A Trip to my own Back Yard: Penns Woods Winery

I am the first one to admit that I am a bit of a wine snob (and my wife is the first to modify that statement by removing the words “a bit of”), so when I think of visiting a winery, it invariably involves a plane ticket to California or Europe followed by a long drive, or a good sized train trip.

I know that there are wines being made on the East Coast, perhaps most notably in New York and Virginia, but being the snob that I am, well, I just have not taken those regions seriously enough yet to warrant a visit.

At some point over the summer, another wine blogger, Elizabeth of Traveling Wine Chick (who had relatively recently moved to Napa Valley) alerted me that she would be coming out to Pennsylvania to visit some of her favorite wineries.


She elaborated that these were not her favorite Pennsylvania wineries, but some of her favorite wineries period. Did I mention that she lives in Napa Valley?

I did visit a few Pennsylvania wineries a couple of years ago, but outside of Galer Estate (which was fabulous), I had to say that I was not all that impressed. Beth’s pending visit, however, caused me to pause and reassess my rather cloudy view of a few of the wineries in my own backyard.

She agreed with my assessment of Galer Estate, but stressed that I should also visit Va La Vineyards and Penns Woods Winery. Since the three wineries were no more than 20 miles apart, I mapped out a bike route for a nice forty mile ride, hitting all three wineries along the way. I called up a couple of buddies (who were both cyclists and fellow wine enthusiasts), and scheduled the ride.

IMG_4221I doubt many outside of Pennsylvania know of Penns Woods Winery (our first stop), but every wine drinker who has seen a bottle of the Italian wine with the short twig of grape vine tied to the neck, knows the influence of its owner, Gino Razzi, the exclusive importer of that wine (Cantina Zaccagnini).

Gino’s daughter Carley met us at the winery where she was frantically running around, preparing for the day’s activities. (Just about every weekend, Carley plans a variety of events to bring people to the winery. The day we were there, there was an art class, live music, and a picnic.) Carley is the type of person that everyone immediately likes, with her infectious smile and engaging personality, she instantly puts everyone at ease. Make no mistake though, she is no wallflower, she has a quick and clever wit, which is no doubt a necessity around her father.

Carley led us to the porch of the charming farm house, where we settled in for our nearly two-hour tasting.

Penns Woods Tasting Room. It seems like every time I go riding and wine tasting in Pennsylvania it rains.

Penns Woods Tasting Room. It seems like every time I go riding and wine tasting in PA, it rains.

First, we started with a few lively whites.

2013 Penns Woods Sauvingon Blanc: Retail $24. Not as expressive a nose as some Sauvignon Blancs, but it was a bit cold. Eventually, some nice tropical aromas snuck out. Wonderful acidity and fruit. Really nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points. 

2014 Penns Woods Gruner Veltliner: Retail $24. A bit of nuttiness on the nose and great aromatics. Acidity a gogo which hides the fruit a bit until the finish. Very Good. 88-90 Points. 

Right before the Chardonnay, we were joined by Gino. It was my first time meeting Gino and, well, he comes as close to “indescribable” as anyone I have ever met. He is combination of stand-up comic, passionate salesman, and talented winemaker. He is the kind of guy that you could easily spend all day with and never get a word in. In other words, my kind of guy.

2013 Penns Woods Chardonnay Reserve: Retail $28. 48 year old vines. 50% New French oak. Nutty and lime with a hint of oak. On the palate very nice as the nuttiness and lime are still there with great acidity. Round and fleshy, this works really well. Outstanding. 90-92 Points. 

Before hitting the reds, we were presented with a “white merlot” which was actually a rosé. I was skeptical as I immediately thought of “white zinfandel” and all of its negative associations. I was assuaged when Gino indicated that not only was it completely dry, but it was also a dedicated rosé—the fruit was grown and picked with the express purpose of becoming a rosé. Some of you know that I have become a rosé aficionado, and this was squarely in my wheelhouse.

IMG_42232014 Penns Woods White Merlot: Retail $22. Not a saignée. Bone dry. Bright and fruity. Strawberry. On the palate really nice with fruit and backbone. Impressive finish. A fantastic rosé. Outstanding. 91-93 Points. 

I have not hidden my disdain for Chambourcin—I think every last vine of it should be ripped out of the ground and replaced with Cabernet Franc (see below). I was surprised when Gino agreed with me—he, too, dislikes Chambourcin with a passion. His daughter (and marketing manager) Carley cheerfully disagreed, assuring me that people come to the winery asking to try a Chambourcin. Unfortunately, for some stupid reason, many people see it as the Pennsylvania variety (which makes you really stop and think about the collective taste of the people of the Commonwealth). Gino, not one to cross his daughter, relented and decided to make a Chambourcin, but in true Gino fashion stated that if he were going to make a Chambourcin, he would make “the best damned Chambourcin possible.”

2011 Penns Woods Chambourcin: Retail $30. A decidedly funky nose but not nearly as funky as most Chambourcins that I have had the misfortune to try. On the palate? I was ready to hate it, but I didn’t. Not my first choice of wines that I would consider buying, but it really is the best Cambourcin I’ve ever had, which is not saying much, but still Very Good. 87-89 Points. 

IMG_42252012 Penns Woods Cabernet Franc Reserve: $32. This is why I think Cabernet Franc should be the Pennsylvania variety. Dark red fruit and slightly meaty. On the palate it explodes with fruit. Great body and a stellar finish. Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points. 

Last, we tried a few wines with a bit of sweetness to them….

2014 Penns Woods Bancroft Riesling: Retail $22. As Gino put it: “Elegance is the secret to wine.” A hint of petrol and lemon lime and peach on the nose. On the palate off-dry and Gino was right: elegant. All the way through this is a fantastic wine. Gino stated that he likes his Riesling young like a seventeen year old ballerina (which elicited an eye roll from Carley). I do not have any experience with ballerinas, but I do with Riesling, and this is Outstanding. 91-93 Points. 

2013 Penns Woods Moscato: Muscat Canneli. Retail $22. Classic Muscat nose. Aromatic white peaches and floral. Nice acidity and the right sweetness. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.

After the tasting, Gino took us in his golf cart for a tour of the vineyard, explaining his approach to winemaking (and by extension, life) as he drove. The winery, from an economic standpoint is but a small portion of his business life: Gino imports several hundred thousand cases of French and Italian wine every year (about 200,00 cases of the Cantina Zaccagnini alone). As we stopped to examine a few clusters, he claimed that he bought Penns Woods Winery in 2004 “as a hobby” but having tasted through his wines, and seeing his passion in the vineyard, it is clear that Penns Woods Winery is much, much more than that.

Gino Razzi.

Gino Razzi.

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner, Merlot, Moscato, Riesling, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to A Trip to my own Back Yard: Penns Woods Winery

  1. Look at you branching out! First Italy now Pennsylvania! Awesome for you and way to go Elizabeth.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Beth says:

    Jeff, this may be one of your best pieces ever. I’m nominating this for an award, if I ever get a chance! Outstanding 98-100 points. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kara Sweet says:

    I have visited several “other” U.S. wine regions. I always imagine that was what Napa/Sonoma was in the 1960s-1970s, a lot of passionate people looking to make good wine…some may be there already and some not so much. However, they have always been informative stops, and I always find a small handful of excellent producers that I believe will be the tide that raises all the boats in that region.
    The Finger Lakes has several excellent producers: Dr. Frank, Heart and Hands, Herman J. Wiemer, just off the top of my head. My visit to Colorado also showed a select few, like Canyon Winds Cellars. I am visiting the Texas Hill Country this Christmas and look forward to seeing the area’s producers.
    I think you did your visit perfectly. Meet and speak with the people operating the winery and/or making the wine. I am sure these wineries in lesser-known areas get much from the constructive criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great piece, Jeff. PW is one of my absolute local favorites. I’m glad that you had a good experience. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Impressive Jeff, those are some really high marks. never had this wine but I think I’m a convert, great reviews of a really memorable tasting.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well it’s about time you hit up your backyard wineries! Excellent reviews. Gino looks like a fun guy.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. chef mimi says:

    What fun! Gino looks like a great guy!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It took me a while to come around to support local wineries as well, especially here in the Garden State, which most may argue is more a concrete jungle than a garden. However, while I still think we’ve got a ways to go, I applaud those that are seriously trying to make the best wine they possibly can. And I’ll also agree with you on Chambourcin as New Jersey has a fair amount of this as well. In fact, they created a wine label–similar to meritage–that requires a certain percentage of chambourcin. But I guess if you’re gonna make it, it better be damn good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that supporting local wineries is a goal, but as I always say, for me they have to compete on both quality and price. I am not going to buy a “good” local Cab Franc, e.g., if I can get a great Chinon for half the price. As for Chambourcin, Gino’s was good, but it is by FAR the exception (and he should still rip it out and replace it with Cab Franc).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Kat says:

    Now it’s on my must visit list. I’ve heard a lot about them but haven’t made it out to visit yet. Va La Vineyards, the other one Beth recommended, is magical. They make a Prima Donna white blend that I still have dreams about. I can count on one hand wines that have left an imprint on me and that is one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jennifer says:

    As a PA native, I’m happy to see you exploring and enjoying the area. Will need to put Penns Woods on my itinerary during one of my visits home!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Beth says:

    I just had to read this again. I love this. My favorite part: Gino stated that he likes his Riesling young like a seventeen year old ballerina (which elicited an eye roll from Carley). I do not have any experience with ballerinas, but I do with Riesling, and this is Outstanding. 91-93 Points. This still makes me laugh and I can see it happening after my visit with Gino. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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