Gino Razzi is making Pennsylvania the new wine country.
On a list of regions with long-established winemaking traditions, Pennsylvania wouldn't rate a mention. Even though the state grows more grapes than all but five others in the U.S., few wine enthusiasts have ever believed Pennsylvania was capable of anything greater than mediocrity in wine.
Gino Razzi, owner of Penns Woods Winery, was once one of these skeptics. Owner of the local wine importing company Viva Vino, Razzi first tried his hand at winemaking in Italy in the mid-'90s. But in 2002, when someone from a now-defunct winery called and asked for help making Pennsylvania wine, Razzi responded, "Are you crazy?"
Nonetheless, Razzi decided to experiment. He obtained grapes from three different vineyards and made a handful of batches, or micro- vinifications: no more than 30 to 40 gallons of each type of wine.
The result was surprising. "The grapes weren't so bad," says Razzi.
Winemaking with local grapes first evolved into an expensive hobby for Razzi, a broad-figured man whose smile turns expansive when talking about wine. But with the increasing amount of money he was putting into equipment, Razzi had to rethink his position, treating his efforts as a business as well as a hobby.
His concern with technology is clear in the winemaking facility Razzi recently opened in Eddystone, in Southern Delaware County. Stainless-steel fermentation tanks line one wall of the low-slung, windowless building, and Razzi expresses barely concealed pride when pointing out his rotary fermenter.
"For the price of one of these, you can buy four vertical fermenters," he notes. Rotary fermentation ensures that the grape skins remain under the juice, allowing maximum extraction of flavor. Most of the grapes come from Razzi's own 30-acre vineyard in Chadds Ford, where he supervises growing operations.
Winemaking presents plenty of opportunities to cut corners. Razzi seems to ignore all of them. All of his wines undergo partial fermentation in the barrel, after starting out in the stainless-steel tanks. This optional step helps increase the intensity of flavors and aromas in the wine.
And not just any barrels make the cut. Razzi may have great hopes for Pennsylvania grapes, but not for the wood. "I had the experience of buying local barrels," he noted. "They leave much to be desired." Instead, Razzi opens up his wallet for French oak, a common practice in California, but an unusual one for Pennsylvania.
All this ambition is admirable, but the ultimate verdict depends on the quality of the wine. Not to worry. Pinot Grigio may be best known to American consumers as an uncomplicated, acidic, sometimes insipid white; Penns Woods' 2005 Pinot Grigio Reserve yields unexpected complexity, adding roundness and clear oak notes without completely compromising the crispness and refreshing qualities often associated with this style.
Chardonnay, the white wine most associated with ambitious winemaking and correspondingly high prices, also thrives under Razzi's care. The 2005 Chardonnay Reserve revealed a characteristic buttery flavor, but also notes of tangerine and orange.
The reds are no less intriguing. These wines, including a Merlot, cabernet sauvignon and several blends, all demonstrate the red fruit flavors associated with cool weather growing regions. Razzi's flagship red, the 2005 Ameritage--a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petite verdot, merlot, sangiovese and nebbiolo--provides bright notes of plum and red cherry, with a lingering finish.
For Razzi, these results validate the promise of Pennsylvania grapes. While he takes pride in his winemaking techniques, he recognizes the limitation of efforts in the winery. "Suppose you have grapes that rank 8 on a scale of 1 to 10," he posits. "A genius, put together with Jesus Christ, couldn't turn 8 grapes into 9 wines." Instead, the goal is to avoid turning 8 grapes into 4 wines.
And Razzi, while born in the Italian region of Abruzzo, firmly believes that Pennsylvania, in spite of challenges like birds, deer and reliably smothering humidity, is capable of producing top-notch grapes that can form equally exciting wines.
His current mission is convincing others. "If I were in California, I'd be making another good wine," he says. "But I hope I can bring a new idea to this industry in Pennsylvania and give them the credibility to make a better wine."
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