deepest

When I arrived at the farm on Deer Field Road in Mount Pleasant, PA

Beautiful & productive vines like these are the result of careful pruning. Photo courtesy of Greendance Winery

that Sand Hill Berries and Greendance – The Winery at Sand Hill both call home, the windchill was hovering near O° and a thin layer of snow covered the ground. Rick Lynn had invited me to his vineyard to show me how he uses the VPS (Vertical Shoot Pruning) technique to prune his Marquette vines. Vintners prune their grape vines every year to make them more productive and to control how the vine develops during the growing season. The trimming is done during the winter when the vines are dormant. Pruning is a cold and labor intensive job that is essential to the success of the current year’s crop but is also necessary for the training and development of the vines for the future. Rick demonstrated how last year’s growth is removed and two of the best canes are left to be bent and attached to the trellis wire. The vine shoots that grow from the cane that was tied to the lower trellis wire are then trained to grow upward by having them attach themselves to catch wires above the cordon wire (lowest wire). The vines proceed to grow upward in a vertical curtain with the fruiting zone below the canopy. On the day we were pruning a lot of old growth had to be removed because Marquette vines are known for their vigorous growth. Greendance uses the VSP method on all of their vines except the American varieties (Vitis labrusca).

VSP pruning is the most common pruning method for cool-climate wine grapes but it is by no means the only one. Rick and I discussed some new ideas for managing vines in the field. I found the practice of planting vines very close together, about two feet apart, then pruning every vine back to one cane and tying down that cane to the right one year then doing the same the next year but tying the one cane to the left and continuing to alternate direction every year.

Another intriguing idea is “Wild Tail” pruning. Wild tail pruning leaves all the buds on the lateral cane that is tied to the cordon wire so the end buds develop first and delays the budding of the lower buds to protect them from a late frost. After all danger of frost has pasted you walk the vineyard and clip off all the “Wild Tails” back to the number of buds you want on each lateral. I am extremely curious to see if these methods would be successful in a cool-climate vineyard.

The goal of my visit was two-fold and with the first part completed we now turn our attention to the second part, Greendance’s planting of Petite Pearl. If you haven’t heard of the Petite Pearl wine grape you’re not alone. This hybrid grape from renowned Minnesota grape breeder Tom Plocher is just beginning to take root in Minnesota, Wisconsin and across the Midwest where it’s cold tolerance is greatly appreciated. I will be posting about my barrel tasting of Greendance Petite Pearl soon.

 

Just Saying!!!

Here are a few of my views on recent trends.

I am not a big fan of bottle caps on wine bottles. I have no problem with screw tops or wine in cans but when I see a wine bottle with a cap on top I think back to my childhood and remember bottles of my favorite “Pop” Regent Cherry soda. In Western Pennsylvania carbonated soft drinks, like Coke and Pepsi, were and still are to a certain extent referred to as “Pop”. Maybe it was a shortening of soda pop that led to this regional slang.

Rosé has been riding a steadily ascending arc of popularity over the past several years. I have heard reports that Rosé sales hit their crescendo in the Summer of 2017 and have consolidated over the last 18 months. Although Rosé is thought of as just a summer wine by many it is a category that has proven itself and is here to stay. Traditionally Rosé sales peak during the warm months but year round sales are starting to rise as people realize that this wine pairs well with food in any season.

Orange wine is a curiosity to me because I like to try new things. It has received plenty of attention but I don’t know where it fits into the big picture when it comes to wine in general. We will have to wait and see if it will be taking a place in your wine collection or in the closet next to your Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch Dolls.

My prediction for Chinese wine is that it is too early to tell if all the money China has invested in its domestic wine industry will pay off. There is certainly enough demand for better wine in China now that its middle class is expanding exponentially. In time I believe China will become a major player in the world wine market simply because it has a diverse collection of growing regions, climates, terroirs and affordable labor that can be developed. Will their wines taste like traditional European or New World wines? No, they will taste like those traditional wines made from grapes grown in Chinese soils and expressing a terroir unique to China.

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to sweet wine, French-American hybrid wine and Vitis vinifera wine. Every winemaker that I have visited in Western Pennsylvania is always eager to have me taste their dry wines but are quick to admit that it is the sweet wines that “Keep the lights on”. While it is true the sweeter wines make up the largest segment of wines sold in local wineries it is also true that interest in dry wine is increasing as tastes evolve and wine drinkers look for something new. I have always said that a “Good” wine is one you enjoy drinking. My theory is that many of the people who start going to wineries with friends will enjoy the easy to drink sweet wines and will be content with these wines. Some will become curious and explore the French-American hybrid wines, of which there are many and can be found in both dry and sweet styles. The wines made from French-American hybrid grapes can provide a bridge from sweet wines to Vitis vinifera wines. It is easier for a wine drinker to transition from the sweeter offerings to the drier Vitis vinifera wines by learning to appreciate the differences in wine grapes and the different styles that they can be made into by experiencing these approachable hybrid wines.

I believe wine is at it’s best when enjoyed while making lasting memories with friends and family. If you are doing it right you will always remember the good times and the people but you probably won’t recall what wine you were drinking.  Just Saying!

 

 

Sign of the Times

     In organic viticulture the use of chemicals is strictly controlled by law to the point where almost all the chemicals available to conventional growers are prohibited. Organic growers concentrate on growing healthy vines that are able to withstand pests, disease, fungus, rots and anything else they may encounter in the field while being able to sustain themselves with a robust root system. Conventional growers rely more on chemical solutions for prevention and problem resolution. A balanced ecosystem and healthy soil in the vineyard are essential for organic farming to succeed.

     Biodynamic viticulture takes the idea of growing grapes without the aid of chemical applications a step further. Biodynamic farming looks at a vineyard as an ecosystem unto itself with a system of checks and balances that maintains the system’s equilibrium and prevents any major disruptive events (diseases, insect infestation, animal intrusion, etc.) from affecting the health of the system. Biodynamic farmers incorporate lunar cycles and astrological influences into their decisions. In the U.S.A. wine labeled “organic” is regulated by law. These wines must be made from grapes that are certified to have been organically grown and made without any  sulfites added to them. Wine can be made from “certified organically grown grapes” and have sulfites added to them but the label can’t claim it as “organic wine” but as wine “made from organic grapes”. The difference in wording is subtle but there is a difference in how the wine is produced. Biodynamic wines are also produced from grapes grown in chemical-free biodynamic vineyards but the winemaker is limited to making wine without using any common manipulations, such as adjusting it’s acidity or adding yeasts. As with organic grapes you can find wine made from “biodynamically grown grapes” that have been made using different wine making manipulations but as with the “organically grown grapes” the label will read wine made from “biodynamically grown grapes” but not biodynamic wine. The U.S. Government does not certify biodynamic wine. Biodynamic wine is certified by the independent Demeter Association. Biodynamic and Demeter are trademarks used to assure consumers that the product has been certified to a uniform standard.

     I have had conversations with wine makers and vineyard owners from the Eastern United States that have seen just about everything that can happen in a vineyard first hand. The one point they were all emphatic about was that although it is possible to grow  organic and biodynamic vineyards here it is very difficult. Any grower wanting to pursue this method of viticulture must first be able to withstand the possibility that their harvest may be dramatically reduced in some years and non-existent in others because of factors they won’t be able to control with the tools they allowed to use. 

     The topic of organic vs. conventional farming has been debated with valid points being made and supported on both sides of the discussion. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that any practice that leads to better wine is always welcome. At the end of the day wine making is a business and like any other business you must be profitable to stay in business. It requires a business plan that is flexible and incorporates a vision that can be transformed into a financially viable enterprise in the real world.