Wine group hopes to lift state's profile

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Pennsylvania's wine makers look north to the vineyards of New York and are green -- not to mention red, white and rosé -- with envy.

New York's is an industry that has generated nearly $500 million in annual wine sales through a savvy mix of marketing and government investment; and Pennsylvania, with a similar climate, believes it has similar sales potential.

That's why the Pennsylvania Winery Association is recommending, in a report released yesterday, that the state direct $1 million a year to marketing, and $500,000 annually toward the research of grape-growing (viticulture) and wine-making (enology). That $2 million investment should boost Pennsylvania's wine profile.

The $2 million is the equivalent of 10 cents for every of gallon of wine now sold in the state -- not just Pennsylvania wine, but all vintages sold at state stores. The source of that funding, however, is uncertain. The Pennsylvania Winery Association, a trade group, wants the money to come from the state -- either a wine tax or some other funding stream.

"We're looking for an investment into the industry," said Jennifer Eckinger, the association's spokeswoman. The $10 million over five years is a small government investment (relative to, say, the PNC skyscraper), with a potentially huge return, given that the industry already employs 5,200 and draws about 900,000 visitors each year.

The report was the kickoff for a plea-for-cash campaign being called Vintage 2012, a plan to double the sales of Pennsylvania wines over the next five years. Doing so would create a reciprocal boost in wine-related tourism, agriculture jobs and farmland preservation, as well as tax revenues, the PWA says.

But that won't happen unless the wine, and its image, improve.

"Years ago, there were some wines made that weren't so good," said Steve Menke, the state's chief enologist, or wine scientist. As a result, "there's sort of the homegrown curse -- it can't be good if it comes from here," he said.

The quality of the wine and the grapes can be affected by Pennsylvania's fickle soil and wicked summer humidity, which is why funding be being sought for ongoing research into growing techniques. Disease and mold are also problems, leading to grape shortages and forcing grape farmers to pull up as many vines as they plant.

Tackling wine and grape quality has been an ongoing mission for the wine association. Four years ago, for example, the groups teamed to lure Mr. Menke from Illinois to Pennsylvania (he's technically employed by the Penn State Cooperative Extension based in Adams County). In 2000, the state Department of Agriculture created the Wine Marketing and Research Program to spur research and deveopment within the young industry.

As wine's popularity grows in America (we soon will consume more wine annually than does France), so too does the market potential for domestic wineries. While New York wines are said to create more than $3 billion in wine sales and ancillary benefits, Pennsylvania's industry generates $661 million, including $28 million in retail wine sales.

Pennsylvania's growth has been impressive -- from 35 or so wineries in the mid-1980s to 60 wineries in 1998, to 80 in 2003, to 120 today, many in suburban Philadelphia. But there's the potential for so much more -- a potential that will be unleashed, wine enthusiasts say, only when the state ponies up. Pennsylvania allocates $100,000 a year for wine research and marketing; that's matched by the wineries' own 15-cent-per-gallon pledge, which last year generated about $110,000.

Compare that with New York, where the amount allocated last year just to improve individual winery Web sites --$266,000 -- is more than the total that Pennsylvania spends.

"There is no reason that we cannot pass New York," which has 240 wineries, said Don Chapman, chairman of Wine Marketing and Research Board, and owner of Brookmere Farm Vineyards in Belleville. "There are states with a lot fewer wineries than we have getting a lot more money than we are."


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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