A tale of two wineries

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October is Pennsylvania Wine Month. For 31 days, there are special things to do, taste, and discover all across the state. So crack open a bottle and start celebrating with this profile of two Perry county wineries.

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It’s a warm, breezy afternoon in rural Perry County, just 25 minutes northwest of Harrisburg. You’ve finished all your daily chores and are trying to decide what to do next. Two years ago, your choices would have been fairly limited, but now, if you’re hoping for a glass good wine, a tasty meal and maybe some fun entertainment, it’s there waiting for you.

Mike and Mary Pelino opened Bucks Valley Winery and Vineyard in May 2015. At about the same time, Jamie Williams opened his company’s third winery, the Winery at Hunters Valley. The two businesses offer an interesting case study in this growing Commonwealth industry. One is adding an outpost to an established multi-state business, and the other is opening a brand new enterprise.

The Winery at Hunters Valley

One thing they have in common is the beauty of their sites. The Winery at Hunters Valley is set on a hillside overlooking Millersburg and the Susquehanna River. In addition to its wine tasting shop, there is a spacious pavilion used for weddings, festivals and other community activities.

Meanwhile, Bucks Valley Winery and Vineyard is situated on a high plateau with a 360-degree view of the rolling hills, forests, and fields of Perry and Dauphin County. Owner Mike Pelino has a tasting room, dining area, and deck with tables and chairs; his building for weddings and other festivals is still on the drawing board.

The Winery at Hunters Valley project has taught me valuable lessons. One thing that surprised me was the scale of the wine trail events we’ve participated in.Jamie Williams, Winery at Hunters Valley

Mike and Carol Williams opened the doors to their first winery back in 1994. Eleven years ago their son Jamie came on board as vice president.

“In total, we’ve opened three wineries and nine retail outlets in 24 years,” says Jamie Williams. “So you could say we have had some experience. But the Winery at Hunters Valley project has taught me valuable lessons. One thing that surprised me was the scale of the wine trail events we’ve participated in. At the Winery at Wilcox in Elk County, the wine trail has ten members, but they are separated by a distance that makes it difficult for people to drive to multiple wineries in a single day. Our winery in Ohio isn’t part of any wine trail because of location challenges.”

Bottles from the Winery at Hunters Valley / credit: Nicole Shaver

The first weekend of the Harrisburg Hershey Wine Country Trail in May of 2015 caught the family off guard — a huge number of guests arrived. Williams quickly realized that people in this area enjoy popping between wineries clustered in a relatively small geographic area.

The Pelinos were also surprised by aspects of their business at Bucks Valley Winery.

“The biggest surprise for us was how well the kitchen has done,” says Mike Pelino. “I’m sticking with the core food items of pizza, stromboli and calzones. We’ve received many compliments and they pair well with any wine. My wife quadrupled the amount of dough she makes and we still worry about running out on Sundays.”

Housemade snacks at Bucks Valley Winery

Wine sales are steadily increasing at Bucks Valley, but the couple underestimated the demand for dry wines. Dry reds usually take 18 months or longer to produce, so catching up is a slow process. When the vineyard releases a dry red, it usually sells out within a few months. They have scaled up that part of the production process and added several more varieties.

Growing the right grapes isn’t the only struggle.

“As most business owners would tell you, one of the biggest challenges is building and keeping a quality staff,” say Williams. “It took time, but we now have a cohesive group. The second challenge for me was learning to grow grapes. This is my first experience and it’s just as difficult as I expected it to be. This spring we will be planting two additional acres of grapes. Luckily there are a lot of great wine growers in the region willing to give advice and even lend us equipment.”

“Keeping with the grape growing theme, I think we made some really nice wine out of our vineyard last year,” he adds. “Specifically the Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc and Chancellor are exceptionally tasty. We hope to get some of those in the bottle later this year. We are also very proud of the growth of the business in the short time we have been open in this area. We have consistently exceeded our goals for growth each month.”

Good Neighbors

Both vineyards make an effort to be active members of the community — it’s good for the brand, the business and the region.

“At each of our locations, we like to partner with local businesses and organizations from the get go,” says Williams. “As an example, we raise money each year during our Fourth of July Fireworks party for the Perry County Fire Police who coordinate the parking. We charge $1 for each person over 21 and then match the amount we collect. Last year we were able to send them a check for over $1,200.”

The Winery at Hunters Valley

The vineyard also donates the use of its outdoor facilities to the Perry County Council of the Arts for its Country Casual event each September. It is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and Susquehanna River Valley Visitors Bureau. Most employees live, go to school, and pay taxes locally.

One of our most popular events is karaoke. The last time we ended up going past our closing as everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves.Mike Pelino, Bucks Valley Winery

“We have hosted many fundraisers at Bucks Valley Winery,” says Pelino. “There are two that we do on an annual basis. The PA Breast Cancer fundraiser has become an annual event, last year raising $14,000. The other is the Stephen J. Olson Memorial Scholarship fundraiser, which was started by a Newport school teacher in memory of her late husband. This year we are bottling a special label wine for the PA Breast Cancer Coalition; we will be donating $1 for each bottle sold throughout the year.”

Mardi Gras at Bucks Valley Winery

Bucks Valley Winery has live music scheduled throughout the fall, and so far this year they’ve hosted paint parties, Mardi Gras with Jazz, and St. Patrick’s Day with karaoke.

“One of our most popular events is karaoke,” says Pelino with a laugh. “The last time we ended up going past our closing as everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves. Be sure and come early that night. I found out last time that seats go quickly.”

A Bright Future

“We are rolling out four new wines over the next months at Hunters Valley Winery,” says Williams. “We will be releasing two off-dry whites, a Gruner Veltiner and Traminette, a semi-sweet Cayuga called ‘Spirit of the Valley’ which is the counterpart to the red ‘Heart of the Valley,’ and a new sparkling concord/Niagara blend called ‘Susquehanna River Rapids.’ So we have lots of new products for people to come out and try.”

Harvest at Bucks Valley Winery

Mike Pelino has trouble remembering what his original vision was two years ago, but it was not even close to the current reality.

Mike Pelino and his son

“I think proceeding at a rate we are comfortable with has worked, and we will continue at that pace,” he says. “We are planning to add a building to host weddings and larger gatherings because of the amount of interest we have seen.”

For the Williams family, adding to their empire was its own thorny task.

“It is always a challenge when adding a different brand to an established company,” says Williams. “You want them to have a separate identity, but at the same time we want to provide a consistent level of quality and service that our customers have come to expect from our company. To be honest, I think we have done a fairly good job integrating Hunters Valley Winery into the fold. All the credit in that area goes to the staff. We have a really great team in place.”

In the end, running a small winery is about bringing people together.

“The wine, the food, the entertainment, seeing people having a good time — it’s really enjoyable,” says Pelino. “The last two years have brought us many new friends.”

Don Helin published his first thriller, Thy Kingdom Come, in 2009, his second, Devil’s Den, was published in 2012. His third, Secret Assault, was selected as the best Suspense/Thriller at the 2015 Indie Book Awards. Don’s most recent thriller, Angel’s Revenge was published this past May. Contact Don on his website, www.donhelin.com.

Keystone Edge Publisher Greg O’Loughlin is a founder and partner at SWELL, LLC; the company is the advertising and PR agency of record for the Pennsylvania Winery Association.

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