Every spring since 2003, three of southeastern Pennsylvania’s most esteemed winemakers – Brad Knapp from Pinnacle Ridge and Joanne Levengood from Manatawny Creek, both in Berks County, and Carl Helrich from Allegro, in York County – gather to compare notes.

They’ll take along wines from their latest vintage and hash out what went right and what went wrong with the hopes of gleaning knowledge that will help them all.

“The three of us are all what I call more serious winemakers,” Knapp said. “We work hard at trying to make better and better wines each year. As part of that effort, I proposed to Joanne and Carl that we get together and taste each other’s wines.”

In particularly good vintages (2007, 2010 and 2015), their gatherings have even borne fruit in the form of a collaborative Bordeaux-style red blend called Trio. (The 2015 is available at all three wineries.)

Levengood’s father, Darvin Levengood, president of Manatawny Creek Winery, Amity Township, called their gatherings “the perfect mutual back-scratching exercise,” adding that such cooperation among Pennsylvania wineries was unheard of back when they started.

But he said people in the industry have changed their thinking from what it was 20 years ago, thanks in part to the hands-on approach of statewide groups such as the Penn State Extension and Pennsylvania Wine Association, which have helped wineries get up to speed with every phase of winemaking.

“The best way to make your wine better is to help everybody get better, and that’s now the more prevalent philosophy among everybody in the state,” Darvin said. “And not just in Berks County or regionally; it’s everywhere.”

Knapp acknowledges that powwows such as theirs aren’t necessarily for everyone.

“You can’t keep secrets,” he said. “You need to share, and you need to have the right people to be able to do that. The three of us are open-minded and want to learn, and don’t mind sharing with each other.”

Growing up fast

While Pennsylvania’s wine industry is in its infancy, compared with the great wine regions of the world, it has grown up considerably since this trio of winemakers first gathered 15 years ago.

Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Wine Association, said the number of Pennsylvania wineries has gone from 54 in 2001 to more than 260, which ranks seventh in the nation. The state ranks No. 5 in grape production, and it attracts more than 1 million tourists to its wineries every year.

Locally, the growth has been equally impressive since 1981, when Tom Calvaresi opened Berks County’s first winery, which operated out of the basement of his Reading row home before moving to Penn Township in 1988. The Berks County Wine Trail, formed in 2005, has grown from eight to 12 members, and there are about a dozen other wineries that are eligible to join, with more opening soon.

Further proof of growth is found in the numbers released recently by the trade association WineAmerica, which reported that the state’s wine industry accounted for $4.8 billion of economic activity in 2017, a staggering figure, compared to the $661 million reported in 2005 by MKF Research.

Darvin Levengood figures there’s some puffery in those numbers, but there’s no denying the obvious.

“You take it with a little bit of a grain of salt,” he said, “but it definitely shows a trend, that’s for sure. There are a hell of a lot more wineries than there used to be.”

And they’re making better wines.

Levengood said when Manatawny Creek won a Governor’s Cup at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in 2001, it marked the beginning of a new era.

“Prior to that,” he said, “most all the wines that won the Governor’s Cup were sweet wines, and that’s what Pennsylvania has traditionally been famous for, making sweet wines, which is not what you want to be famous for if you’re a good winemaker. So the trend has been drier wines are what we’re looking to make well and sell well.”

Early entrants

Due largely to restrictive laws in the aftermath of Prohibition that required Pennsylvania wineries to sell only to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, the state always has lagged national leaders such as California, Oregon and New York – by a lot.

It wasn’t until passage of the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act in 1968 that wineries were allowed to sell directly to consumers.

Three years earlier, John and Pat Skrip had bought land about a mile over the Berks County line in Breinigsville, Lehigh County, and in the early ’70s planted about 1,000 grapevines. The vines did exceedingly well, so they kept planting more every year until they had 18 acres.

“Initially, we were selling all the grapes to home winemakers, who kind of came out of the woodwork and bought anywhere from 10 pounds to 700 pounds or so,” Pat said.

At that time, Erie County farmers already were growing native American grapes such as concord, Niagara and catawba for Welch’s grape juice, but some were being made into sweet wine. The Skrips moved away from those grapes and started planting French-American hybrids such as chambourcin, and vinifera grapes, such as cabernet and chardonnay, which ferment into drier wines.

“We found this area in Pennsylvania, the southeastern quadrant, from kind of the York-Harrisburg area east to the Delaware (River), just was exceptional for growing those kind of grapes,” Pat said. “So that’s kind of what spurred us on. We found the area had the right soils, the right climate to produce really good grapes if you worked at it.”

By 1985, the Skrips were growing more than they could sell to home winemakers, so they, working professionals in their 40s, decided to open their own winery, Clover Hill. In 1991, they expanded into Berks County, with vineyards and a tasting room near Robesonia. In the past 33 years, they’ve grown from producing 2,700 gallons annually to as much as 75,000 gallons.

“Our intention was to have a winery in our golden years,” Pat said, laughing. “We got to that point a lot quicker.”

A remarkable synergy

These days there’s a remarkable synergy at work when it comes to Pennsylvania wine.

Combine the intertwined agritourism and locavore trends – neither of which seems to be going away any time soon – with some much-needed legislative changes, and next thing you know you’re looking at sevenfold increase in economic impact.

The Skrips’ daughter Kari, who joined the family business right out of college, said the winery started as just a place to buy wine, but that began to change about 15 years ago when they discovered customers wanted to bring friends, see the vineyards and have a full-fledged winery experience.

“That has really evolved into a tourism aspect for us, in making it more of a destination visit as opposed to a shopping visit, which has been a huge shift,” she said.

While many wineries host live music with great success, the Skrips like to keep their events focused on wine by offering things like tours and pairings.

“Clover Hill has a history and a story, and we truly do grow our grapes and truly do craft our wines from whatever the season hands us,” Kari said. “And there are plenty of wines both in the state and around the world that it’s not that way.”

The fact that it’s a local story significantly enhances its appeal.

“It took a long time for people to really accept Pennsylvania wines,” said Pat Skrip, “but I think today it’s buy local, buy Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania proud really has taken hold, and people are looking for good products made in Pennsylvania.”

Undoubtedly the biggest impact on the industry was the state Legislature’s passage of Act 39, which took effect in August 2016. Among other things, the bill made it legal for wineries to sell to grocery stores, bars and restaurants, and allowed for cross-selling among wineries, craft breweries and craft distilleries.

Knapp said that has been huge for Pinnacle Ridge, which is in Greenwich Township.

“It used to be a very small amount of our wine (less than 10 percent) was going out to restaurants and other wholesale places, but now it’s pushing up near 50 percent of our wine is going out the back door instead of the front door,” he said.

And it came at just the right time, as tasting room visits were declining due to increased competition among neighboring wineries, craft breweries and distilleries.

“The landscape used to be just us,” Knapp said. “People go out and visit alcohol production facilities because they’re fun places to go, and people like to drink. But the tasting room is tougher than it used to be.”

Another major challenge

Competition for the tasting room dollar isn’t the only challenge facing Pennsylvania wineries.

There’s also a battle being waged out in the fields with the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species that arrived from Asia in 2014 and has become a real threat to Pennsylvania grape growers. The insect doesn’t eat the grapes but rather feeds on the juice of the vines, which reduces their vigor, compromising fruit production and making them more susceptible to disease.

The insect’s eggs can be hard to detect, because they’re found on horizontal surfaces on the underside of grapevines and posts, and in nooks and crannies, Manatawny’s Levengood said.

Asked if he knew what to expect for the upcoming growing season, he said: “Yeah, it’s going to be worse. Just based on the number of egg masses we are finding, I guarantee you it’s going to be worse than last year, because you know you’re not going to get them all.”

The state recently received $17.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop the spread of the spotted lanternfly, and Levengood hopes it goes toward research into ways to stop the invasion, such as finding natural predators.

Reasons for optimism

Despite these industry threats, the prevailing sentiment is one of optimism.

Eckinger, the Pennsylvania Wine Association head, said she anticipates continued growth.

“Looking at the trajectory over the years, we’ve seen more than 10 new wineries every year,” she said. “I would imagine that would continue. I also do foresee there’s going to be an expansion of the varieties that they grow. We’re seeing vineyards and wineries that are making wines they did not make 10 years ago.”

As the state industry begins to mature, more second-generation owners such as Kari Skrip and her brother John III are taking the reins.

“I literally grew up in it,” Kari said. “The year I was born (1977) was the first year they harvested grapes. They have pictures of me in the hospital with bushels of grapes next to me, so when I say I grew up in it, I really did. So I’ve always been especially proud of that. It’s kind of fun and different.”

She regards her parents as pioneering spirits in the industry because they took such a big risk.

“They had three little kids at home, and they both left their full-time careers to open up a winery, which was unheard of,” she said. “And there was no benchmark or anything to compare it to or pattern after in the area.”

Clover Hill continues to grow year in and year out, she said, and the future looks bright.

“It’s a good, exciting time, it really is,” she said. “A little nerve-wracking, but I guess any time you’re in business it’s nerve-wracking. But I really hope to see Clover Hill succeed for many generations to come.”

Knapp, who opened Pinnacle Ridge in 1995, said his business is still growing, too, thanks to Act 39.

“I can’t overstate how much these changes in the laws have affected us personally,” he said. “It’s the kind of business I, frankly, like to do. You go out there and compete head to head. It’s something I am happy to do, and we do well with it, in general.”

He said their wines are being sold in Wegman’s and Weis stores, and they’re in talks with two more grocery chains and met recently with a restaurant chain that has 20 locations.

“That kind of stuff just never happened to us before, so it’s huge,” he said. “Our industry is headed in a direction that’s more like every other state, except Utah. We’re growing up, and the laws are letting us grow up. At least they’re starting to.

“More change would be welcome, from my perspective. I’d like to see us move out of the LCB system, personally. Then it would be easier to have relationships with specific retailers of alcohol. Individual owners would focus on local, and that would be perfect for us, having people championing our products in that manner. The LCB, in my opinion, does not do a good job of it.

“But I’ve had more fun in the last two years than I had the whole time.”