This article is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Winery Association.
Dear wine lover,
If you have yet to explore the elusive southwest region of our great state of Pennsylvania, here is our plea to start planning. Hidden in the hills around Pittsburgh you’ll find some of the most authentic and passionate people making wine on pristine, unique properties. You’ll not only feel their authenticity, you’ll crave it. Climate conditions are common factors in the taste of wine, but here the genuine characteristics of the winemakers shine through each bottle, creating a memorable trek through an often overlooked portion of the Keystone State.
The cooler climate and higher elevations in this region help cold-hardy hybrids, native grapes and some vinifera varieties thrive in the shale-based soils. Wineries in the southwest region are prime spots for varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Vidal and Chambourcin.
Southwest Pennsylvania is unique in that Pittsburgh provides an economic and cultural influence on the otherwise natural surrounding landscape filled with mountains, valleys, farmland and woodlands, giving this area a distinct identity. The result? Grit, artistry, integrity, pride and no pretentiousness. Trust us: it’s refreshing on so many levels. Here’s how we tackled the Southwest Passage Wine Trail.
But before you go, discover PA Eats’s go-to guide for wine tripping success:
306 Deerfield Rd., Mt. Pleasant, (724) 547-6500
Our drive twisted down country roads and through peaceful farmland on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. We passed a meadow lined with white wooden beehives, then turned toward our first destination just before a country railroad-crossing sign. The oasis that is Greendance – The Winery at Sand Hill lay tucked behind vineyards and flowering trees and plants where free-range guinea hens wandered around.
As we walked toward the quaint pale-green barn with brick-red roofing, we discovered a content miniature horse grazing in his private pasture. This was no ordinary winery. More than 40 wines are available at this location, and free tastings are available daily. A fully stocked tasting room, a charming patio, an outdoor stage for live music, a cafe (offering gourmet cheeses, sandwiches and salads; check hours before you visit), a barn and a bakery are all on site. Smiling, helpful team members greeted us, and it’s clear why they love working there. They sell wine and pie.
The history of this winery began with two sisters and their husbands (Susan and Rick Lynn and Amy and Rob Schillings), who grew and sold berries. Susan’s family heritage lead her to this business. She payed close attention when she was a little girl and helped her grandmother pick huckleberries to preserve. Their first retail crop was raspberries, using the phonebook to call friends and family to sell their sweet picks. They later expanded to selling other berries, including elderberries, black raspberries, huckleberries and blueberries.
Their next natural step was to make pie. Lots of pie. Currently, they make 200–300 fruit pies a day in their on-site bakery, which offers whole pies or a by-the-slice option. The interior bakery décor is full of nods to their start; blueberry-patterned wallpaper, berry tiles and berry art adorn the walls.
Susan started drinking wine at age 55. Recognizing that the greatest use of their small fruits was in making pure-fruit wines, they found Walter and Roxanne Vinoski, who had been making wine and growing grapes for years. Walt, an engineer by trade, was an award-winning private enologist. His experience, combined with the Lynns’ and Schillingses’ dreams, lead to the opening of Greendance – The Winery at Sand Hill in the late winter of 2007. They are known (rightfully) for their fruit wines, but they do produce some solid grape wines and source many of their grapes from Erie, Pa.; California; and New York.
Must-try pie? Bumblebray. Ask Josh—a mild-mannered, knowledgeable, long-time employee—and he’ll explain the ingredients that make this baked good so special. Pair it (or their raspberry pie) with the unique, effervescent gooseberry wine. You can thank us later.
Distance to next destination: 40 minutes
Stop 2: Ripepi Winery and Vineyard
93 Van Voorhis Ln., Monongahela, (724) 292-8351
A quiet road reaches the top of a hill and reveals an Italian-style villa, with an impressive stucco facade, perched atop a vineyard. Richard Ripepi greeted us with a firm handshake, a kind smile and a twinkle in his eye. Richard founded Ripepi Winery and Vineyard in 1987, but he has made wine his entire life.
In his family, it was tradition to make wine, so naturally, he too started by making vino at home. To produce enough for his family and close friends he needed to clear out trees on his property to grow plenty of grapes. He put his five kids to work to fill his grape-growing quota. He laughed as he recalled the kids saying things like, “How many more grapes are we putting in?” or “We don’t even have enough friends and family to drink this much wine” and (as they planted seemingly endless rows of grapes) “I think dad is trying to kill us.”
What started out as a few rows of grapes has now grown into a 10-acre vineyard. In 1990, the family built the winery and tasting room; they temporarily closed in 2010 to update the property. Visitors can taste 20 varieties in this sophisticated and orderly tasting room and get a solid wine education from Richard himself. Of the 20 varieties, 13 are from their own vineyard. “We are pretty proud to say that,” he added with a smile.
You’ll feel so welcome at this spot that you’ll want to set up camp for the day, and night. Summer events take place in the vineyard and include parties, barbeques and live music. Events also take place inside, where salvaged stained-glass panes provide unique focal points among the steel tanks. Richard said, “We don’t sell a lot, but we really enjoy this life.”
Pro Prediction: On our way out Richard gave us a wine prediction. “I predict that the #1 grape on the East Coast will be soon be the Traminette. It’s clean, buttery and well liked.” So, keep an eye out.
Distance to next destination: 20 minutes
Stop 3: J&D Cellars
290 Roupe Rd., Eighty Four, (724) 579-9897
Armed with a hand-drawn map (made by Richard Ripepi), we set off to our next destination. We passed by farms with happy cows and made our way to find J&D Cellars, located on 16 acres just off of Route 519.
This tasting room resides in the basement of a log home purchased in 1988 and shares the same rustic décor as the surrounding landscape. Antique tools, winemaking items and accents adorn all areas of this eclectic and welcoming winery. The outdoor space features a tiered patio area and a stage for live performances. There’s even a resident goat to greet you.
Owners John and Dot (the J&D of their winery) are enthusiastic and passionate hosts. John developed a love of wine after traveling to wine regions with Dot. Owners of a winemaking supply store mentored him, which led to the start of a wine club with other local winemakers. In 2007, they started to plant their own vineyard, and in 2011 they opened a winery. They now offer an extensive list of wines from their vineyard, growing a variety of American and French hybrid grapes such as Concord, Niagara and Diamond.
After winning “Judge’s Choice” in an amateur winemaking competition for a maple sap wine, John continued to experiment with unique wines like pumpkin wine and tomato brandy. We had the curious treat of tasting a basil wine—sweet, botanical and delicious.
When you visit, make a point to try the red wine offerings. Grapes are sourced from a vineyard bordering Napa Valley to produce high-quality reds, so be sure to taste them all.
Distance to accommodations (if staying in Washington): 15 minutes
Distance to accommodations (if staying in Pittsburgh): 1 hour
Rest Up for Day 2
Accommodation Tip: Explore The Pennsylvania Association of Bed and Breakfast Inns and Farm Stays to find the accommodation that is most suited for you. Depending on your preference, we’ve got two suggestions for a stayover:
Experience Small-Town Charm at Grammy Rose’s B&B
405 E. Maiden St., Washington, (724) 228-1508
Cozy up in the small town of Washington, Pa., and experience the hospitality at Grammy Rose’s B&B. Antique decor in this historic building abounds. Pleasant hosts will create a handmade breakfast and provide entertaining stories and local recommendations.
Enjoy City Excitement—Stay Over in Pittsburgh
If you have yet to explore the great city of Pittsburgh, choose your overnight accommodation in the city (check for B&Bs or search for hotels) and take in the sites.
Food lovers will want to explore the incredibly authentic strip district. Bordering downtown, this neighborhood is pure Pittsburgh. This foodie heaven boasts low-cost, delightful selections in a half-square-mile shopping district. Explore ethnic grocers, produce stands, meat and fish markets and sidewalk vendors. Endless options include coffee roasters, cheesemongers, distillers, pasta makers, cured meats and freshly baked bread.
Sign up for a ‘Burgh Bits & Bites food tour to explore the nooks and crannies of this city, which is bursting with local flavor.
Stop 4: Christian W. Klay Winery
412 Fayette Spring Rd., Chalk Hill, (724) 439-3424
Just off the historic National Road (US Route 40) at Chalk Hill, you’ll find Christian W. Klay Winery and immediately notice the large white barn with a red roof and white lettering that lets you know that you have arrived at the “WINERY.”
Winery owner Sharon Klay and her husband, John, first developed an interest in winemaking while living in New York City in the 1970s. They left Manhattan to move to the mountains. John, a wine enthusiast, was curious about making wine as a hobby. Sharon has a background as a dental hygienist, but she also attended art school. Through winemaking she saw an opportunity to combine both art and science with a big dash of entertaining.
When they moved to Pittsburgh they searched for three years to find a location suitable for fully pursuing winemaking. In 1986, they purchased a 215-acre farm in Chalk Hill, Pennsylvania. In 1989 they planted grapes, and in 1997 they opened as a winery. Today, the winery offers tours, a tasting area, a store and events in a restored 1880s barn.
Although they have plenty of standout wines to choose from (most are cleverly named after regional sites), one of our favorites was the Lavender Mist. This sparkling wine is infused with lavender (in the same way that oak chips infuse a Chardonnay) and has enough added to make it “just right,” Sharon explained. “Too much lavender is like too much tarragon, you know?”
Be on the lookout: They are discussing adding a distillery to the property, so we may soon be returning to sample liquors like gin, vodka or grappa!
Distance to next destination: 25 minutes
Suggested Stop: Fallingwater
1491 Mill Run Rd., Mill Run, (724) 329-8501
America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed Fallingwater for his clients, the Kaufmann family. It instantly became famous and today is a National Historic Landmark. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy is entrusted to preserve Fallingwater for generations to come.
Guided house and specialty tours are offered daily, except Wednesday. Reservations are essential to guarantee a tour. Fallingwater is open from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. daily. Tour tickets are available online or by calling reservations at (724) 329-8501.
Distance to next destination: 40 minutes
Stop 5: Glades Pike Winery
2208 Glades Pike, Somerset, (814) 445-3753
Though any visit to Glades Pike is special, if you can plan your trip to the winery to coincide with a special event, like the Spring Thaw Food & Wine Fest, do it! We were lucky enough to try all of the wineries on this trail (including Greenhouse Winery, 10828 Rillton-Guffey Rd., Rillton, and Thistlethwaite Vineyards, 151 Thistlethwaite Ln., Jefferson) and regional winery B&L Wine Cellars by planning our wine trip to include this event.
Sweeping vineyard views offer a perfect backdrop for wine tasting. Owners Steve and Karen went from being members of a winemaking club to the owners of a winery. While Steve was finishing up his MBA he chose a winery for a class business project, which lead to the beginning of Glades Pike Winery. Winemaker Josh combines modern and traditional practices to create impressive varietals like the Black & Blue, Mead and the expanded dry red selection.
Distance to next destination: 50 minutes
Suggested Stay: Bedford, Pennsylvania
A quick drive on the turnpike will lead you to the incredibly charming town of Bedford, Pa. Although technically outside of the Southwest Passage Wine Trail area, this town provides a wonderful spot to stay over.
Historic Bedford may just be the perfect small town. Voted as one of the “Top 10 Main Streets in America,” this gem of a destination boasts multiple fine-dining restaurants, artisan shops, boutiques, gourmet food shops, wine tastings and so much more. It is centrally located between the Washington DC, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg metropolitan areas and is just a few minutes from the Bedford Exit (11) on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The town itself is worthy of a two-day visit just to experience everything this gem has to offer.
Bedford County is surprisingly rich with historic, cultural and recreational attractions, including the Bedford Springs Resort (a historic resort built in 1804 that has undergone a beautiful restoration and now includes a spa, 18-hole Donald Ross golf course and three restaurants) and the National Museum of the American Coverlet, located just across the street. Explore more Bedford County events and attractions on the Bedford County Visitors Bureau website.
Accommodation: Chancellor’s House B&B
341 S. Juliana St., Bedford, (814) 624-0374
Lynn and Steve George are the owners of this lovely Italianate Victorian bed and breakfast built in 1875 in the heart of historic Bedford. They have impeccable taste in decor, are excellent conversationalists and offer gorgeous accommodations.
The inn’s traditional architecture is showcased alongside modern amenities. Moldings, carved staircases and wide verandas are blended harmoniously with central air conditioning, recessed lighting and refinished hardwood floors. A wrap-around front porch, quaint garden and beautiful landscaping make for an idyllic place to relax. After-dinner discussion can be had in the elegant and handsome library with a fireplace and rich decor.
Rooms are bright, clean, spacious and full of character. Breakfast is served in a well-appointed dining room, with fine china and gourmet creations. Coffee and juice are accompanied by fresh fruit, followed by a gourmet signature dish (they prepare either sweet or savory recipes depending on the day) and fresh scones.
Extend your wine tour and walk into town to enjoy local wine tasting.
Distance from hotel to in-town winery: 5 minutes
Stop 6: Briar Valley Vineyards & Winery
107 E. Pitt St., Bedford, (814) 623-0900
Briar Valley Vineyard & Winery is located in historic Bedford and offers detailed wine education during each tasting. The first winery in Bedford and the surrounding counties to produce all vinifera wines styled after classic European wines, Briar Valley is impressively dedicated to remaining a small boutique winery that concentrates on quality and craftsmanship. Must try: 2012 Proprietor’s Red, a surprisingly full-bodied rich, dark, velvety blend of Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Merlot with hints of black cherry and berry flavors. This rosé (using the saignée method, which gives this light-colored wine the depth of a deep red) has a lengthy finish and ages well.
Our Dining Suggestions:
132 E. Pitt St., Bedford, (814) 623-1130
The restaurant serves new American cuisine with an Italian flair. Chef Nick Letzo’s menu uses the freshest ingredients and high-level execution, while front-of-house attention to detail ensures a seamless dining experience. A newly added bar offers up swoon-worthy seasonal concoctions including a spicy basil gimlet. Reservations are recommended to ensure your selected dining time is available.
220 Wolfsburg Rd., Bedford, (814) 623-0522
Horn O Plenty is a BYOB farm-to-table restaurant using locally sourced and organically grown meat, dairy and produce. The menu reflects the seasons of the local harvest. This “freshtaurant” serves lunch, dinner and a Sunday brunch. A hand-built, wood-fired oven is at the heart of the restaurant, which boasts sustainability, environmental stewardship and fresh, healthy and delicious food as its hallmarks.
108 E. Pitt St., Bedford, (814) 623-2703
By day this gourmet food store sells specialty linens, pastas, sauces, desserts and other gourmet provisions. In the evenings (on Fridays and Saturdays), LIFeSTYLE offers five-course Trattoria Dinners starting at 7:30 p.m. The food is traditional Italian. There is no menu, the service is casual and the price is fixed.
Best Breakfast Options Before Your Departure:
103 S. Richard St., Bedford, (814) 623-8600
113 S. Richard St., Bedford, (814) 623-6378
After a two day-spin through this wine traveler’s guide, we’re certain you’ll be placing the Southwest Passage Wine Trail on a pedestal. Be sure to circle back to this post and share with us your wine-infused adventures in the comments! As always, be safe and drink responsibly.
- Photography: Alexandra Whitney Photography
- Fallingwater Photo: Mary Bigham
- Christian W. Klay Winery Photos: Christian W. Klay Winery
- HeBrews Coffee Company Photo: HeBrews Coffee Company
- Birds Nest Cafe & Bakery Photo: Birds Nest Cafe & Bakery
- Horn O Plenty Dining Room: Horn O Plenty
- LIFeSTYLE dessert photo: LIFeSTYLE