BAINBRIDGE, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s National Wine Day, the day we celebrate and contemplate all things wine. It’s the perfect day to delve into the return of a Pennsylvania tradition — the small local winery.
We met up with Jonas Nissley, Vice President of Nissley Vineyards, for a tour of the grounds, and a look at the grapes. Not that there’s much grape to see at this time of the year — since it’s the very beginning of the season, and the grapes are teeny-tiny little hard green spheres. Getting them to mature bunches in the fall takes a lot of TLC.
“Every year it needs pruning, it needs constant care and maintenance, and sometimes you can still do everything right, and the Pennsylvania climate will decide if its a good year for growing grapes.” says Jonas.
The ideal growing season has lots of rain at the beginning, so the grapes will grow, then a dry spell at the end, so the grapes will concentrate their sugars. Rainfall this year is already in deficit territory, so they will be soaking the vines to make up for it.
Weather is a problem as old as time, but some problems are brand new. While we were walking through the vineyard, Jonas discovered spotted lanternflies hiding in the leaves.
“They’re sapsuckers, so they bore into the wood.” says Jonas. “They secrete a honeydew, and then that honeydew causes mold, mildew, and other diseases, so they’re not only depleting the vine of the resources it needs to live, they’re also causing disease at the same time.”
The winery may have to use insecticide to get rid of the invasive pests. And, like everyone else, Nissley Vineyards had to contend with the Covid pandemic. The lockdown made getting wine to customers a challenge.
“In terms of sales it was a difficult year for our extension stores,” says Jonas. “We had to close two of them. But on the flip side, our sales in grocery stores, and our direct delivery to customers, which we started up during the pandemic, helped compensate for that.”
The winery also canceled tours and had to drastically scale back their annual summer concert series to meet COVID restrictions. Battles with the elements and solving problems on the fly have always been part of running vineyards. And in fact, winemaking in Pennsylvania got off to a shaky start.
When William Penn arrived in his new colony in 1683, he brought along grapevines from Europe. They quickly died, unable to cope with Pennsylvania’s climate, strange insects, and local plant diseases. Growers in the Commonwealth (and other states) experimented with native grapes, sometimes crossing them with European grapes to produce hybrid varieties. Their efforts paid off; by the mid 1800’s Pennsylvania was the third largest wine producer in the country.
Then in 1919 the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, and Prohibition became the law of the land. Hard working, honest, pillar-of-the-community vintners and brewers became criminals at the stroke of a pen, for pursuing a trade that was legal the day before. Prohibition ultimately proved to be such a dismal failure that it was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933-the only time the Constitution has been amended to repeal an earlier amendment. But the damage was done; most of the wineries in Pennsylvania, and the country, were out of business, and most grapes were grown for the table, grape juice, or grape jelly.
Getting wineries restarted took Pennsylvania a long time. The only way to sell wine was through Liquor Control Board State Stores. But to get their interest you had to produce enough wine, and to produce enough wine you had to get their interest.
Then in 1968, things changed. The state passed the Limited Winery Act, which allowed small, family owned wineries to sell their products directly.
Fifty years later, there are over two hundred wineries in Pennsylvania. One of the first-Nissley Vineyard, which opened for business near Bainbridge in Lancaster County in 1979. Jonas Nissley was still in the future at that point, but he can tell us the story.
“My grandfather (Richard Nissley) was making wine in his basement, at the family home in Landisville. And we had some farm property out here in Bainbridge where we’re standing now, and he was figuring out what to do with it.’
“So my dad (John Nissley) suggested to him, ‘Well, why don’t you think about maybe selling some of this wine that you’re making in your basement?’ And at that point he kind of put two and two together.”
They planted their first vines in 1975, and opened to the public in 1978.
“We and some other founders at that time were really the pioneers of the Pennsylvania wine industry, the east coast wine industry as well.” says Jonas.
Not that it was an easy go at first. In fact, Jonas refers to it as a trial by fire.
“In the early days they tried producing solely dry wines, because that was what my family liked to drink. What they found was the consumers at that point were more interested in sweet wines. So, shifted the model a bit, went to producing a lot of sweet wines in the wine portofio, that’s really what guided the wine portfolio at Nissley vinyards for many decades.”
Having overcome the barriers to actually marketing their own wines, Wineries in Pennsylvania-in fact wineries all across the country-faced another impediment-public perception. Call it a national inferiority complex, call it wine snobbishness, call it what you will, there were a lot of people out there who assumed American wines were inherently subpar, and the only good wine was one that had “Imported From” somewhere on the bottle.
Over the decades, though, that wall of snobbery is slowly being chipped away. American-made wines have won in international competitions, and American citizens are visiting their local wineries and discovering treasures in their own back yards. (They don’t have to look far–there are now at least three wineries in every state of the Union. )
And what about Pennsylvania wines? Are they finally getting some respect?
“They finally are.” says Jonas “It’s taken about forty years, but there are finally a growing segment of producers, that are really producing wines that are worthy of national and world wide attention. There are several of them locally, and many around the state as well. And Nissley Vineyards counts ourselves among them.”
“It’s really rewarding, to finally see the Pennsylvania Wine industry get the recognition it deserves.”