Popular Cheese House burns

Store, wine shop destroyed in fire

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A popular Westmoreland County cheese store that also housed a local winery's satellite location burned to the ground late Sunday, and whether the businesses will be able to rebuild remains unclear.

A Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal unit is investigating the blaze at the Cheese House along Route 22 in Derry Township, which started about 11 p.m. Sunday.

Fire investigators said the preliminary cause of the fire was undetermined Monday afternoon, according to Trooper Stephen Limani of the Greensburg state police barracks.

"At this time we really don't have any origin or cause," said Blairsville Volunteer Fire Department Chief George Burkley. "The building was totally destroyed. That makes it a lot more difficult."

No serious injuries were reported. A few firefighters slipped and fell on the ice, receiving bumps and bruises, the chief said.

The owner of the Cheese House, a specialty cheese store, could not be reached Monday. Employees from Raspberry Acres Winery, which sells wine and other merchandise inside the Cheese House, surveyed the damage late Monday morning to determine whether anything was salvageable. One employee, Kathy Teslevich of New Florence, said owners Sally and Paul Cunkelman were leaving for a planned vacation, so she and the other part-time employees stopped by on their behalf.

Among the losses were cases of wine, T-shirts and items such as a refrigerator, credit card machine and cash register, Ms. Teslevich said, stressing that was only a rough estimate. Perhaps the most substantial losses are the potential customers that would stop to sample wine along the main road heading into Indiana County.

"Those new ones that we grab and turn into our tried-and-true customers -- we'll be missing that for a long time," she said.

The building is owned by Craig Piper, whose son, Garvin, said it has been in the family since the 1960s. The younger Mr. Piper said Monday he wasn't sure what would be the next step for the building. The family rented the space to the owner of the cheese store and to the winery owners.

Dave Himes, who lives next door to the shop, said he watched the smoke and flames as emergency vehicles lined the road as far as he could see.

"I'd say they fought it for two hours at least," he said.

Winery employee Jean Shepherd and her husband, Gary, a former Blairsville firefighter, looked through the charred remains of the building Monday, aghast at the melted cash register and ashen T-shirts.

"It's terrible," Ms. Shepherd said.

Robert Zullo contributed. Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published February 10, 2014 8:05 AM

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