by Joe Sylvester
Twenty years ago, Sal Maiolatesi was one of the few commercial winemakers around.
Back then, winemakers had to use 100 percent Pennsylvania grapes.
Maiolatesi and others in the industry worked with state officials to change the law.
And that helped.
But it wasn’t until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case from outside of Pennsylvania that the laws really relaxed. Now, wineries can import grapes from other states. Pennsylvania state government also helped by allowing the sale of Pennsylvania wines in grocery stores and wine shops, as well as in the state’s Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores.
The result has been a growth of wineries in Northeastern Pennsylvania and throughout the state.
“They have been exploding in this part of the state,” said Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Winery Association. “Not necessarily just new wineries opening.”
She said wineries have been expanding.
Maiolatesi, for example, has expanded his Scott Township, Lackawanna County winery to include a restaurant that serves a full menu prepared by a chef who is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, as well as private events at the venue at a 1,700-foot elevation with a view of the valley.
“It’s a big update from what was allowed 10 years ago,” Eckinger said.
“When I opened, the laws were extremely strict in Pennsylvania,” said Maiolatesi, who started a small winemaking operation out of his Carbondale home, later moving to the Mermelstein’s Marketplace just outside the city.
He built Maiolatesi Wine Cellars in Scott Township in 2008.
“Wineries at the time had to use 100 percent Pennsylvania fruit, which was difficult,” he said, but he and other winery owners sought a legislative change.
“We worked with the PLCB and the House and Senate to get the laws changed.”
In the early 2000s, he said, the state began to allow wineries to purchase up to 25 percent of their fruit from out of state growers.
Then in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that laws in New York and Michigan allowing in-state wineries to ship wine directly to consumers, but prohibiting out-of-state wineries from doing the same, were unconstitutional. The arguments focused on the 21st Amendment, which in 1933 ended Prohibition.
The ruling, in essence allowed wineries to use grapes grown in other states exclusively, said David Falchek, executive director of the American Wine Society.
“Until then, the regulations favored use of in-state fruit,” Falchek explained. “The limited amount of wine grapes grown in Pennsylvania and the high demand for them limited the number of wineries.”
Pennsylvania wineries’ ability to buy relatively inexpensive grapes or juice from the West Coast played a part in the growth of wineries in Pennsylvania, Falchek said.
“Beverage tourism is also responsible,” he added. “Interest in craft brewers and distillers has buoyed interest in local wines, as well. In terms of consumer values, local is the new organic. People want to know the provenance of their food.”
Nimble Hill Winery and Brewery, which started making wine in 2006 and began selling it the following year, later expanded into brewing.
Maiolatesi is planning to add another 4,000 square feet to his 8,500-square-foot building, which includes retail, tasting and dining areas and, in the cellar, the production area.
Falchek said another reason for the winery expansion in Northeastern Pennsylvania is land and buildings are inexpensive.
“Also, the region has a core of long-standing solid wineries that have built strong customer base,” he said.
Nimble Hill owner Gary Toczko said allowing wineries to import fruit from out of state has helped wineries expand. While Maiolatesi, who fought to relax the laws governing wineries, uses 100 percent Pennsylvania grapes from growers around the state, Toczko said he imports about 10 percent of his grapes from New York to supplement his crop of grapes at his 10-acre Mehoopany vineyard.
“It’s definitely a needed tool,” Toczko said. “Some years if you have a frost or a bad winter, you wouldn’t be able to make the wine.”
Maiolatesi said that while using out-of-state grapes has helped Pennsylvania wineries, he does not support wineries that call themselves a Pennsylvania limited winery but buy all of their grapes from other states. He said they are not supporting Pennsylvania agriculture.
Falchek said consumers should be aware of the type of winery they are visiting or purchasing from.
“Is it a Pennsylvania winery growing their own grapes (an estate winery) or are using other Pennsylvania-grown grapes?” Falchek said. “Or are they buying grapes or juice from elsewhere?”
As the number of wineries increases, consumers will have more from which to choose. There are seven wineries in the region encompassing Lackawanna and nearby counties, at last count.
Statewide, the number of limited wineries, those that can produce up to 200,000 gallons of wine each year, totaled 341 as of June 30, according to Shawn Kelly, Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board spokesman.
That’s a nearly 50 percent increase over the 228 licensed limited wineries on Dec. 31, 2013. In contrast, the number of larger commercial licensed wineries, those producing more than 200,000 gallons a year, numbered just five as of June 30 and four at the end of 2013, Kelly said.
Maiolatesi’s winery produces about 20,000 gallons a year, Maiolatesi said, while Nimble Hill produces about 10,000, Toczko said.
“The quality of grapes grown in Pennsylvania has increased the opportunities for wineries to open in Pennsylvania,” Eckinger added.
Plus, wineries can sell their products at farm markets, in grocery stores and state liquor stores.
Toczko, noting Nimble Hill has won state and national awards for its wine, said the quality and recognition of Pennsylvania wines will continually increase their popularity.
“Some day we’ll be recognized like the Finger Lakes,” he said.