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, vinegary, 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
If you like Sauvignon Blanc but sometimes want a wine with a little more body and complexity then you should try Grüner Veltliner. Grüner Veltliner is the signature grape of Austria and has evolved almost entirely as the result of natural hybridization over time in the region. It is a white Vitis vinifera grape also called Grûner Mushateller but is better known by the colloquial name “Grūner”. Grüner Veltliner is a versatile grape that can be made into a wide variety of wines ranging from light and easy-drinking to rich and packed with varietal character. Grüner vines have medium-sized leaves with 5-7 lobes. It’s grape clusters are medium to very large conical clusters of medium density with round or oval greenish-yellow berries. These vines have adapted perfectly to the wet mineral-rich loess and loam soils of the lower vineyard sites near the Danube River. The lots higher up the hill are planted with Riesling. The rocky soils of these sites force the Riesling to struggle to survive but result in a wine that has concentrated flavors and complex taste profile. This farming practice utilizes the attributes of the land and yields the best grapes possible from the prevailing conditions. Although the largest plantings of Grüne Veltliner are in Austria and surrounding countries it has been dispersed throughout many of the wine regions of the world. While most Austrian Grüners are dry, full-bodied and acidic with flavors of citrus fruit, spice, and white pepper you can easily find others that are weightier with a more structured body that requires years to reach maturity in the bottle.
If you haven’t tasted Grüne Veltliner and you’re curious about where to start I would suggest trying a few from Austria first then expand your search to
The United States and Italy to find good Grūner at very reasonable prices. Here are a
South Shore Wine Company Gruner Veltliner 2015
Gruner Veltliner 2018 Photo Courtesy: Fero Vineyards & Winery
few to get you started on your journey.
AUSTRIA: Singing Grūner Veltliner 2017 Niederösterreich, Austria or Domane Krems Grüner Veltliner 2018 Kremstal, Austria
ITALY: Eisacktaler Kellerei Cantina Valle Isarco Grüner Veltliner 2018 Alto Adige, Italy
The United States of America: Grüner Veltliner Fero Vineyards & Winery
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Grûner Veltliner South Shore Wine Company North East, Pennsylvania or Grüner Veltliner Hosmer Winery Ovid, New York (FLX)
Hosmer Estate Winery 2017 Gruner Veltliner
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
Riesling has long been a stalwart for anyone frantically searching a wine list to pick a bottle that would pair well with everyone’s dinner. Riesling is hard to beat when you need a versatile food-friendly wine that can be easily found in styles ranging from sweet to bone-dry. In the past this varietal has labored under the misconception that the lower-quality sweet offerings that filled store shelves was the best this grape had to offer. This
view of Riesling has begun to change as world-class Riesling are being added to restaurant wine lists, websites and store shelves worldwide.
Riesling is a cool climate grape that has excels in rocky soils, like the ones found in the Rhine Valley and Mosel Region of Germany and the Alsace region of Northern France for centuries. Wine makers in the Columbia Valley of Washington, the Willamette Valley of Oregon and the Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York have found great success with their Riesling vineyards. All three regions produce very good Riesling, each with its own special personality that is sure to please any wine lovers palate.
You could make a strong case that Riesling with its many incarnations is the most food-friendly of all wines, either red or white. It is the safe choice when following the rules for white wine by pairing it with seafood, chicken and salads. My favorite twist is to pair a sweet Riesling with spicy Mexican, Chinese or Thai cuisine. The extra sweetness cuts through the heat to give balance to your meal.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Dry: Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2016. (From a legendary FLX winery that received a Robert Parker Wine Advocate 90pt rating)
Off-Dry: Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling (A trendy favorite with a Wine Spectator 89pts)
Sweet: Chateau Ste. Michelle Harvest Select Riesling 2016 (Wine Spectator 87 pts and a bargain at $10.00 or less)
Gene Pierce & Steve DiFrancesco with “The Egg” Courtesy: G.W.
A little while ago I reblogged a post from Glenora Winery on Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes that dealt with their newest acquisition, a concrete fermentation tank A.K.A. “The Egg”. I was curious how things were going with their venture into this rediscovered method of winemaking that has long been used in Europe but is now catching on here. One reason that it took so long for the idea to take hold here was that the only producers of these vessels were in Europe and it was cost prohibitive to ship. Now that there are manufacturers on this side of the pond the idea has more appeal to winemakers because of the more manageable prices making them comparable to oak. Wine Spectator published a short article on concrete fermenters in last months edition or visit my original reblog of January, 2014 “Great Egg-spectations” if you would like to read more about them. I would attempt to summarize what the winemakers at Glenora Winery told me but I wanted to be totally accurate on their experience so I am posting their response as follows verbatim “The project is still in progress, but we anticipate an early July release of the three Pinot Blancs. During fermentation, the wine began to take on personalities of their own. The micro-oxygenation that occurred using the egg and barrels helped to open up and develop flavors from both the fruit as well as the yeast interaction during fermentation. However, the concrete egg contributed no additional flavors to the wine the way the oak did. The stainless steel is very inert, contributing little to the wine. However, dead corners in the stainless steel tank slowed down aging and development of the fruit derived flavors.”
Thank You to the winemaking team at Glenora Winery for your help and I will continue to post updates about the “Egg Wine”.