- This summer, at the movies…
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Waltz wines excite a new generation of wine lovers
Winemaker Jan Waltz will tell you that quality wines start with quality grapes grown on mature vines in rich, sandy soil. Then the grapes can be harvested, crushed, fermented and aged in toasted French oak barrels.
“And there always is a bit of luck involved too,” he smiles, “as with nature’s hand, some years the wines can be even better than others.”
The words quality and care are part of any conversation with the 50-year old Waltz who, with wife Kim, has built the Old Line Road, Rapho Township winery from a very modest start into one of the premier wine producers in the East all in the past two decades.
Who knew that you could grow viniferous grapes favored in Europe on land that had supported tobacco and diversified farming for generations? Jan Waltz didn’t until a set of fortuitous circumstances confirmed what he had hoped. The Waltz farm, with its well-drained, sandy soil, and overall mild weather, was the perfect place to produce the highest quality red and white wines.
A 1989 Penn State ag grad, Waltz looked to follow his dad and generations of Waltz men who worked the Manheim farm. He planned a more diversified operation with both field crops and livestock. Even with the changes, Waltz just wasn’t sure that his plans would keep the farm profitable for the family and future generations.
With Kim, Waltz had toured the California wineries. He saw how well the industry was doing there and wondered if it could be as successful in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, where he knew, from his experience, existed a relatively mild climate which provided a long growing season. He wondered if grape vineyards might be the added-value crop that he was looking for that would move the farm into the 21st century.
The stars aligned for Jan and Kim in the late 1990s as they began to think more seriously of converting acreage to vineyards. Making it all possible was the Farm Winery Act passed by the legislature in 1969, allowing for production of wines in Pennsylvania. Before that, since Prohibition, vineyards in Pennsylvania — and they were mostly in the Lake Erie area — were providing grapes for jellies and juices.
First, a Canadian soil scientist Todd Mason, from the Niagara wine region, who Waltz consulted, tested his soil and said the farm was ideal for a vineyard and encouraged Waltz to grow grapes and even try his hand at wine production.
Although he continued to work the land in season, Waltz, like many Pennsylvania farmers of his and earlier generations, had to hold down a second job to succeed. He had a successful 25-year career as an auctioneer at the auto auction down the road.
Second, at the time Penn State was active in encouraging the growth of grapes in-state and its research showed that certain varieties thrived in the soil and climate. Many farmers, including Jan’s uncle, had experimented with small plots to produce grapes for wine, but the economy was not ready to support wineries to compete with the established New York and California vineyards.
In 1997, Waltz committed to vineyards on his property and the vines he purchased were for viniferous grapes that are the staple of European wineries. Waltz thought, at first, he would just grow grapes for other wineries and his first harvest of one-and-a-half tons in 1999 went to Chadds Ford winery.
In 2000, Waltz grew six tons of grapes and produced wine for family and friends out of his garage.
“It was pretty good,” he smiled, “and it is still referred to as our garage wine.”
Third, at the time, Waltz met Mark Chien, who joined the faculty at Penn State from Oregon State University where he helped in the renaissance of the Northwest’s wine industry.
“Mark worked hard with Pennsylvania farmers interested in growing grapes and introduced them to soil scientists and enologists and also taught them how to plant the vineyards and train the workers,” Waltz said. “Mark brought many world class soil scientists to our vineyards for field days to test the soil, give advice, and ultimately they re-affirmed we had the right soil and climate to succeed.”
Said Chien, talking about Waltz from the Oregon Wine Research Institute where he is program coordinator, “It was a perfect partnership with Jan and Kim. I was looking for a vineyard to bring wine experts to, and the Waltz’s were very receptive and wonderful hosts. Jan and Kim were visionaries and wanted to learn, and I am happy I was able to help in their growth to be one of the top Eastern wineries.”
The final push to go commercial for Waltz came from Gino Razzi, a Philadelphia importer and owner of Penns Woods Winery, Chadds Ford, who became a close friend and mentor.
“Gino took me to Europe to visit many French and Italian vineyards and wineries,” said Waltz, “and he encouraged me to get licensed and commit to a first class, commercial winery which I did in 2008.”
In 2009, Waltz opened the winery to the public with a tasting room, tours, and special events. In 2012, Waltz opened its first retail stores (Lititz, Intercourse, and Manheim) and the wines have become favorites at local restaurants. Waltz Vineyard wines are not sold in PLCB stores, but soon should be available in area grocery stores.
A club was started for early winery fans with discounts and special programs offered during the year. Ann Daly has coordinated the effort since 2012 and has been a knowledgeable and popular host to visitors at the tasting room. The Waltz Wine Club numbers nearly 500 members who receive quarterly shipments (Waltz ships to 16 states with new ones pending) and are invited to special events and tastings both at the winery and offsite. Kim Waltz recently hosted a vertical tasting (same Waltz wines from different years) at the Booking House in Manheim for more than 100 wine club members.
To achieve and maintain consistent quality, Waltz knew was important in separating his winery from the competition, he worked closely, as the operation grew, with Italian enologist Geoffredo Agostini. Agostini continues to visit several times each year to test, with Waltz, the young and aging wines and to discuss blending as well as future plans for the winery and vineyards.
Jan and Kim have four children: three active girls, and a son. who is majoring in viticulture and enology at Cornell, and who Waltz hopes, will one day run the vineyards and winery for the next generation of wine lovers.
The local winemaker has put to rest skeptics’ talk that high-quality wines could not be produced in Pennsylvania. Waltz Vineyards Crow Wood Cabernet was recently named the top wine in the state by the Pennsylvania Wine Society, and its 2013 Reserve Chardonnay received the award for Best Vinifera at the 2017 Pennsylvania Farm Show. Waltz wines have been honored for years, and that is no surprise to the local restaurants who serve it to customers or to a growing number of local and national, wine connoisseurs.
To learn more, visit waltzvineyards.com.
Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Art Petrosemolo
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