Against all odds, a wine scene flourishes in Philly

Nick Amrani of Philadelphia samples Soilair, an Austrian wine, during Philly Wine Week's opening cork event at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia on March 19, 2017.

Four years ago, Philly Wine Week launched as a quiet, if adamant, answer to the annual juggernaut of Philly Beer Week, which celebrates “America’s best beer drinking city.”

But things got off to a slow start. 

That first year, the festival -- conceived by Kate Moroney of Vintage Wine Bar, and William Eccleston, general manager at Panorama -- had just a smattering of events scattered among seven or eight participating restaurants. 

The next year, they dreamed bigger, with an opening fete at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But the venue had a fatal flaw: No red wine allowed (because of the risk of stains). “That was a difficult start to the week,” conceded Terence Lewis, a Philly Wine Week board member.

This year, Philly Wine Week -- which runs through Sunday -- has at last evolved into the citywide festival Moroney and Eccleston first envisioned, encompassing more than 100 events at 70 restaurants around the city. Opening Corks, the marquee event, sold out quickly, drawing more than 500 people -- industry insiders, young professionals, suburbanites  -- to the Academy of Natural Sciences on Sunday night.  

The message, said Eccleston, was this: “We’ve got a lot of great things going on in the wine world in Philadelphia -- even though we’re operating in the state of Pennsylvania.”

The mission, though, is more complex.

One goal is to raise the city's profile on the national wine scene, to make it a mandatory destination for wine producers and even wine tourists.

Another is to educate consumers and make wine more accessible. Lewis,  beverage director of the restaurant group that runs Lolita and Barbuzzo, said that when it comes to craft beer, it's not hard to become an expert. Wine requires more study. "In any glass of wine, there is so much backstory behind it. It can be a little intimidating," he said. "Hopefully, Philly Wine Week can help with that."

An underlying goal is the reform of onerous state liquor-control laws, which mean restaurants pay close to the full retail price for bottles. Lewis said those PLCB rules have raised prices, which in turn suppressed consumer appetites for wine.

For now, though, they're working with what they have. 

This week, restaurants and bars are hosting wine-cocktail contests, happy hours, and even a boxed-vs.-bottled-wine blind comparison. American Sardine Bar on Saturday will host a wine barbecue. Kensington Quarters planned a Wednesday event pairing sparkling wine and fried chicken. (The range of venues is one indicator of how the city's wine scene has evolved: They include midrange restaurants, and even neighborhood bars, like American Sardine Bar and Good King Tavern, that have invested in respectable wine lists.)

That's all alongside the events targeting serious oenophiles: All week, Panorama is uncorking large-format wines, like a 2006 Barolo, and selling them for $20 per glass instead of the $30 or more they could normally command. Osteria on Friday will offer wines by the glass that you can ordinarily get there only by the bottle. Over at a.kitchen, Thursday marks a $100-a-head launch for a.vin, a chardonnay made by Karamoor Estate in Montgomery County, that will benefit spinal-cord research. 

At Opening Corks, aficionados and beginners alike showed up to sip wines, sample cheeses, and snap tipsy selfies with the museum's dinosaur skeletons.

Lewis said more vendors participated this year than ever before. They included distributors and wine producers; the event is timed to coincide with a slow period for Northern Hemisphere wine growers. "The first couple years, we didn't have that legitimacy yet," he said.

At tables scattered around the museum, the wine reps poured glasses garnished with tasting notes or colorful narratives.

Jarrod Finn of Mount Laurel's Vine Street Imports offered a splash of a grenache-and-syrah blend from Australia's Ochota Barrels made by “a punk-rock surfer dude."

He also had a Bloody Hill pinot noir from Australian Timo Mayer: "It’s planted on a really steep hill. He was cursing the hill the whole time.”

Finn was also pushing British-made sparklers because, he said, Vine Street last year was the first U.S. company to import a full container of British sparkling wines.

"We’re letting people know this is an area that’s flourishing with climate change," he said.

Nearby, Skurnik Wines sales representative Mariel Wega was pouring a selection of German wines. 

Mary Smith of North Wales stepped up with her glass. “I would like to try a Riesling, because I'm not a Riesling liker,” she said.

Wega offered a dry Riesling in hopes of winning her over. Smith approved. 

"It's kind of refreshing," she said. "I can picture drinking that in the summertime on the patio."

For Sharon Thompson-Schill of Graduate Hospital, who was there with Jeremy Fazli, the event was overdue. 

"He’s more of a beer drinker. Philly Beer Week happens and I go along to all these events, and I’m a good sport. Now, it’s my turn," she said.              

The tables were set with pitchers of water and metal buckets, for rinsing out glasses. As the night wore on, some of the attendees stopped bothering.

Raechel Mykytiuk, who works at Penns Woods Winery, poured a splash of the Chadds Ford vineyard's newly released sauvignon blanc 2016 into a waiting glass. The wine swirled pink, thanks to the dregs of leftover cabernet. 

"You’re making your own blend," she said. "Everyone’s a winemaker tonight."

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