Wine Trails - Pennsylvania's Charming Wine Country

As part of a recent eastern state swing, we discovered abundant clusters of wineries and wine trails all along the southern and eastern boundary of Lake Erie, from Ohio to New York. Along the way, a small area of Pennsylvania awaits, offering the wine traveler a chance to visit some of the Keystone State's most prominent wineries. This area is part of the Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail, one of 11 wine trails encompassing Pennsylvania wineries.

Like most states in this general geographic area, Pennsylvania has a long history of grape growing and wine making. At present, the state ranks fourth nationally in grape growing and eighth for overall wine production. As you might expect, there are plenty of Pennsylvania wineries to explore, with the state's varied topography offering many distinct types of grapes and wines.


Erie: Pennsylvania's Great Lake Port City

Fresh off a highly enjoyable stay in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, we hopped on I-90 for the short 90 mile drive over the border to Erie, Pennsylvania's only Great Lake port city.

We'd last been to Erie in the late 1980's, and the change is dramatic and readily evident. The harborfront, at one time home to railyards and heavy industry, is now a welcoming destination, blending nicely with the diverse and eclectic downtown area.

Erie has become a destination for several reasons. This small city, population just over 100,000, is located at the intersection of two major interstates. Almost directly between Buffalo and Cleveland, Erie offers the amenities of a big city with the ease of navigation of a smaller town.

And of course, there's the harbor and the tempering effects of Lake Erie, a Great Lake that has sprung back to life in recent decades. The very scenic Presque Isle State Park juts out from downtown Erie into the lake, protecting the harbor and serving as a naturalist's paradise. With many items on our sightseeing agenda, we settled into the aptly named Erie Lighthouse Inn for a three night stay.

Arriving at lunch time, the waterfront beckoned. We opted for lunch at the Sloppy Duck Saloon, on Bayfront Parkway with the perfect view of Erie Bay and Presque Isle. Two plates of steamed mussels, the sauteed calamari, and a lake perch sandwich put us in the right frame of mind to explore nearby Presque Isle State Park.

Presque Isle State Park, a French term meaning "almost" an island, extends almost 7 miles into Lake Erie. We opted for a 90 minute boat cruise, allowing us to encompass the park and enjoy Lake Erie and Erie Bay from the water. If you're a swimmer or sunbather, you've got 13 beaches to choose from and a recommendation from Conde Nast Traveler magazine for good measure. Hiking, canoeing, picnicking, and bird watching are other readily available options. Designated a National Natural Landmark, Presque Isle welcomes more than 4 million visitors a year. Top it off with a visit to the top of the waterfront Bicentennial Tower, affording 360 degree views of Lake Erie, Presque Isle, and downtown Erie. Do make a point to visit here!

Approaching late afternoon, it was time to get reaquainted with the city of Erie. First stop = Erie Brewing Company, a local microbrewer offering tastings Fridays and Saturdays 3-6 p.m. You can find their beers in several states surrounding Pennsylvania. We recommend their flagship brew, Railbender Ale, along with the summery Sunshine Wit and the hoppy and citrusy Misery Bay Pale Ale.

Downtown Erie

What a pleasant surprise to rediscover downtown Erie! Not only has the harborfront area been revitalized, but the adjacent downtown district now offers all kinds of shops, restaurants, and performance venues. Downtown Erie is reasonably compact and very walkable, and parking is a breeze. Roughly 14 blocks in length and 4 blocks wide, downtown Erie hosts frequent block parties and is the center of area entertainment options.

Erie's State Street is the main downtown thoroughfare, bisecting the downtown from the bayfront south. Most of the shops, taverns, restaurants, and coffee houses are on or near State Street. Stroll the area as we did, and pop in wherever strikes your fancy.

Our first night's dinner was at the highly enjoyable Plymouth Tavern, a downtown mainstay for 35 years. Conveniently located at 11th and State, this friendly local place serves up some of the best chicken wings we've tasted. Their impressive beer list will have you pondering what to try next, but don't overlook the food menu. There are food and drink specials every night, and plenty to choose from. When in doubt, opt for any of the deli sandwiches or our favorite, the Chicken Philly, stuffed with grilled chicken, sauteed onions, and melted provolone.

After a few more stops throughout the evening, it was time to get refreshed for our next day's agenda, filled with Erie area attractions and winery visits.

The next morning after breakfast, we opted for a few hours at the Erie Zoo and Botanical Gardens. This combination of zoo and gardens is a great idea, and something more cities should consider. Wander around this 15 acre park and view over 400 animals and thousands of plants. If you're lucky, your visit will coincide with one of the zoo's many educational programs designed to let visitors get up close and personal with the animals. Check their website for more details.

Wineries of the Chautauqua Wine Trail: Day One

From the zoo, it's a short 15 mile drive east to the beautiful Victorian themed town of North East, home to 5 wineries on the Pennsylvania portion of the trail.

As you enter North East, you'll notice and even catch the fragrance of thousands upon thousands of grape vines. Agriculture and grape growing are a source of community pride here. In fact, Welch's Grape Company has a production plant in North East, and various festivals celebrate the grape and other crops. The rolling terrain and proximity to Lake Erie make this an ideal grape growing climate.

In our sights for the afternoon were two of Pennsylvania's oldest wineries, Penn Shore Vineyards and Presque Isle Wine Cellars.

Penn Shore Vineyards, open since 1970, is one of the first wineries established in Pennsylvania. It's a big, inviting place that offers tours to a few hundred people daily. The tour takes you through the wine cellars, bottling operation, and finally the tasting room.

Penn Shore offers all sorts of approachable wines, and a few surprises as well. There's a full line of reds, whites, and sparkling wines. We enjoyed the Bianca, a semi dry white, and the richly flavored Burgundy. We also bought a bottle of Penn Shore Champagne, and wish we'd bought more. Dry but not too dry, and perfectly carbonated, we thought it was far better than many imported champagnes.

Presque Isle Wine Cellars is another Pennsylvania veteran, having opened their doors in 1968. Wine making is just part of the business here, as Presque Isle also is well known as a wine supply and grape juice operation.

When you visit, try the Falling Waters Sparkling Wine for a real taste of this area's grapes. It's a sparkling white, with a pleasant fruity finish. Not to be outdone is the Freeport Red, which practically explodes with rich berry flavor and aroma. Finally, we recommend the Reflections of Lake Erie White, a blend of Riesling, Vidal, and Cayuga.

Approaching mid-late afternoon, it was back to Erie for a sweet treat and a visit to another Erie original, Romolo Chocolates. This local chocolate manufacturer and retail facility is renowned for their outstanding chocolates. Spend some time here and buy a box or two ... chocolate and wine are great companions!

An Evening In Erie

For dinner, it was back downtown for a stop at the BrewErie at Union Station, located on 14th Street one block west of State. Housed in an historic train station, the BrewErie is a perfect place to enjoy local beer and approachable fresh cuisine. Entrees are served with a side salad and spent grain muffins from the brewing operation. Try the Union Station Platter, a combination of corned beef, beer brats, and ale marinated steak. Yum and then some!

With daylight still with us and a great meal to work off, a stroll was in order. State Street fits the bill! You can meander up and down the blocks, poking your head into any number of shops, bars, or coffee houses. Sherlocks Park Place at 5th and State offers live music, or opt for live theatre at the Erie Playhouse on 10th Street. For shopping, there's Accents By The Bay on 5th Street, and Erie's family owned treasure, Kraus Department Store on Parade Street, in business since 1886.

Wineries: Day Two

Morning brought another gorgeous day, ideal for wine touring. Three were in store for the day, but first we spent a few hours at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at the gateway to Presque Isle.

This "green" environmental center, free to the public, is designed to educate visitors about Presque Isle and other important environmental issues. The TREC is an interactive experience, with an orientation film introducing visitors to the natural wonder that is Presque Isle.

Plan for a few hours at the TREC. There's a great nature shop and gallery, cafe, educational exhibits, and much more. We truly came to appreciate the efforts of various environmental agencies housed here, and learning more about beautiful Presque Isle.

After a quick bite at TREC's Sunset Cafe, it was off to North East to visit the remaining three wineries on the Pennsylvania portion of the Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail.

First stop was Heritage Wine Cellars, with a history as long as the rows of grape vines proliferating this area. This family farm and winery is run by 6th generation Bostwick family members, whose ancestors purchased their 100 acre fruit farm in 1805.

Open as a winery since 1976, the vineyard is largely Concord grapes, most of which are used for juice. Some are used in wine as well, so do plan a stop here to taste some of the freshest clean wines on this wine trail.

We felt the reds starred here. In particular, we liked Solebury Red, a unique semi dry red with a light berry fruity finish. Just as enjoyable was the Blush, an easy drinker perfect for picnics or happy hour. If you're in Erie and can't get to the winery, you can buy Heritage wines at the Millcreek Mall, the largest shopping mall in the area.

Next up was Arrowhead Wine Cellars. Owners Nick and Kathy Mobilia harvest most of the wine making grapes themselves, directly from their 250 acre North East farm. This is truly a destination, with a large gift shop with all sorts of interesting items, and a fruit stand next door. A rich Chardonnay, crisp Pinot Grigio, and a fresh and sweet Concord were among several we tasted. Be sure to stop at the fruit stand - it's ideal for a mid afternoon snack.

Last but certainly not least in this journey was Mazza Vineyards. Since 1973, the Mazza family has proudly produced some of the best Germanic style wines anywhere. Upon arrival, you'll be greeted inside the beautiful Mediterranean style main building, where you can opt for a tour or proceed to the tasting area or gift shop.

This evolving winery produces not only a full range of reds, whites, and fruit wines, but specialty sherrys and ports as well. We opted for the Riesling, upon a recommendation from a BrewErie waitress. And it's fantastic, with fruity overtones and pleasantly crisp finish. The Port, aged in bourbon barrels, has delicious fruit flavors (we sensed plum and dark cherry). We also took home a few bottles of Country White, a pleasant and mildly sweet white blend.

Final Touches

After leaving Mazza Vineyards, we followed another tip to visit The Kelly Hotel for happy hour and to rest our feet. Once a hotel in years past, The Kelly Hotel is an old roadhouse structure with a warm welcoming restaurant inside. It's actually just over the border in New York, with a charming old bar and lots of friendly people. We wished we'd arrived at dinner time, as the menu looked marvelous, but alas it was just a happy hour snack of chicken wings and a cold beer on draft. This is an "in the know" place to stop, with hardwood floors throughout and a great old tavern feel.

Finally, we headed back to Erie, anxious to create one more memory on the bayfront. There's no better place to do so than Smugglers Wharf. Simply put, this is a great restaurant with a great view. There's a lively, casual crowd and the food is as good as the bayfront and Lake Erie view. We opted for lake perch and steamed mussels, both perfectly prepared and served with a smile.

And we suppose that's a perfect way to close this travelogue. Everywhere we went in Erie, we were greeted with a smile. Take the time to visit this friendly city and enjoy all the area has to offer. Whether you're there for wine travel or not, we're certain you'll enjoy your stay.

Wine Trails - Pennsylvania's Charming Wine Country

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