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Terroir of Contrasts -- The Lehigh Valley

Posted By Roger Morris , Sunday, July 16, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Pennsylvanias Lehigh Valley, which over time the Lehigh River has carved through the states eastern mountain range and its broad lowlands, is a study in contrasts.  So are its wines.

The upper Lehigh is a land of heavily forested canyons which gradually yield to rich, broad bottomlands and rolling hills before it joins the Delaware River at Easton on Pennsylvanias border with New Jersey.  Through the centuries, the valley has welcomed waves of immigrants who have hunted its forests, tilled its rich soils and worked in its factories and steel mills that once populated Bethlehem and Allentown.



In more recent years, residents of the valley have also made wines in great variety from both mountainside and valley floor vineyards that are planted in vinifera, French-American hybrid and labrusca varieties, which yield dry, sweet and sparkling cuvées. Most wineries offer the general store approach something for every taste though a few are boutiques.

Although wineries have existed here since the 1970s, the Lehigh Valley AVA was not established until May 2008.  It includes portions of six counties Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Schuylkill, Carbon and Monroe. The area includes vineyards around towns from Jim Thorpe to  Easton, as well as parts of the Schuylkill Valley and the Brodhead Creek watersheds. The region provides a cool but humid continental climate and is located in hardiness zones 6b and 6a.


The first wine grapes were pioneered in the 1970s by Vynecrest, Clover Hill and Franklin Hill, followed by their wineries. Today, there are nine producers that are part of the Lehigh Valley Wine Trail.  Latest production figures indicate that there are about 230 acres being farmed, most of them belonging to wine producers and a few independent growers.  Forty of those acres are in Chambourcin, the favorite red hybrid grape for East Coast winemakers and the only varietal wine that everyone on the trail produces.


When Brad Knapp graduated with a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in the 1980s, he was looking for employment in an area that produced wines.  My choices were IBM in Poughkeepsie and Air Products in Allentown, he says, so I started work with Air Products. By 1990, Knapp had purchased a vineyard site near Kutztown, got his winery license in 1993 and started selling his Pinnacle Ridge wines in 1995.  Twenty-plus years later, he continues to be excited about his choice of venues, tending three acres of his own grapes and another 22 that are sourced from growers.  But he sees changes coming. 


 Our region is following the growth path of others, Knapp says.  As weve become successful, outside investors with money and ideas have begun to move in. Indeed, Folino Estates, owned by a local family successful in the restaurant and construction businesses, has recently opened a modern winery and restaurant less than a mile from Pinnacle Ridge.


Galen and Sarah Troxell were also both doing corporate work when they decided in 1995 to plant grapes on his folks dairy farm in the valleys rolling hills near Andreas and which had been in the family for six generations.  Sarah, then in the pharmaceuticals business, cashed in her 401k savings plan so they could buy tanks to make wine.  We decided to invest in ourselves rather than the stock market, Sarah, who is the winemaker, says with a wit that is as crisp as some of her German-style wines.


The wine business is growing locally, but it is a slow growth, she says. Many people think about visiting wineries as a form of entertainment, but at Galen Glen were more about the farming, more of a European model. Indeed, as in many other areas of the country, most Lehigh Valley wineries supplement their wine sales with concerts and all-family events, as well as a venue for weddings and corporate retreats.




Although practically every vinifera varietal imaginable is grown in the Lehigh Valley, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and various German and Austrian white varieties seem to be the ones best suited for making the best wines.  Although most winemakers and winery owners profess to prefer vinifera wines, they usually plant one or two other species of grapes to satisfy two primary needs French-American hybrids, which are more disease-resistant and winter hardy, and native American or labrusca vines to meet the sweet-tooth demands of local customers. In addition to Chambourcin for making hybrid reds, Vidal is popular for making hybrid whites and for blending. Knapp calls Vidal his most reliable variety to grow.


We have always known what California is just learning, Knapp says, and that is that a lot of people like sweet wines, although many deny it. Nevertheless, some of us are getting drier in our winemaking, Knapp says.  Weve dropped our Concord and Niagara varieties.


Troxell reflects that position.  Galen Glen makes mainly dry, European-style wines, she says, And we grow all our own grapes, except for Concord and Niagara, which we purchase from Lake Erie.  Vineyards along Lake Eries Pennsylvania and New York shores have long been known for their labrusca plantings, which are used both as wine grapes and grapes for juices and jellies.  Additionally, state wineries may purchase grapes from out of state or even out of country.  However, the Lehigh Valley appellation claims that 85 per cent of its grapes are grown within that AVA.


Several wineries also producing sparkling wines, and many believe there is an untapped potential here for making bubblies.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grow well in the valley, but they also can produce the low sugars and alcohol that are desirable in making the best sparkling wines.  Additionally, a few wineries also produce wines from fruits other than grapes.


Traditionally, Pennsylvania wineries have sold most of their wines in their tasting rooms. While that is still the case, outside sales are increasing.  Pennsylvania is infamous for running its own state-controlled wine and liquor stores, and, while some Lehigh Valley producers do sell in state outlets, the commission Pennsylvania charges, and its often lackadaisical promotional attitude, scares away most small producers. 


For the past two decades, Pennsylvania wineries have operated an Option C having a small, limited numbers of outlets at local or regional locations.  We have two [remote] store locations, including Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, says Kat Collins, manager of the 40,000-gallon Blue Mountain Vineyard in New Tripoli. Additionally, we ship all over the U.S., Collins says. This Option D (shipping) was opened up by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling concerning interstate commerce.

Option E might turn out to be the most lucrative. In 2016, in response to repeated consumer campaigns to junk the state stores systems, Pennsylvania allowed qualified grocery stores and supermarkets to stock wines, selling up to four bottles at each checkout. A high-end regional supermarket chain Wegmans has been especially encouraging in providing an opportunity for Lehigh Valley wineries to offer their produce to the stores clientele.




Finally, there is the matter of price.  Although many wineries in southeastern Pennsylvania and in other Mid-Atlantic states have found success in limited-production, high-quality wines that sell in the $25-$50 range, Lehigh Valley wineries have felt constrained to test those markets.  Knapp sees $20 a bottle as scraping the upper limits, although a regional wine that he produced with two other wineries has sold moderately well at $30 a bottle. Of course, its hard to turn a profit and to save additional funds to invest in vineyard land, low yields and sophisticated winery equipment while selling wines in the $10-$20 range.


But, in the end, Lehigh Valley wineries have survived for a third of a century, their products are improving and a second generation of wineries many with good funding and with wine-school-trained winemakers is emerging. Indeed, the failure rate of the valleys wineries has been considerably lower than that of Napa Valley.


The future question is whether Lehigh Valley wineries will move up to the next level of quality that will be necessary to compete at higher price levels, and whether that step up will be led by the wineries themselves or driven by demand of increasingly sophisticated customers.


A version of this piece was published in the Summer, 2017 edition of the American Wine Society Journal.


About the Author     

Roger Morris is a Pennsylvania-based writer who contributes article to several publications, including Wine Enthusiast, Town & Country, The Drinks Business, Beverage Media and TheDailyMeal.com. Roger can be reached at londonbritain@msn.com.

Tags:  Lehigh Valley  Pennsylvania Wines  wines 

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