Crossing Vineyards dreams a better PA wine

Tom Carroll, Sr., president of Crossing Vineyards and Winery in Bucks County, entered the room with a wink and welcome to all within reach. He wore a Snoopy tie and the skyward demeanor of a man who owns a dream job and knows it. He led me to an empty, echoey room and laid out a couple assertions he repeated during my visit: There’s no snobbery at his winery and the idea for his current career wasn’t his own.

Washington Crossing is a family endeavor. Son Tom, Jr. is winemaker and his mother, Christine, handles the marketing side. Tom, Sr. is overseer, ambassador and resident glad-hander. He recalls the precursors to his – and his family’s – new life, starting with his days as a Wall Street suit and bank developer. Next came the family’s purchase of a 20-acre property in Upper Makefield, with plenty of space for horses. Then, the curious business vision hatched by his 10-year old son. “The third day after we moved in here, he turned to me and his mom at the breakfast table…and he said, ‘Hey guys, wouldn’t this make a great vineyard and winery?’,” Carroll said. “I’m not kidding you.”

Tom Carroll, Sr.

Tom, Jr. moved forward from the moment but not the dream. Years on, after college, he phoned home from Hollywood where he worked as an actor. He wanted to return to Bucks County to plant vines, to “establish his roots,” remembered his dad. The conversation cemented the family’s forward professional path. About three years later, in 2000, the winery was established. The first production came in 2002.

A notion untested flirts with peril but the elder Carroll says doubt and anxiety didn’t cloud the early going. From an agricultural perspective, the family took stock in high marks for their soil. History was favorable too, Carroll noted, as William Penn planted a vineyard in Bucks County, probably the first by a New World settler. The pitfalls were more hierarchical, tied to lack of support in the Commonwealth. “Politically, this was probably the worst place in the world to decide to open a winery,” said Carroll. “But it’s not much better elsewhere.”

Determined to hedge his family’s destiny, Carroll formed the Bucks County Wine Trail, of which he is president and nine of the county’s 10 wineries are members. “We recognized this can really help tourism, it can help the county…” The consortium is driving business, he says, and a glance around Crossing’s crowded space seemingly confirmed it. Carroll followed up by ticking off the states that regularly export visitors his way: California, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Florida, North Carolina and more.

If there is a drag on Crossing and its contemporaries it’s the inertia of opinion. “This is a constant fox hunt because you’re always fighting the perception that Pennsylvania wine can’t be good, and…your whites are good but not your reds,” said Carroll. There’s advantage in low expectations, he emphasized. Nudging non-believers “a quarter of an inch” can win them over. “You can get great wine, good wine, OK wine and crappy wine in any region,” he insisted.

“Let’s go try some,” Carroll said and led me to a tasting area toward the back of the building. We parked at a U-formation of long tables, surrounded by tanks, racks and the pungent, sweet-woody and pleasingly sour smell known by winery faithful. An Irish band assembled their gear in preparation for a St. Paddy’s Day celebration. More and more, people drifted in: Young couples, birthday parties and tour groups.

“You drink (Pennsylvania) wines because they’re smooth, they compliment food, they don’t arm wrestle the food,” Carroll yelled over the music as he motioned for glasses. He also admitted, at 23 offerings, “We make too many wines.” From 20,000 vines on about 14 acres, the Carrolls source their estate-grown varieties: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chambourcin, Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc and Viognier. An abundance of labels is smart business in a less mature wine market, noted Carroll. “We’re trying to appeal to such a broad range of buyers that it almost becomes impossible to only make Chardonnay or Pinot.”

The tasting delivered. Consistently, the wines had good structure and purity of fruit and, nearly to a glass, were aromatically exciting, displaying a lovely, lingering and evolving sustain on the finish that was impossible to miss.

The winery charges $8 for a standard tasting of eight to 10 wines and $15 to include sparkling and reserve wines, all based on availability. The offering will appeal to novice drinkers and veterans alike. If they’re being poured, don’t miss the Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Rose or Viognier. Sweet talk may win you a few drops of the intense yet nimble Late Harvest Vidal Blanc, drawn from botrytis-cloaked grapes. As with many Crossing wines, there is little oak messing with the mix, allowing the character of the soil or a touch of spice to mingle with the fruit. 

The vineyards do the talking through understated, mineral-rich varieties like the ready-to-age Riesling and the Vidal Blanc, while fruit pops from the stand-out Viognier, Cab Franc, Merlot and Cab. The Pinot Noir (for my money, I’d go with the non-reserve) is an exciting wine with an extraordinary nose, liberal spice and great structure. If you get the Cab Franc home like I did, grant it a couple hours in the air to draw out flavors of sour cherry, blueberry compote and cream.

Watching Tom, Sr.’s eyes careen around the animated tasting room, as he sang along with the band, I paused to register his radiant optimism – a proceed of his family’s success. He punctuated his moment with a simple sentiment: “I think the coolest thing is being able to share in (my son’s) dream.”

You should share in it, too.

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