Beyond the Tasting Room: How PA Wineries Kept Pouring During the Pandemic

A band performs in the historic corn barn at Nissley Vineyards over the summer. The Lancaster County winery holds a Music in the Vineyards concert series every summer, but scaled it back in 2020 due to the pandemic. (Courtesy of Nissley Vineyards)

By Jen Sako

October 20, 2020

Wineries across the state have made more use of their outdoor space, giving visitors beautiful views while they sip.

Chad Sletten reveals a surprising detail when he talks about operating Sand Castle Winery during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Things have changed drastically this year,” said Sletten, adding that Sand Castle Winery has had twice as many visitors as last year.

Nestled in Bucks County overlooking the Delaware River, the winery and vineyard draws wine drinkers from New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and even Manhattan.

Sletten, a managing partner of the winery, figures people want to be outside as much as possible these days. Why not with a nice glass of wine made from grapes grown in Sand Castle’s picturesque vineyards?

Especially during October, which is Pennsylvania Wine Month.

Grapes from more than 14,000 acres of fertile land are harvested here each year from late August until October. These grapes will become the wines to be promoted and sold throughout 2021 and beyond.

Wineries across the state are holding events this month that include curated wine flights, musical performances, and other outdoor activities. 

“Of course, the wineries take into account the regulations from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the CDC, and any guidance offered by the governor’s office for wineries and restaurants,” said Jennifer Eckinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Wine Association.

They fall under the same guidelines as restaurants, as far as health officials are concerned. And visitors are encouraged to call ahead as local regulations can vary.

Beyond the Tasting Room: How PA Wineries Kept Pouring During the Pandemic
Nissley Vineyards employee Susan Stroh serves a wine flight at Nissley Vineyards. The winery has been offering its tastings outside. (Courtesy of Nissley Vineyards)

The silver lining in the adjustment to accommodate safe gatherings, Sletten believes, is the way wineries have maximized their outdoor space. He says Sand Castle expanded its outdoor seating so that visitors can enjoy the beautiful views as well as the wine.

For autumn, Sand Castle is highlighting its Alpine Spice wine which is from a recipe Sletten says was derived in Switzerland. A customer favorite, Alpine Spice is a heated mulled sipping wine made with 18 herbs and spices in a Reisling. “It tastes like apple pie. Even people who say they don’t like sweet wines love it.”

At Narcisi Winery, located in the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, the recently harvested grapes are being crushed. 

“Then the wine will sit in tanks, some undergoing some oak aging, for up to a year,” said operations director Roberto Smiraglio. For this month, he recommends Narcisi’s signature dry red blend called Stella and its popular Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kyle Jones is the winemaker at Nissley Vineyards in Lancaster County and enjoys working with the French hybrid grapes growing on the property. He’s particularly inspired by the constant challenges of the industry. 

“You know, you’re dealing with something that is alive before I get it at the winery as well as—some would say—alive once it’s in the bottle. It’s a product that lives and moves and breathes throughout the year and from year to year.”

Nissley Vineyards is one of the oldest wine producers in Pennsylvania. 

“Having been around for four decades,” Jones said, “the brand has cultivated a very loyal customer base.”

Fans of Nissley Vineyards are also taking advantage of expanded outdoor seating. The winery is dotted with limestone buildings constructed with stones dating from the 1790s. Stone arches, cool brooks, and historic buildings give the winery a unique aesthetic that brings people back over again.

This year, visitors can enjoy spiced hard cider by one of several fire pits created out of necessity for social distancing, but now a feature that seems to feed a newfound desire to be in nature.

Amy Auman has owned Elk Mountain Winery for a year now and also sees how much people love milling around her establishment looking over the valley and seeing the wildlife outside her back door.

“More and more, people want to be outside,” she said. “They want to eat outside, they want to drink outside…they want to be outside.”

Many of her customers are from Pittsburgh on their way to see the elk herd in Bennezette, Elk County.

Beyond the Tasting Room: How PA Wineries Kept Pouring During the Pandemic
Bull elk spar in Elk County. (Shutterstock/Paul Staniszewski)

While Auman has added a few blends, Elk Mountain Winery kept many of the same wines that delighted visitors for years.

“You know, I have those regulars, but the people that are from out of town when they come, they buy a couple of cases because they know it has to last them a while.”  

Wine drinkers seem to appreciate how wineries are thinking beyond the tasting room to accommodate the times and season.

“Whether it’s a wine dinner, or a particular wine tasting event (we are doing one on Halloween week, for example, pairing traditional candy with wine), our guests are always very interested and enthusiastic,” Smiraglio said. “The response is always very positive and successful.”


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