March 2012 Issue of Wines & Vines

Sunny Site + Gravity Flow = Quality Pinot Noir

Blair Vineyards in southeastern Pennsylvania meets challenges of Eastern winegrowing

by Linda Jones McKee
When Richard Blair discovered Pinot Noir and became inspired to grow grapes that would make a great wine, he did what many people do: He planted the family farm. In his case, however, the family had 300 acres of farmland in the foothills of southeastern Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, not much of the land was suitable for quality grapegrowing,” Blair told Wines & Vines. “The slopes weren’t right, and too much was northeast facing.”

In 1998 he planted 8 acres of winegrapes high on a hillside at 1,050 feet—and, most importantly, facing south. He put in varieties appropriate for cooler Pennsylvania sites: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and (his personal favorite) Pinot Noir. What he didn’t realize at the time was that while his hillside Rockland Vineyard faced the right direction, the woods surrounding it limited the amount of sunshine available to the grapes.

Initially Blair sold some of his grapes, and then in 2004 he opened a small winery at the Rockland Vineyard. He might have stayed right where he was with a small winery and 8 acres of vines, but his eldest daughter, Missy, had also been bitten by the wine industry bug. She encouraged Blair to find a vineyard site that would allow the winery to expand in the future. “I definitely learned it is best to find the site for growing quality grapes and not to plant the farm,” Blair says with a smile.

Greenwich Vineyard
He made numerous trips to France—especially Burgundy—and to Oregon to learn from growers and winemakers working with Pinot Noir and other grapes in somewhat cool and cloudy environments. “I came back from trips to Oregon in 2005 and 2006 knowing what I needed to find,” Blair stated. He placed an ad in a local farming publication for sloping farmland that faced south. While he had several responses, most farmers seemed somewhat directionally challenged, and the land available was definitely not facing south.

When Blair first saw the property he would eventually buy, it was covered in a half-foot of snow. After searching the Internet for geologic and weather data, taking soil samples and appraising its viability for growing grapes, Blair bought 35 acres in April 2007. The land now known as the Greenwich Vineyard (pronounced the Pennsylvania Dutch way: “Green-witch”) was 300 feet lower than Blair’s home vineyard, totally open with no woods, and the 10°-15° slopes faced southeast, south and southwest.

Blair firmly believes that sites like his Greenwich Vineyard bring out the quality of the grapes. “It’s not just the growing-degree days,” he states. “It’s all about the increased amount of sunshine from early morning to late afternoon. If you can find a good site for Pinot Noir, I think we can do remarkable things with Pinot Noir on the East Coast.”

By May he had planted 10 acres, and has added approximately 5 acres each year since then. A total of 23 acres are now planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Pinot Noir, and he is considering planting some Sauvignon Blanc this year.

The winery
With the vineyard site planted, Blair turned his attention to designing his winery. One Oregon winery he visited particularly inspired him. The three-tier, gravity-flow winery at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in Newberg, Ore., appealed to Blair because of the potential for gently handling the grapes as they were moved from picking lugs to fermenting tanks, and the wine from barrel storage and finally bottling.

The hillside Greenwich site was ideal for building a gravity-flow winery. Blair, who worked in the family real estate development and construction company Blair and Son Inc., now located in Paoli, Pa., outside Philadelphia for many years, designed the basic plan, while the finishing details were done by a local architectural firm, Home Field Advantage, in Pottstown, Pa.

The top level is the main entrance into the winery and consists of the tasting room, a kitchen, offices and an outside covered tasting pavilion. Grapes also come in from the vineyard at this level, and lugs are dumped into the destemmer-crusher or directly into fermentors on the middle level. The lowest level is built into the hillside and contains the stainless steel tank room, the barrel room, a bottling area and finished bottle storage.

Because the building is based on bedrock, there is no heat in the lowest level. The natural geo-thermal temperature remains between 55° and 65°F in the barrel room, while the storage room gradually shifts from a low of 40° to a maximum of 70°F in the summer.

The winery was built in 2009-10, with Blair acting as his own general contractor. The facility opened in summer 2010 and is now producing 12,000 gallons of wine. Initially, Blair handled everything from growing the grapes through making and bottling the wine. He soon realized, however, that he prefers to be in the vineyard and leave the winemaking to his consultant, Catherine Peyrot des Gashons, and her assistant, Hilary Gary, who does cellar work and some wine marketing.

Peyrot des Gashons, who graduated from the University of Bordeaux, has worked at wineries in Burgundy and Oregon and currently lives in Philadelphia. Gary worked as a financial planner and now is both learning from Peyrot des Gashons and participating in the enology program at the Harrisburg Area Community College.

All grapes are handpicked into lugs, which are delivered to the top level of the winery 2 tons at a time. Some of the whites are fermented as whole clusters, while others go through the PMH crusher-destemmer that Blair bought from More Wine in California. Chardonnay goes directly into barrels for fermentation. Primary fermentation occurs on the second level in 1-ton bins and in variable-capacity tanks ranging in size from 1 to 5 tons, which Blair purchased from GW Kent in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Various strains of yeast are added to the different lots of wine depending on the varietal and style of wine that Blair is planning to make.

Punch down is done hydraulically by a special piece of equipment by the SK Group, which Blair found in France and purchased through Pleasantville, N.Y.-based Prospero Equipment Corp. It takes approximately five minutes to punch down a cap using this equipment. Pressing is done using the 35-hectoliter press manufactured by SK Group and sold by Prospero Equipment.

Blair believes that variety in barrels is the best way to achieve a balance of flavors, and consequently he has acquired barrels from a variety of sources including Dargaud & Jaegle Tonnellerie (from Premier Wine Cask), Tonnellerie Cadus from Bouchard Cooperages and Seguin Moreau.

Chardonnay is the only variety that Blair ferments in oak. He uses 228- and 400-liter barrels for the Chardonnay and, depending on the season, leaves it in the barrel for seven to 10 months. All of his other wines are fermented in open-top fermentors; Pinot Noir is then put in French oak (90%) and Hungarian oak (10%) for between nine and 13 months. Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are left in French and Hungarian oak for between 11 and 15 months.

Because the winery is gravity flow, Blair does not own a must pump. When he does pump a wine—from tank to the bottling line, for example—he uses a Liverani pump from Prospero. His hoses are all 1.5 inches. Blair’s bottling line is one not usually found in the wine industry. He acquired the line from SBC Bottling and Canning Group in Chicago, Ill. It has a five-spout filler and does between 700 and 800 bottles per hour. The winery receives its bottles in bulk from Hauser Packaging. After the wine is bottled, it is stored as clean skins in wire cages that Blair imports from France. Cardboard cases are used only for transporting wine from the winery to restaurants or Blair’s other tasting rooms.

The challenges
Winegrowing east of the Rockies offers numerous challenges; along the entire East Coast including Pennsylvania, hurricanes are an annual problem. Growers prepare by applying appropriate sprays throughout the growing season, but the intensity and duration of different storm systems can have a major impact. The harvest in 2011 was more difficult than most. Hurricane Irene arrived with strong winds and many inches of rain; it was followed within a week by Hurricane Lee.

“Our vineyard survived Irene okay,” Blair reported, “but Lee stayed around for a week, and grapes started to rot. As a result, we didn’t pick half the vineyard.” However, Blair reports that his Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer were fine. Later red varieties such as Cabernet Franc and Syrah had 11 days of sunshine that helped color accumulation, and those wines are coming along nicely.

Marketing is another challenge, although major metropolitan population centers are not far away. Blair is located just west of Allentown, Pa., 70 miles from Philadelphia and less than four miles south of Interstate 78, a highway that feeds directly into New York City about 100 miles east.

The winery belongs to the Berks County Wine Trail, a group of eight wineries that sponsor four weekend events during the year: Wine and Chocolate in February; Food of the World, April 21-22; Christmas in August, Aug. 4-5; and Wine and Cheesecake Pairings, Oct. 6-7. As many as 1,000-1,200 customers come to visit the winery during the Wine and Chocolate weekend, while the other weekend trail events attract about 600 people. In addition, Blair holds winemaker dinners once a month at the winery, which can seat up to 60 people.

Future plans
At some point, Blair plans to add more vineyard acreage at the Greenwich Vineyard site. He has 20 acres in vines now and could add between 5 and 9 more acres in the future, possibly adding some Sauvignon Blanc.

Although the winery was constructed less than two years ago, Blair already has plans for its expansion. “I’d like to add a cut-and-cover cave to use for product storage—both barrels and finished product,” he said. The tasting room, which currently is approximately 1,000 square feet, also is proving to be too small. The covered patio outside the tasting room may be enclosed while a new, larger patio is added closer to the vineyard.

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