A luscious tour of Lehigh Valley wine

Louis Vera prunes back cabernet franc vines at Kutztown's Blair Vineyards.
Louis Vera prunes back cabernet franc vines at Kutztown's Blair Vineyards. (MICHAEL BRYANT /Staff Photographer)

Author-professor offers a guide to the sights, smells, and science of Lehigh Valley wines.

Posted: March 07, 2014

"I can teach all of freshman chemistry in 45 minutes without leaving anything out - it's one of my great achievements," says Clark Smith.

Anyone who knows Smith knows he isn't bragging - not exactly. A noted winemaker, scientist, inventor, consultant, college professor, and author of the recent book Postmodern Winemaking (University of California Press), Smith, 62, is one of the most dynamic, erudite, and outspoken people I've ever met in the wine industry, not to mention a know-it-all.

"You've never been to the Lehigh Valley wineries?" he asked with an incredulous taunt when we met recently at a wine event in Sonoma, Calif., where he lives. "They make some of the best aromatic white wines in America."

Such a grand statement, at the time, seemed unlikely. But then, like many Philadelphians, my awareness of the rapidly expanding local wine scene had been somewhat limited to the closer wine trail zones of the Brandywine Valley and New Jersey's Outer Coastal Plain. So I took Smith up on his offer for a road trip to a handful of standout Lehigh and Berks County wineries recently when he was in the area for a visit.

Mark Chien, the Penn State Extension viticulture educator, volunteered to drive, recalling a two-day seminar Smith gave several years ago to a group of Pennsylvania winemakers as "the highest level of wine science we could be exposed to."

Spending an hour and a half in the car with Smith on the way north was a crash course of its own - something like drinking wine from a fire hose. One minute he was talking about his linguistics classes with Noam Chomsky at M.I.T., the next he was on to pH levels, the eight kinds of tannins in wine, and the nuclear-etched membranes that allowed winemakers to finally stabilize sweet wines after World War II.

Smith's own former company, Vinovation, patented an influential reverse osmosis filtration process that allowed wineries to adjust alcohol levels and find a "sweet spot" in their wines.

Smith's book is admittedly targeted more to winemakers than the general public. "My book gets readable by Chapter 12," he concedes.

Nonetheless, Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote in his review that "anybody immersed in wine will benefit from this thought-provoking, unconventional work." And for all Smith's geeky savvy, his overarching message is considerably more poetic.

"As a winemaker, you can't be either a scientist or an artist; you have to be both, and you have to be a highly skilled philosopher to make great wine," he says. "Postmodern winemaking is science in service to art. The aim is human pleasure, soul to soul."

"There's an aroma of cucumber, flower shop, and girl sweat in this - and it's driving me crazy!" says Smith, his eyes bulging lustily as his nose dips into a glass of 2012 Grüner Veltliner in the tasting room at Galen Glen in Andreas, Pa.

I was thinking something a little less sexy - fresh celery ribs, maybe? White pepper and grapefruit? But I could immediately see where Smith's enthusiasm was coming from.

As coordinator of an expert tasting panel for Appellation America, an extensive website dedicated to documenting every officially recognized wine growing region in the country, Smith had already sipped through most of the wines from the Lehigh Valley American Viticultural Area (Pennsylvania's most recent AVA, founded in 2008), which includes portions of Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Schuylkill, Carbon, and Monroe Counties.

Galen Glen was among the panel's darlings.

"They have the elevation and latitude to get more freshness and expressiveness of terroir," Chien says, "because they picked the right varieties."

Grower Galen Troxell and his winemaking wife, Sarah, started their winery in 1995 on his family's farm, founded around 1830.

"It's unforgiving here," said Sarah Troxell, describing the steep, sloping hills and cold, windy winters. "Galen's family struggled as dairy farmers, but it's excellent for growing grapes."

They also had the vision to go beyond the typical native varieties that were advised at the beginning ("We were pretty ignorant," Galen Troxell said.) Instead, they have pioneered the growth in this region of aromatic Northern European grapes - edgy Austrian Grüner Veltiner, exotic Alsatian Gewürztraminer, minerally Riesling - well-suited to the cold climate, and well-drained, stony soils.

The ridge on which the vineyard sits, it turns out, is also ideally situated in its own microclimate between two valleys - Lizard Creek and Mahoning Valley - that siphon off rain and keep moisture down, which grapes love.

The result is in the bottles. The '12 Grüner was named by colleagues on Smith's panel as one of the best versions of that grape in the country. The soon-to-be released '13 was even more expressive, bursting with grapefruit notes reminiscent of a sauvignon blanc. But quality across the board was there.

"Remarkable!" says Smith, sniffing the opulent '12 Gewürztraminer, all floral, honeydew and exotic lychee with dry finish.

Galen's intriguing new Austrian zweigelt, a bright ruby juice fragrant with blueberries and honeysuckle, is a "red that acts like white - very simple, but hard to hate."

At the prices Galen Glen charges, though, with most bottles ranging from $13 to $15, Smith says they are simply "ridiculously worthy for attention."

This was especially true for a soon-to-be-released ice wine made from vidal blanc grapes, a "gorgeous" nectar - intensely sweet, but racy with finishing acidity - that Smith said would be coveted for $50 to $100 if made in a better-known region. The Galens plan to sell it for $37.99.

"It means a lot that Clark values our wines on the world stage," Sarah Troxell says. "But I have to account for the fact that we're in a rural Pennsylvania village with a few hundred people. We like having ice wine to share with everyone - and so it should be affordable."

Galen Glen's secret may not last long. That is especially true if the rest of the 15 or so wineries in the Lehigh Valley and neighboring Berks County keep pace. There were several notable wineries we did not manage to visit, including pioneer Franklin Hill, which makes a Chambourcin Smith's AA tasting panel raved about.

But we hit some worthy highlights, nonetheless.

A bit farther south in Kutztown, winemaker Brad Knapp at Pinnacle Ridge hosted a lively tasting room session amid the barrels aging in the stonewalled room of his big red barn. The wines were not quite as profound as Galen Glen's. But for $10 to $18 a bottle, Pinnacle Ridge delivered a notable rosé bubbly (strawberries and cream), a whip-crack dry Riesling, a terrifically quenching French-style rosé (Oasis), and a solid Chardonnay (for $14!?) crisp with apple spice.

It's little wonder that Knapp, like most of these winemakers, sells almost all he makes to visitors - about 20,000, who last year bought 50,000 bottles from Pinnacle Ridge.

A slightly different equation, perhaps more ambitious, is underway at nearby Blair Vineyards, the passion project of developer Rich Blair, who considered property in Oregon before he settled on this Kutztown hillside with meticulously tended vines that Chien considers possibly "the best vineyard site in all of Pennsylvania."

Of course, Blair's obsession is finicky pinot noir, which, as Smith says, is "starting at the hardest part." His 2009 pinot shows the region's serious potential for terroir and finesse, with an earthy mushroom and strawberry profile that reminded Smith of Savigny-lès-Beaune. The 2010, however, was raisiny and overripe - a sign of inexperience and the challenges of the region's inconsistent weather: "It takes 20 years to make a great wine - and the reds are going to take time," said Smith.

Blair's exceptional pinot gris and Gewürztraminer, however, only reinforced his view that the region's whites have already arrived in a big way. It was also clear from our tasting day that exciting "sub-appelations" of terroir differences were starting to materialize.

"The difference in climate between here and 30 miles north (at Galen Glen) is startling," Chien said. "(Blair) is like Alsace, and (Galen Glen) is like Mosel. With slightly warmer weather, the ripeness at low alcohol just keeps on going."

As we piled into the car and began the return trip south, a bagful of bottles rattled behind us as Smith's history-of-everything lecture picked up right where he left off. And I couldn't help but wonder with new excitement: What other pleasant surprises does the future of Pennsylvania winemaking hold?

If You Go

Blair Vineyards, 99 Dietrich Valley Rd., Kutztown, PA 19530; 610-683-8463; blairvineyards.com

Galen Glen Winery, 255 Winter Mountain Dr., Andreas, Pa., 18211; 570-386-3682; galenglen.com (Galen Glen’s wines are also often poured on draft at London Bar and Grill, at 2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545.)

Pinnacle Ridge Winery, 407 Old U.S. 22, Kutztown, PA 19530; 610-756-4481; pinridge.com. Several of its wines are also sold at Pinot Boutique (227 Market St., Philadelphia; 215-627-9463), though with $4-$7 per bottle mark-ups.

For more information and special events this month in the Lehigh Valley and Berks County “wine trails,” go to lehighvalleywinetrail.com and berkscountywinetrail.com.

Lunch stop! Don’t tour wine country on an empty stomach. The Wanamakers General Store, an institution in this little Berks County ‘burg just north of Kutztown exudes a classic 19th-century country store charm. It has been updated as a tidy, casual lunch cafe that makes hearty soups and carefully crafted sandwiches, including notable wraps (like the zippy Southwestern) and fresh-brewed coffee.

- Craig LaBan

Wanamakers General Store, 8888 Kings Hwy., Kempton, Pa., 19529; 610-756-6609; wanamakersgeneralstore.com




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