Fruit on the vine
The Mazza family on Lake Erie in Pennsylvania is making a name in the beverage industry
Joe Nelson, distiller at Five & 20 Craft Spirits & Brewing in Westfield, New York
Wine aficionados in the (585) who enjoy the many tastes and varieties that the Finger Lakes has to offer may not be familiar with another wine-producing region, located in the northwestern part of Pennsylvania, known as Lake Erie Wine Country. LEWC comprises 30,000 contiguous acres of vineyards and is the largest grape-growing region east of the Rockies, extending from Silver Creek, New York, to Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, along Routes 5 and 20. Currently there are twenty-three commercial and estate wineries that sit on the Lake Erie Wine Trail.
At the forefront of the success in this less well-known region is one of the oldest winemaking families in Pennsylvania, the Mazzas. They have been making wines in the region for more than forty years. Founded in 1972 by brothers Robert and Frank Mazza, Mazza Vineyards produced its first vintage in 1973. The original vineyard is located in the town of Northeast, Pennsylvania, along the shore of Lake Erie. Since its inception, Mazza Wines has expanded its portfolio of properties to include South Shore Wine Company in Erie, Mazza Chautauqua Cellars, and Five & 20 Craft Spirits & Brewing, New York State’s first combined winery, distillery, and brewery, located in Westfield, just inside the border.
Mario Mazza, Robert’s son, joined the family business in 2005 when he returned home from Australia, having earned his master’s degree in enology, the study of wines, from the University of Adelaide. As general manager at Mazza Wines, he oversees day-to-day operations of all of its properties.
The Mazzas source growers from the Finger Lakes and Long Island down into the southeastern parts of Pennsylvania and along Lake Erie over to Ohio. The vast majority they work with, however, are near Lake Erie, such as Moorehead Farms in Northeast, a 144-acre operation that grows twenty-two varieties of grapes, including Merlot, Chambourcin, Chardonnay, Cabernet-Franc, Vidal, Traminette, Grüner Veltliner, Lambrusco, and others, producing wine from sweet to dry. The region as a whole grows seventy-five to 100 different varieties of grapes. Lake Erie’s moderating effect on spring and fall temperatures and the gravel-loam soils create an ideal growing environment for those varietals. “Lake Erie is considered a cooler, marginal climate for some varieties because we do have cold winters, so that makes it a little tricky with regards to what is going to survive here. Nobody is growing Malbec here. It’s just not going to survive,” explains Mazza.
Making more than sixty styles of wine, Mazza practices pragmatism when it comes to his winemaking. He is in the winery daily, tasting and evaluating the products. When he and his wife, Mel, travel, they go to other regions and taste their wines. They go to wineries, distilleries, and breweries and bring back benchmark samples for evaluation. For Mazza, “It’s an opportunity to make sure you don’t get stuck in your own cellar, and all you ever taste is your own wine, and you’re blind to what’s actually out there in the world. It’s a perpetual process of seeing what are new trends …what are the new wine-making styles.”
Maintaining relationships between growers and winemakers is key. “If the winery is successful in selling the product, [the growers] will be successful at selling the grapes,” explains Mazza. He invites the growers into the winery to taste the wines side by side, encouraging a dialogue about the growing conditions of the grapes and how that affects the quality of the wine. As with all wineries, the understanding is that the goal is to take what they have and maximize its potential. Mazza says, “They have to understand that the end market is not just the winery, but it’s the consumer that we’re all working together to satisfy in terms of the taste and the experience.”
Mazza also works with growers who are solely producing juice grapes and haven’t yet diversified into viniferas, showing them the different styles and tastes they can produce that will sell. Getting the growers engaged in the business aspect of the wine industry fosters a sense of excitement, but at the same time creates a need for preparation. As it’s widely known that it’s difficult to grow grapes in the east, financial challenges may arise as growers lose their crops due to harsh weather conditions, especially in the lake regions. “It’s a long-term process to see profits, “ Mazza explains.
Mazza would love to see new wineries open up in the region, and he welcomes the competition. For Mazza, “it’s all about making good wine and offering a great experience to the consumer.” The Pennsylvania wineries, in partnership with Lake Erie Wine Country, are working together to provide that good experience. “It’s something that takes rallying around to get everybody there. That’s where the success of the region comes from, everybody having that same idea that we want to provide a good quality experience so that [guests] want to go onto the next [winery]. I think for Pennsyvania wines, we want everybody to have a good experience when they have a first taste because then they say yeah, I want to have more of that.”
Mazza sees the need for all Pennsylvania wineries to push each other to garner more success for the region. He says, “I think we’re at that point now where more wines are getting recognized. It’s not just one … it needs to be a critical mass to get that, so getting others on board with that program is really important. It’s great if [Mazza Wines] can accomplish some wines that we’re really proud of and received well, but we need all of our neighbors to do the same.”
Kate Melton is an editorial and commercial photographer and freelance writer based in Rochester. You can see her work at katemelton.com or follow her on Instagram @KateMeltonPhoto.