In 2008, a group of local winemakers succeeded in getting the Greater Lehigh Valley recognized as an American Viticultural Area – an officially designated wine grape-growing region.
Doing so required several years of research and advocacy, and now, a decade later, the efforts to obtain the coveted designation are paying off. The region’s wine-growing industry has better visibility and a better reputation to go along with increased production and revenue – all of which has created an overall booming local wine scene.
“It was a big step,” said John Skrip III, whose family owns Clover Hill Vineyards in Breinigsville and who was one of the leaders in getting the region designated as a viticultural region. “When you have an AVA, they take you more seriously in the wine industry. It’s definitely a benefit.”
Next month, eight wineries in the Greater Lehigh Valley will participate in “The Vintner’s Experience,” a special wine trail that marks the 10th anniversary of the region being designated as an AVA. A viticultural area – this one primarily consisting of Lehigh and Northampton and part of Berks, Carbon, Monroe and Schuylkill counties – is distinguishable by geographic features such as elevation, rainfall, soil and temperature.
The wine trail will celebrate the art of winemaking and give fans of the grape a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how their favorite vintages are created. It also will give wineries a chance to explain just what makes the Lehigh Valley AVA so special.
John Landis, owner of Vynecrest in Breinigsville, also one of the earliest wineries in the region, said people who follow wine notice such things as an AVA designation.
For one, he said, it shows that the participating wineries in the region are estate wineries, using at least 80 percent of their own, locally grown grapes.
“There are people who appreciate that and see it as a value added to the wine,” Landis said.
Mike Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley, the tourism agency for Lehigh and Northampton counties, said the designation not only gives more credibility to the wine, but to the wine trail and the region as a wine agritourism region.
“It wasn’t just the credibility. It also brought more visitors,” Stershic said. “It was really a pop in tourism the first year, and it’s remained consistent since then.”
There are about 30 wineries in the Lehigh Valley AVA region that can use the AVA designation if they meet the locally grown grape requirements. Sleepy Cat Winery in Allentown, for example, does not use locally grown grapes and instead ships grape juice in from around the world to make its varietals. It is not part of the AVA.
But for those that do, there is a story to tell, and that makes wine tours an attractive tourism draw, Stershic said.
“You can go out and see the grapes on the vine and see how the wine is made,” he said. “That isn’t something you can do with most of the things you consume.”
To be sure, running a winery is as much about being an entertainment destination as it is being a farm or producer.
Skrip said one of the best ways to get people into the wineries is to offer tastings and entertainment.
He said Clover Hill has had everything from car shows to vineyard yoga to give people a reason to stop by their business.
“The most popular are the wine and food pairings,” he said.
Events are held at many of the wineries every weekend.
BEHIND THE SCENES
For the wine trail in June, Landis said, the vineyards are leaning a bit toward education this time.
Each vineyard on the trail is offering a different experience from tours to tastings to help people learn the complexities of winemaking.
At Vynecrest, staff will serve three wines altered just a little bit from the original product to bring out different characteristics.
Visitors can learn how Vynecrest makes one batch of wine taste differently with different preparations and then vote on their favorite to become the final wine that is bottled this year.
Landis noted that in 1969 there wasn’t a single winery in Pennsylvania. When Vynecrest and Clover Hill began operating in the mid-1980s, there were less than 50.
Now, there are nearly 250 working wineries in the state, making the industry a strong economic force.
The Pennsylvania Winery Association estimates that the state produces 1.6 million gallons of wine annually and has a $4.8 billion effect on the Pennsylvania economy.
Stershic notes that the biggest draw for the wineries is from people living in urban areas such as metro New York or the Washington, D.C and Baltimore areas.
So the escapism of being entertained on a farm is just the break from their daily lives that they are seeking.
The formula seems to be working.
Landis said the wine trails and regular tours annually bring 12,000 to 14,000 visitors to the Lehigh Valley.
That influx helps more than the vineyards.
“They have to eat somewhere. They have to stay somewhere. They have to buy gas,” Landis said.
Skrip said he’s seen the benefit of such efforts as attaining the AVA and the overall promotion of the wine industry in not only his success, but in the growth he’s seen in the number of wineries in the region and state.
“There are definitely more wineries, but we’re as busy, if not more busy, as ever,” he said. “It’s because more people are coming in.”