I wish I had known about the Pennsylvania Wine Society when I first became interested in wine.
I remember thinking, “What’s to know, other than what I like?”
Then more questions arose. What do I prefer, red or white? How about rosé? And does it matter that this bottle of Pinot Grigio comes from Italy, or that this other one comes from France? Then it came down to price. I figured that more expensive would be better. But is it?
I bought a wine book. The cover, pasted with wine bottles and lush grapes hanging on vines, evoked romance, vineyards, Paris and Italy. It hadn’t even dawned on me that I was on a quest. Somewhere along the way, I got sucked in, wanting to learn and experience more.
Recently, I sat down with Averill Shepps and Dave Williams, president and vice president of the Pennsylvania Wine Society. In 1986, the society began as the area’s only group that conducts tastings for educational purposes. So, how did it all start?
“I’m a foodie,” said Williams.
Sunday was a big meal day in the home where he grew up, and wine was a part of that meal. As he grew older, he had the chance to travel through Europe, where he made an observation.
“More people spent their time celebrating,” he said. “They shared wine and had conversations. In Europe, a meal without wine is called breakfast.”
Back in the states, Williams had bumped into a friend at the liquor store. They started talking about wine and realized they both had more questions than answers. Williams decided to get a few people together at his house, open some wine, and dissect it to compare and contrast, discussing appropriate food pairings with each glass.
“It goes back to the taste buds,” said Williams. “People who like food appreciate the wine that goes along with it. It has a dance partnership with food.”
What began in a home on a Friday night with only a few people grew into a regular event at a large, licensed venue, consisting of about 200 people.
“Our homes weren’t big enough, and now, with over a hundred people at each tasting, we need enough glasses to taste the seven or eight bottles,” he said. “And a dishwasher that can handle all those glasses.”
Tastings are generally held at the Hilton Harrisburg, and, over the years, renowned speakers have been brought in, such as influential wine critic Robert Parker, wine importer and writer Terry Theiss and educator Mark Chein. The society also hosts dinners, festivals, offsite tastings, winery visits, social events and out-of-state trips to locations like Virginia and the Finger Lakes.
Sunil Khanna, director of operations at Hand Picked Selections, guided the tasting that I attended, which featured French wines.
As I sat down, eight empty glasses were laid out before me on a detailed paper mat, which showcased each selection. To accompany the wine, water, bread and a cheese platter also were set out. While the wine was poured and tasted, Khanna demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of the soil, climate, fermentation and grapes, which elicited several gasps of approval from the audience. Khanna also commented on the wine’s character, finish and pairing.
Along the way, I asked my hosts several questions, unmasking my amateur status—at least compared to the rest of the room.
“What would you say to someone like me, who doesn’t like certain wines, like Chardonnay?” I asked Shepps.
She shrugged and said, “You just haven’t had a good one.”
“Well, where would I find one?”
“In my cellar,” she answered with a laugh.
Shepps went on to say that the society has introduced people to wines they never would have tasted otherwise, both traditional and cutting edge—most affordable.
The society does not push particular wineries, areas or importers. Although a membership fee is required and tastings aren’t free, the society has no monetary motive. Its goal is to provide educational events to help its members appreciate wine and understand how to pair it with food. You have questions; they have answers.
It’s really an opportunity to take in sensory pleasures, while adding academics, in a friendly environment with people who like to converse. Or you can just sit and take it all in.
“We have a collection of personalities,” Shepps said.
Williams added that the society has allowed him to grow. He compares himself to an artist who once had three colors, but now has 300 to play with.
“And it continues to grow,” he said. “What could be more enjoyable?”
For more information about the Pennsylvania Wine Society, including upcoming events, visit www.pawinesociety.com.
Author: Cathy Jordan