Wineries Grow Along the Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail
Winemaking is one of Central Pennsylvania’s fastest growing industries, and it’s bringing the wine trail experience closer to home.
Uncorking a Vintage Treasure
by Mike Ferlazzo
Amy Scorsone has witnessed the rapid expansion along the Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail. In 1989, her parents, Karl and Carolyn Zimmerman, converted their corn and soybean farm outside of Middleburg into a vineyard. Ten years later, Shade Mountain Vineyards became the valley’s first winery.
“When we opened, we were one of just 50 wineries in the state, and there are now close to 200,” said Scorsone, one of four adult children who helps her parents operate the family business. “The Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail has been in existence for 13 years, and there were just five wineries when it opened; In March we were up to 15.”
Bob Garrett, president/CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce, says the growing wine industry’s impact on the region has been significant.
“Not only does it impact the traditional agricultural offerings in the area—purchasing equipment and producing a product—it’s also exciting with some of the changes at the state level,” Garrett said. “You can actually now buy a bottle of locally-produced wine just up the street in the grocery store.”
A life-changing experience
This year’s Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail in March didn’t include Whispering Oaks Winery in Sunbury, which held its grand opening last July. With the opening, two of its owners, Ryan and Tracey Bonney, realized a dream that started in the summer of 2000 with a week-long visit to New York’s wine country.
They sampled the wine and the wine country lifestyle and it planted an idea that would grow like a vine for years.
“We found it to be a very interesting way of life,” said Ryan Bonney. “First, it’s owning your own business. But in meeting the people who owned the wineries and seeing the events going on, there were so many times during that vacation that we said, ‘What a cool life that would be.’”
Even though they worked in unrelated professions, the winery idea continued to grow. They eventually shared it with Linda and Charles Costello, Ryan’s mom and stepdad, and it started to take root.
Charles had the entrepreneurial background and the land with a gorgeous view of the region’s natural beauty along Route 61. With their help—and ownership partnership of three other couples—it’s now come to fruition.
Coopetition, not competition
One might think that owners of Sunbury’s 13-year-old Spyglass Ridge Winery weren’t too thrilled by new competition opening right next door. But in the region’s fledgling wine country, it’s coopetition over competition.
Ryan Bonney approached Spyglass co-owner Tom Webb early about his plan.
“And he [Webb] said, ‘That’s great. I wish I could have a hundred wineries around me,’” Bonney said. “So in the winery sense, we’re complementary. People who come here for wine tastings and tours, we’re going to say, ‘Hey have you been down to Spyglass?’”
Many have, particularly to Spyglass Ridge’s wildly popular Backyard Concert Series, which features well-known recording artists. They play in the “backyard” of their 75-acre farm on a 78-foot wide by 52-foot deep permanent stage Webb designed and had built for the stars.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Heart performed in front of more than a thousand concertgoers last summer. And this year, over 3100 came to see Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and similar numbers flocked to Foghat, Huey Lewis and the News, and Styx concerts.
Making year-round trail runs
Susquehanna Valley Limousine has transported the stars to those concerts, and it’s been carrying clients to New York’s wine country for some time. But with area wineries sprouting up like fruit on the vine, it’s now offering local wine tour packages too.
That’s possible because the distance between stops is closing. For instance, the northern-most point on the trail is Fero Vineyards and Winery in Lewisburg—just about 30 minutes from both Spyglass Ridge and Whispering Oaks. Co-owner Daneen Zaleski believes closer stops have translated into more northern traffic to sample Fero’s full-bodied wines.
To the south, places like Armstrong Valley Vineyard and Winery in Halifax are also drawing big crowds, particularly for its specialty—wine pairings. Its resident mixologist, Joanne Meredith, will show you how to make a “Fuzzy Navel” (orange and peach wine) or “Midnight Desire” (chocolate, raspberry and strawberry), among others.
Another wine mix, Strazzberry—a blend of strawberry and black raspberry—is the signature taste treat of nearby Red Shale Ridge Winery, which operates from a smaller family farm in Hegins and a storefront in Danville.
Events on tap
Not far from Hegins, scenic Benigna’s Creek Vineyard and Winery in Klingerstown hosts one of the largest trail events during the Susquehanna Heartland Christmas Wine Trail, which takes place from mid-November to early December. Benigna’s “Lighting of the Vineyard” draws nearly 5,000 people to see its 2.5 acres light up to the holiday sounds of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This year’s lighting is on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 25 and 26.
Many of the region’s wine drinkers know Benigna’s Creek from its store in Selinsgrove’s Susquehanna Valley Mall. It soon may have company in Selinsgrove with The Stone Barn Winery set to begin selling wine by 2020. By then, who knows how many more wineries will be along the trail.
Upcoming events on the Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail include the 2016 Annual Heartland Christmas Wine Trail, Nov. 19th and 20th, 26th and 27th and Dec. 3rd and 4th.
For a complete list of Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail participating wineries and a map, visit SusquehannaLife.com/WebExtras.
Mike Ferlazzo, a public relations specialist with Geisinger Health System in Danville, has been a consumer of Central Pennsylvania wine for the past decade.
Seneca Lake Wine Trail
The Seneca Lake Wine Trail is one of the oldest trails in the U.S., east of the Mississippi, and this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.
Several member wineries also craft beer, hard cider, spirits and even mead— an alcohol beverage created by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with various fruits, spices, grains or hops. Seneca Lake is considered a signature wine trail due to its size—it has 35 member wineries—and its longevity.
Wines made in the region are from grapes grown in the Finger Lakes, and typically the Seneca Lake Viticultural Area. The majority of winery customers and trail event attendees visit from within a five-hour drive.
“Our greatest strength is the supportive—even caring—relationships our 35 member wineries enjoy with each other,” explained Paul Thomas, marketing director, Seneca Lake Wine Trail. “Our member wineries don’t just pay lip speak to the cliché about a rising tide lifting all boats; they live it and act on that philosophy.”
Throughout the year, member wineries host events ranging from pairing food and wine to mini-festivals, music and wine and event lobster festivals. Seneca Lake Wine Trail also holds events, including the upcoming Deck the Halls Weekends November 18-20 or December 2-4.
Participants start at an assigned winery and sample holiday wines and food tastings. The wineries are decorated for the holiday season. Participants also receive a recipe book and collect ornaments to decorate their handmade grapevine wreath. The event is co-sponsored by The Christmas House, located in nearby Elmira, NY. More information is at SenecaLakeWine.com.
—Erica L. Shames