One of Pennsylvania’s most influential wineries is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.
The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey opened in February 2012 in a rural area of Dauphin County. It featured a two-story, glass-front tasting room with a wraparound porch that gave visitors a bird’s-eye view of the vineyard, framed by rolling hills and woods and a glimpse of Route 283 carrying traffic between Harrisburg and Lancaster. That property covers 40 acres.
Its creation came during a time when around 15 wineries were opening annually across the state, growing an industry that has been for the most part family-owned ventures focused on tastings and bottle sales and drawing primarily Boomers and Gen Xers to their locations.
The Vineyard at Hershey found its own niche within the regional wine industry, a destination producer that embedded entertainment into its DNA. Others during this past decade have followed its business model.
Moreover, it was a unique partnership of four individuals coming from a variety of backgrounds: attorney Jason Reimer, president; businessman Doug Gellatly, CFO; marketing/PR whiz Mike Wilson, vice president; and communications specialist L. Paul Vezzetti II, winemaker. Among those joining the team in the years to come were brewmaster Ryan DeLutis, director of operations Lynn Day and the associate winemaker/brewmaster Christine McCarl.
Reimer, who refers to the venture and its success as the “the American Dream,” said those early days after the opening are impossible to forget.
“It was the culmination of a few years of planning, a lot of manual bottling in the old farmhouse cellar, and a rush of excited guests from throughout the region–far exceeding our wildest expectations for launch!” he said. “We sold out of the first batch of Crimson Fox in under a month. Twisted Kiss was not far behind. Paul had to call every supplier of juice we could connect with to bring in additional Fredonia, Vidal, and Chambourcin – staples of those wines. For Doug, Mike, and me, it was a constant question to Paul – how quickly can the wine be made without sacrificing quality? We were amazed at the demand! It was the little engine that could early on!”
Added Wilson: “I don’t think it has gone as expected, and that is the most beautiful thing about entrepreneurship with great partners. You just follow your dreams, dream BIG, and persistently pursue those dreams until you make them happen. Our model pivoted within two years to add the brewery and a major production center, then again in the third to add cider, and, by the fifth year, we were all-in with dreams of hosting big-name concerts with national recording artists. ”
The Vineyard at Hershey came along at the perfect time, with the interest in local wineries and expanding breweries and producers responding with larger facilities and complementing those with food and entertainment. It’s not that VAH, the shorthand for the Londonderry Twp. establishment, was the first to hold large concerts. For years, Nissley Estate Vineyards in Lancaster and the former Naylor Wine Cellars in York County were bringing in big bands for a string of summer concerts, and Spyglass Ridge Winery in Sunbury, Northumberland County, in 2011 was just beginning to invite big-name rockers (including Styx, Kansas and Foreigner) for its annual hillside concerts.
But when you add together the weekly Friday night Decked-Out Live! concerts that VAH had held from spring through fall over the past decade, the annual fall Merlot (and later Pumpkin Beer) releases that drew thousands and then the addition of the Straws & Stripes fund-raiser to the summer calendar with groups and musicians such as 3 Doors Down, 38 Special, Phil Vassar and Lee Greenwood, no winery could top it for the volume of live music.
Its following grew quickly, an audience that trended much more toward millennials who found the atmosphere, facilities and beverages to their liking. Within a few years, the winery would evolve into The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey, with the addition of cider and then craft beer to the menu. It was unique, fun and progressive; Just for years having Wilson dress up as a grape named Merlot Mike gave it another marketing tool that tends to be overlooked in a generally staid industry.
There was a time when a visit meant likely running into the partners there; they worked their main job and then headed to the winery. Gellatly was the exception. His job was located on the premises, with one of his Greelin Pet Resorts situated along the driveway.
Over the past couple of years, they have backed off since Day was hired to run the day-to-day operations and McCarl to take over much of the production of the wine, cider and beer.
“I have been blessed to take on their vision while keeping things fresh and new,” Day said recently. “There is not a decision made that does not focus on growth. Our customer experience is the most valued aspect of our business and we seek to better that experience through our products, concerts, and the atmosphere of our establishment.”
Added Reimer, “We have found two amazing leaders who are running the operation now we have evolved from the small operation to now one of the larger operations in the region thanks to our guests that continue to come back to enjoy a glass of wine or beer , stock up for their personal cellars, and enjoy our year-around entertainment schedule with friends. We have made mistakes along the way but have always learned from them and improved upon them based on feedback from our guests.”
No time period has proved more challenging than the past two years for trying to keep a business open and operating, and that has certainly included the hospitality industry. While activities have somewhat gotten back to normal since the lockdown ended, there have been lingering effects: for instance, neither of the big concerts have been held since 2019.
Still, Day noted that the patio expansion was completed in mid-2021 and the winery hosted two smaller, more intimate concerts, the first with Marc Roberge from OAR and the second with the Gin Blossoms. She said that four similar events are planned for this summer as well as a “pumped up” Decked-Out Live! concert series featuring four tribute bands (Beatles, Bruno Mars, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Lynyrd Skynyrd).
“The winery will always be a work in progress,” she said. “COVID put a hold on a lot of projects for us. Luckily, we were able to expand the patio which allows us to have more outdoor space. The beautiful view of our pond is as picturesque as ever. We will be making equipment and infrastructure upgrades that have been put off the past two years.”
Activities marking the 10th anniversary will be held throughout the year, she said, including the release of a small-batch wine called Raspberry Tea on Feb. 26. The Riesling-based wine is made with fresh-brewed black tea and fresh-pressed raspberries. “It has been a fan favorite the last few years and it doesn’t last long,” Day said, adding that McCarl will be hosting paired tastings from a VAH library that holds samples that go as far back as the first vintages. Meanwhile, Vezzetti will be hosting an entremets, or small cakes, class, to pair with the VAH wines.
Also on the agenda for this year will be gourmet picnics, which Day said were a hit in 2021. “A private picnic by the pond is the best way to celebrate life’s events anniversaries, engagements, birthdays, girls’ afternoon out, dates, and really just a cute time away from the stresses of life,” she said.
There has been plenty of angst along the way for the creators of one of Pennsylvania’s most successful and popular wineries. “Our partners have taken big financial risks, some winning big and some losing big, but we always trusted and respected each other’s areas of expertise and made collective decisions in hopes that we have won more than we have lost,” Wilson said. “We have run the organization with an authentic and grassroots style that has always and will always give back to the local community that has helped us to flourish. [And] we are blessed with a passionate and loyal customer base for whom we will always be thankful.”
That audience has continued to come back for a lot of different things, including the wine. This was an idea that began in 2008, at a central Pennsylvania piano bar. Vezzetti, at the time a home winemaker, said that he could produce wines that would put the place on the map. That prediction would be fulfilled in 2020 and 2021 when The Vineyard at Hershey would become one of just a couple of state wineries to ever win consecutive Governor’s Cups, in this case both in the dry wine category. The first was for its 2017 Merlot and the second was for its red blend called Firefly, a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“I made a promise to our partners that we’d be making wines that would be recognized for quality, value, and uniqueness,” Vezzetti said. “Having conquered the Farm Show competition twice now with Firefly and Merlot, I’m happy to have kept that promise. I’m also very fond of Moscato. When we introduced that varietal to Pennsylvania, we almost immediately started winning awards with it.”
While the wine list isn’t as lengthy as some other area producers, it offers a diversity that should appeal to most palates, including its Merlot-based chocolate wine called Cocoa Di Vezzetti. Those are complemented by the ciders and variety of beers. Already, the March calendar is filled with events, and Decked-Out Live! is set to start May 6.
There is optimism as mandates ease and a more normal spring and summer approach.
“Ten years of ‘trying’ and 10 years of humility will continue to power this operation going forward so that we can evolve and stand the test of time,” Wilson said.
Reimer echoed those sentiments. “It is humbling to reflect upon the last 10 years,” he said, “and to know we are in a solid position to continue to be a place where our guests call home for the next 10 years.”
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