Drink the Cheddar
The first wine bar to exclusively feature wine from Pennsylvania is about to open in a few days. This is a significant moment for local viticulture: PA wineries have never been accorded this level of economic support and visibility in a major city. It would not be overstating that this is a historic first for our local wine industry. And it has been met with a limp silence from the media.
Why the silence? Because it’s common knowledge that Pennsylvania wines suck. They are sweet or taste awful. Or both. Local wineries are held to ridicule, and no one with aspirations of refinement and culture would ever speak well of a local winery. How do we know this? Because everyone says so!
So, Terry McNally opens the Paris Wine Bar (2303 Fairmount Avenue) without much fanfare. McNally is the owner of London Grill next door to the new wine bar. She is one of the first Philly restaurateurs to embrace the “Farm to Table” ethos, long before it was trendy.
The idea that Pennsylvania cannot produce good wine is bullshit, to be frank. The region has similar weather patterns (Köppen climate classification Cfa) as the Piedmonte in Italy. That, along with the long band of limestone soil that runs through the Brandywine valley, you have the foundation of high-quality viticulture. Add to that a decent amount of air flow, a few hills of degraded friable schist, or even a sandy valley, and you have the makings of top-shelf wines. Just make sure the vines have southwestern exposure, and that’s terroir in a nutshell.
What’s keeping local winemaker’s back? It’s all about the cheddar, baby. Unlike other east coast wine regions like Virginia, the state doesn’t invest much in the state’s wineries. Tellingly, Pennsylvania offers a wealthy of grant opportunities to farms, except for one’s growing wine grapes. This keeps funding for research and development of the PA wine industry continuing at a snails pace.
The other reason is you. And by “you” I mean in aggregate, the millions of wine buyers in the region. You buy Chardonnay and Merlot and rarely anything else. If you do buy a local wine, it is going to be a sweet one. For a local winemaker, this sucks. The grapes that work well here are not the ones people will buy.
There is a legend in the local wine trade about a hotshot young winemaker who came here from California and crafted what was probably the best wine ever to be made in Pennsylvania. Every sommelier and winemaker who tasted it agreed it was going to change the face of winemaking in the state. It was amazing. It was shipped to the wine stores, but no one would try it. Very few people were willing to give a Cabernet Franc from Pennsylvania a chance. Only a few hundred cases were sold. It was a total failure, and the end of the poor bastard’s career.
SO, until the cheddar start to flow, the PA wine industry will continue to tread water. Until then, amazing wines made from grapes like Bonarda, Barbera, Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc will remain theoretical. That is why a wine bar in Philadelphia means so much, it may mean the beginning of a new era for local winemakers. It very well could change how you perceive our local wineries.
It’s not just about drinking well. A recent report from Virginia showed that the local wine industry added $747 Million to the state’s economy every year. Most of that from a grape that few people have heard of: viognier. Drinking local brings in the cheddar, baby.