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Go East, Young Winemaker!

The West may be the best.  But the East is more fun.

Few people would dispute that the West Coast makes mo’ better wine than the East Coast.  No surprise here.  In fact, without being too disrespectful, it would almost be a denial of nature not to make good wine anywhere on the West Coast, especially California.  Just match the right grape to the right soil and add water. The real challenge there is marketing – how to distinguish your wines from so many other good wines and sell them in multiple states.

It’s more of a challenge to make very good to excellent wine on the East Coast – it’s a weather and climate thing – but it is being done.  And it is relatively easy to sell it. It’s an open secret that Easterners love visiting their small local wineries, which often also serve as social centers, especially for young adults – great places to meet for a few glasses of wine, nibble on local cheeses and perhaps listen to some live music. A winery’s distribution network, if it has one, is usually a few local restaurants and wine shops.

As a result, I find a refreshing diversity in the East – more variety in wine styles and quality, more diversity in winery experiences and less similarity in winemakers and their backgrounds.  A first-time visit to an Eastern winery is, well, like Gump’s box of chocolates.  The fun is in the discovery.

A couple of Sundays ago I visited the not-quite-opened Octoraro Cellars on the edge of Amish Country in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, an area where serious winemaking is still in its infancy.  Octoraro is the brainchild of Ed and Adrienne Lazzerini, whose day jobs are about 90 minutes away in Princeton, NJ.  The Lazzerinis’ plan is to make an “Octoraro” brand from estate vines which are at least seven years old and a “Vox Veneti” brand from purchased grapes or estate grapes that are too young or which don’t make the cut.  To date, they have planted 3.5 acres of Bordeaux and northeast Italian varieties, some of which are now six years old, built a very small winery sans tasting room and soft released their first Vox Veneti wines.  Their marketing plan appears to be a work-in-progress.

The Lazzerinis are quite serious about not just making good wines, but making excellent wines – wine connoisseurs who are not rich but who have enough capital to buy land with room to expand and to hire French-trained experts to advise in the vineyard and in the winery.  As growing conditions in the East are more like those in Europe than in California, French consultants are becoming more common in the vineyards of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and North Carolina.  East Coast wines tend to be more European in style as well – not as fruit-forward as Californians and with less alcohol, more natural acidity and, yes, a minerality that make them good food wines.

The Lazzerinis are still feeling their way, but the barrel samples of their reds and a rosé are very well made, tasting quite good now as well as showing a lot of promise.  I found myself driving home from the winery anticipating the near future when I can pull a cork on an Octoraro wine or two.  And not really minding having missed the first 20 minutes of the Cowboys-Packers playoffs.

So go east, young winemaker.  You probably won’t become rich and famous.  Parker won’t review you.  But if you’re good and if you’re lucky, you can make fair to excellent wine.  You might even catch some of that excitement felt by winemakers of a generation ago who helped pioneer Oregon and eastern Washington.  And have some fun doing so.

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