Meet the OG of Pennsylvania’s Women-Owned Wineries

By Patrick Berkery

May 24, 2023

Elaine Pivinski started Franklin Hill Vineyards with one row of grapes in 1976. Today, the operation includes a winery, a distillery, and three retail shops.

NORTHAMPTON COUNTY— Years ago, when customers reached the end of the mile-long dirt path that led to Franklin Hill Vineyards, they were greeted with a sign that read “We’re in the vineyard, honk for service.”

“We’d stop working and come out of the vineyards in our sweatshirts and jeans and T-shirts and offer tastings,” said Elaine Pivinski, Franklin Hill’s founder and co-owner, laughing at the memory.

These days when customers arrive at the Lehigh Valley vineyard and winery — for many years, the only one of Pennsylvania’s approximately 300 winery-vineyards that was solely female-owned — they might catch a glimpse of the Mack truck Pivinski was gifted for her 73rd birthday. That truck transports Franklin Hill’s many varieties — like the signature Sir Walter’s Red (named in honor of Pivinski’s late father, Walter, it was one of the top 10 selling local wines in Pennsylvania last year, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) to grocery stores across Pennsylvania, and to the winery’s retail shops in Bartonsville, Bethlehem, and Easton.

Much has changed for Pivinski since 1976, when she planted the first crop of grapes at the 35-acre Bangor farm she bought with her ex-husband. The New Jersey couple, who knew “zero” about winemaking, according to Pivinski, ended up in the Lehigh Valley after deciding they wanted to live a more rural existence with their two young children.

Starting from zero meant learning on the job. With help from Cornell University, the couple was able to plant their first crop of French-American hybrid grapes, which Pivinski often did while dragging her children through the vineyard on a blanket. When equipment needed fixing, Pivinski would call the manufacturer and figure out how to make the repairs over the phone.

“I used to call people and say, ‘I’m not familiar with motors and pumps, but I’m great at following instructions. Do you think you have time to teach me how to fix this?’” Pivinski said. “They’d say ‘OK, honey, let me show you how to do it.’”

What hasn’t changed is Pivinski’s work ethic. Just like when she planted the first grapes in 1976, or when the winery officially opened in 1982, and when she and her husband split in 1985 and Pivinski took over the business as a single mother, you’ll still find the 75-year-old out in the vineyard getting her hands dirty planting and harvesting.

“I love being out there working with the earth, because I feel like the earth is working with me,” Pivinski said. “I feel like the universe has rewarded me. I’m not talking financially, but in being happy with my life, and the way I’ve treated people. It all comes back to me and it’s been good stuff.”

Meet the OG of Pennsylvania’s Women-Owned Wineries
Franklin Hill Vineyards founder and owner Elaine Pivinski with her longtime winemaker, Bonnie Pysher. (Courtesy Franklin Hill Vineyards)

Pivinski said the people she has worked with over the years have been an important part of her success, especially the women she has employed at Franklin Hill. Years ago, she befriended a group of fellow local moms and convinced them to work with her in the vineyards during the day while their children were in school.

“These were women during the 80s that were not career oriented, but they had to have a job,” Pivinski said. “What are you going to do, work at the school cafeteria or work at the vineyard? All of these mothers came once the school bus left with their children and then left at 2:30 so they were able to cook dinner for their husbands.”

Some of those relationships have lasted decades. Franklin Hill’s general manager, Cheryl Paynter, has been with Pivinski for more than 20 years. Her winemaker, Bonnie Pysher, has been with her for more than 40 years. Pysher was a local mother with young twins looking for something to get her out of the house for a few hours each day. All these years later, Pivinski credits her with helping to define Franklin Hill’s identity.

“She’s such an innovative winemaker,” Pivinski said. “She came up with blueberry wine, green wine, and apricot wine. Purists said, ‘This is not wine.’ Well, guess what? People like it and it makes money. Wine is supposed to be fun and not so serious and pompous.”

Some of Franklin Hill’s new offerings include the sparkling Saignee Mousseux, which Pivinski likened to a light Rose’, and Sir Walter Bubbly, an effervescent canned version of the vineyard’s Sir Walter Red with a low alcohol content.

Having spent 47 years taking Franklin Hill from one acre of grapes to a thriving operation with a statewide footprint, Pivinski has been cutting back on her workload in recent years. She said she has stepped back a bit to allow her son and co-owner, Adam Flatt, and Paynter, to become the new faces of Franklin Hill. Flatt has been expanding Franklin Hill’s operations to include the Social Still, a distillery and restaurant in Bethlehem. He is one of a handful of men who have been playing a larger role in recent years.

“I love the testosterone after 45 years of estrogen,” Pavinski said with a laugh.

Her commitment to mentoring women, both within and outside of the Franklin Hill organization, hasn’t wavered. Pivinski said she learned hard lessons trying to get the business off the ground as a single mother and is always willing to share her experience with aspiring female entrepreneurs.

“I’ve had so many doors shut in my face,” Pivinski said. “That glass ceiling was so hard for me to shatter trying to get bills paid with no second income. I always say when I mentor women, ‘You can’t do it all.’ Don’t think you’re going to be the best housekeeper, cook for the children, cook for the husband, and also be a CEO. It just doesn’t happen. Something’s got to give. That’s what I learned. And that’s what I always try to share.”


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