We Are the Champagne-ions

Pennsylvania's world-beating wines are kept down by the PLCB.

By Mara Zepeda
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 5, 2007

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Pulp friction: Winemaker Janet Maki says the PLCB doesn't give a spit about local producers.

Buried in the archives of the Pennsylvania Wine Association is an upbeat article on the glories of locally made champagne. Surprised the keystone state produces bubbly? Me too. I rang the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). It's nearly impossible to find a state-run store that carries locally made sparkling wine or champagne.

What the hell is going on?

This oversight would be forgivable if Pennsylvania wines were unworthy of our attention. But Pennsylvania is home to many wineries producing exceptional small batches of everything from brut rose to cuvee chardonnay. In fact French Creek Ridge Vineyards' 1997 Blanc de Blancs Champagne won the 2001 Gold Medal at the Vinalies Internationales Wine Competition in France.

In other words, a 16-acre vineyard in Chester County produced the best bottle of champagne in the world, an award never before bestowed on a U.S. winery.

"Had we been in California and won that award, there would've been a ticker-tape parade, but here we are laboring in obscurity," says Jamie Haldy, a business partner of Janet Maki, owner of French Creek Ridge Vineyards (now called J. Maki Winery).

Getting your hands on a bottle of one of Maki's award-winning wines requires a drive to her vineyard, or ponying up for FedEx home delivery. Mention the PLCB to the grower and 15 minutes later she's still grinding through a long and complicated list of grievances.

Maki once tried to sell in the state stores but it was an overwhelming amount of work to staff store tastings and constantly promote her product--never mind she was expected to sell each bottle for 50 percent of its retail value. Once in a while she'd sell a case, or sometimes competing distributors would shove her product in a corner, or it would end up in a warehouse out back.

She says, "PLCB is an entity interested in preserving fat, cushy jobs," many of which entail worldwide travel in search of product. And Pennsylvania growers have to compete with states and countries that provide generous subsidies to vineyards. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania growers receive bupkis in support.

Steven Menke is a wine expert employed by Penn State University. He estimates that of the thousands of wines offered in state stores, only 40 to 50 are locally made--and most of those are produced by high-volume companies (more than 5,000 gallons a year). Essentially PLCB is in competition with the smaller Pennsylvania vineyards--a conflict that exists nowhere else in the country.

"Just like the local food movement, consumers have to decide if they want to support this industry," says Maki. And with the industry contributing nearly $700 million in tax revenue and providing more than 5,000 jobs, hopefully the state will follow with incentives, subsidies, and funding for research and marketing.

In the meantime we can help by visiting tasting rooms, drinking local and supporting small businesses. Other standout producers of local sparkling wines include Pinnacle Ridge, Penn Shore, Stargazers, Buckingham Valley and Rosebank. Ready your champagne flute, start your engine, and road trip for the underdog.

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