Best in Show

tolino-vineyards

Tolino Vineyards Facebook page

It’s rare that a week passes when we’re not discussing some aspect of the Pennsylvania wine industry, whether it’s a debate amongst ourselves or tuning into a broader conversation like Craig LaBan’s recent online Philly.com chat with PA and New Jersey producers and wine-trade types.

There’s no doubt that high quality wine is emerging from our state, whether it’s from Blair Vineyards, Penns Woods, Fero or others.

The perennial questions we never tire of, though – because it remains a clear barrier to widespread consumer adoption of PA wines – are those of price and brand awareness. During LaBan’s session, a few individuals acknowledged these challenges in one way or the other. Anthony Vietri, of Va La in Chester County, admitted his low-yield wines appeal to a highly select audience. “Small production is not for everyone,” he said.

Jill Weber of Philly’s Jet Wine Bar took it even further. “Price has really been the biggest hurdle for selling local-by-the-glass,” she admitted. “Once people taste it, they’ll order a glass but they immediately balk if the price is the same as, say, French or California wine.”

Such conundrums played out for Mike and me as we took advantage of the opportunity to sample a few award-winning wines from the Pennsylvania Farm Show in December. Following is our exchange as we sampled the three Best of Show wines:

  • Tolino Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2010 (Best of Show Dry Grape; Best Vinifera; Double Gold)
  • Winfield Winery Blackberry Table Wine (Best of Show Fruit; Double Gold)
  • Seven Mountains Wine Cellars Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2012 (Best of Show Dessert; Double Gold)

Jeff: Let’s start with the Tolino from Bangor. This one crept up on me. Nice fruit. Dark fruit. Sort of floral and masculine at the same time, though it’s lighter bodied. Big time acidity. 13.5% and/but I get no alcohol burn. I get flavors of tea, blackberry, maybe coffee. It’s vegetal but only slightly, good intensity. There’s some complexity there, and a lengthy finish. Needs decanting – probably an hour.

Mike: I was shocked by this wine. Very well made, and not even a hint of that under-ripe, pyrazine-like flavor we’ve come to describe as “Pennsylvania,” which is almost always there, even in the best local examples. I drank this with my family and nobody guessed it was local. My mom actually thought Portugal – which I think was just her being snarky – but was actually not bad, considering the floral notes, plummy flavor and relatively heavy use of oak.

Maybe this is because I decanted it (for about an hour) at your suggestion, but I would never call this light-bodied or highly acidic. No, there wasn’t an alcohol burn, but the oak gives it a velvety mouth feel, making it seem like a full-bodied luxury wine. Personally, I thought the oak may have been a bit overdone, as the caramel and vanilla flavors overpowered the fruit, but in PA that’s a minor complaint.

Jeff: But here we go: $25 for a PA red? This is the big stumbling block for our producers. It just doesn’t make me reach for the wallet. But are we off base? We can’t see these wineries’ books but apparently there are those who are compelled to buy. Maybe these are folks who are weekend drinkers and aren’t necessarily on the lookout for that next Chateauneuf du Pape bargain.

Mike: Though I of course agree this is an ongoing issue for PA, for me this wine is less overpriced than most in the region. I’ve tasted PA wines at $20-something that I wouldn’t pay $10 for. This at least feels like a premium wine. Comparing it globally of course, it’s still an issue. As you pointed out in a tweet a few weeks ago, the most exciting range for value right now in wine is $15-25, so if you’re going to go above that, you’d better have something special. Though this wine is nice, when I compare it to others like the Cartesius Emporda at $22, or the Tasca D’Almerita Cygnus at $20, it’s hard to justify the cost.

Shall we try the Winfield?

Jeff: OK, this is described as blackberry table wine. A first for me. The nose is medicine-sweet and it appears to have a light carbonation going on. Time to taste.

Hmm. It’s less over-the-top sweet than I expected. It’s pretty darn close to straight blackberry juice – some residual sweetness balanced by a shot of tart and a long finish. I’m not seeing alcohol content on the label but I’m guessing it’s very low. I don’t drink fruit wines, it’s not my thing, but there’s nothing here that turns me off – though I couldn’t drink much of it. I’d recommend it to someone who is looking for a short glass of sweet wine with their double chocolate cake.

Mike: Our household reaction pretty much said it all: “Ooooh, Wild Raspberry White Mountain Cooler! Can we put on some 80’s music?”

Finally, the Seven Mountains ice.

Mike: It was solid. Typical ice wine flavor, good acidity. Not to beat a dead horse here, but for me the issue with ice wine is the price (which is an issue for every ice wine region, not just PA). I like it, but not really any better than a late harvest Riesling or other sweet wine, so it’s rarely worth the premium cost. But for cultists, this seemed like a nice one.

Jeff: I liked it as well. At 11.5% alcohol, you can expect a jolt of sugar – and it is sweet – but it’s better described as concentrated and short of cloying. It has that distinct Vidal profile – honey, apricot, Welch’s white grape juice flavors. The finish is ridiculously long. On the price: Ice wine will always be high, especially when the grapes are frozen naturally on the vine like this one (as opposed to clinically frozen). Low yield, specialty appeal. At $40, not really overpriced in the ice space. If you’re buying, I’m drinking.

The bottom line is there’s no correct answer to the price question. That could change as the climate warms and we see land grabs by a few producers that emerge as big players. That would deliver scale. But we’re likely years away from that scenario.

Mike: I don’t mind paying an extra few bucks every once in a while to support a local winery, especially if that money will help build the industry over time. But with the amount of wine we buy and drink, it’s hard to justify on an everyday basis. So I guess the question is whether some of us buying the occasional bottle is enough.

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It’s an ongoing, valid debate and hopefully it spurs some input from our readers. In the meantime, our best advice would be to find a local wine bar that serves in-state wines by the glass. Jet Wine Bar and Paris Wine Bar in Philly, for instance. It’s a more affordable approach, it supports the worthy efforts happening around us and it may be the gateway to a bottle purchase.

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