Category: Tourism

Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards

At many of the businesses I visit, turnaround time is an important factor. The company’s bottom line depends on how quickly they can get orders out to customers, or how many products they can manufacture on a particular day.

Not so at Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards, in North East Township. There, it’s all about the process – and that process sometimes sets its own pace. “You can’t hurry it,” owner Jeff Ore says.

He’s owned the winery since 2004, when he left his job in the corporate world and moved back to his hometown of North East.

He came home to plant roots, both figurative and literal. He grows about 3 acres of grapes – “it keeps my fingers in viticulture so I know what’s going on, but it lets me focus on the business,” he says – and runs the winery, including making the wine.

Though he grew up among the grape fields, he had to learn the winemaking business – including the details and chemistry that go into the process. Now, however, he speaks knowledgably about each aspect of his operations.

In Penn Shore’s Champagne room, he details the two-year in-bottle fermentation process, holding bottles up to the light to display the sediment and explaining the features that help the bottles withstand the high pressure contained within.

Next door, in the barrel room, he describes the variations in oak – he uses Pennsylvania and French oak – that affect the taste of the wine. The barrels, he explains, are for drier varieties, which the winery does make despite the fact that Erie County wines are better known for being sweet. About 80 percent of Penn Shore’s sales are sweet varieties, Ore says, with the top seller being their Pennsylvania Lambruscano – a red that he describes as starting sweet and ending a bit drier.

He walks us through the bottling process, describing the difference between corks and caps – corks, he says, allow the wine to age, while caps (used mainly for sweet and white wines) are used to seal the bottle so the taste of the wine doesn’t change.

Finally, he leads us to the back patio, where rows of grapevines fan out in a vista that is distinctly North East.

It’s a view that Ore has come to appreciate.

“If I have a bad day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine,” he says. “And if I have a good day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine.”

About Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards: Penn Shore is the oldest licensed winery in Pennsylvania. It received the second license ever issued by the commonwealth after the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act was passed in 1968 (the first licensee never opened, Ore says). Today, Penn Shore is a popular spot for wine tasting and sponsors a well-attended annual summer concert series, Music in the Vineyard. Though Jeff Ore and his daughter are the only full-time employees – Ore’s wife, Cheryl, is semi-retired – they do hire staff for the concert series and to assist with the field work.

Why Erie County: Jeff Ore says he appreciates the fact that east county has become a destination for wine lovers. Initiatives like the Lake Erie Wine Country trail, as well as the growth of local microbreweries and distilleries, have enhanced tourism around the grape region. In addition, he likes the pace of life, saying that he loves his lifestyle. “If this was a midlife crisis, it really worked out,” he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Like any small business, the Ores face constant challenges of costs and cash flow. In addition, Jeff Ore says, there’s quite a lot of effort that goes into running the operation – both the business side and the winemaking side.

Fun fact: Penn Shore is legally permitted to use the term “Champagne.” A 2006 wine-trade agreement restricted the use of the word to only the bubbly made in the Champagne region of France. But because Penn Shore had been making its wine under an approved label before that, it was grandfathered in – and thus it continues to sell its Pennsylvania Champagne.

Address: 10225 East Lake Road, North East, PA 16428 or www.pennshore.com

Escape Game Erie

Escape Game Erie’s new Millcreek location is in a historic house – built in 1825 – that once was an inn, a tavern, a post office, a general store and a stage coach stop, among other things. It’s fitting, then, that the building’s new use is not just unique but diverse.

Downstairs, a room has been transformed into a ship captain’s quarters, circa 1813. Upstairs, a “crime scene” tape stretches across a room that contains “Da Vinci’s Secret.” Other rooms in the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, stand ready to become new puzzle rooms.

Owners Jennifer and David Wedzik, who bought Escape Game Erie in June 2016, opened the Millcreek location to expand their options for games. The original location, in downtown Erie’s Meiser Building on West 10th Street, is still going strong with its current two games – “Abducted” and “Forgotten Laboratory.”

The Wedziks bought the business in June 2016 from the original owners, who were from Pittsburgh. The Wedziks had played escape games with their family in other cities and were hooked on the concept.

They see it as an opportunity to offer a unique experience not just for Erie residents, but for tourists as well.

Tourism currently accounts for about 30 percent of Escape Game Erie’s business. The Wedziks are looking forward to the summer travel season, to see if they get a boost in business. They’ve made strides in promoting the game to tourists, working with VisitErie and cultivating a reputation on TripAdvisor.com.

“It’s something that’s fun and different,” Jennifer Wedzik says of Escape Game Erie. “This is something that big cities have. It’s nice to be able to bring that to Erie.”

On a recent rainy Friday evening, my staff and I, along with a few friends, found ourselves locked inside the “Escape the Niagara” room. The local flavor of the story – we had to outwit our captors and escape in time to warn Oliver Hazard Perry about the British – proved too tempting for us to resist.

I won’t give away any secrets of the game, but I will say that we made it out just under the wire – with four minutes left on the clock. As Jennifer Wedzik had predicted, each team member brought something unique to the puzzle-solving process.

For me, underlying the fun of this particular game was a sense of pride in the history of Erie County – and that’s part of the draw for Jennifer Wedzik, a self-proclaimed history buff, as well.

“‘Escape the Niagara’ was a natural connection with Erie,” she said. “It just made so much sense. It brings that connection home.”

About Escape Game Erie: Escape games started as mobile apps in Japan, and then took off as in-person experiences, Jennifer Wedzik says. The trend made its way to the United States several years ago, and various escape games began popping up in larger cities. Escape Game Erie opened in 2015. The Wedziks, who hire a professional game designer to create their puzzle rooms, are currently working on adding new games. The business appeals to a wide range of people – from kids’ birthday parties to grandparents, Jennifer Wedzik says. Companies use it for corporate team building, but it’s also a fun option for couples looking to socialize or spend a special night out, she says.

Why Erie County: For the Wedziks, Erie County is home. The family has lived in other locations around the country but was happy to return to their roots. In addition, the Wedziks are pleased to be able to bring something unique to the community – something that they see as supplementing the already strong tourism draws of Erie County.

Challenges of Erie County: Jennifer Wedzik says part of the biggest challenge for the business is getting the word out to the public – and also educating the public about what to expect when they play the game. It’s not scary at all, she says – instead, it’s about finding clues, solving puzzles and working as a team. The owners also found themselves frustrated by some municipal “red tape” as they worked to move into their new location.

Fun fact: Escape Game Erie donates $2 of every ticket for the “Escape the Niagara” game to the Flagship Niagara League.

Address: 4838 W. Ridge Road, Erie, PA 16506 and 23 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16501 or www.escaperoomerie.com.

 

Coming up next week: We visit Great Lakes Automation Services in McKean Township.

Hurry Hill Maple Farm

My visit to Hurry Hill Maple Farm, in Franklin Township, came at the tail end of the maple syrup season – a fact that was confirmed by owner Jan Woods.

“Hear that? Those are the peepers,” she said, after we stopped by the sugarhouse. “That means spring is here. The season of mud and snow is over.”

The sugarhouse, a rustic little building tucked away in the trees, is situated down the road from the main building that greets visitors to Hurry Hill Maple Farm.

The main building – a repurposed cattle barn – houses a small shop and a detailed museum. The museum, which highlights the history of syrup making, is designed around the driving force behind Hurry Hill: The 1957 Newbery Award-winning book “Miracles on Maple Hill,” by one-time Edinboro resident Virginia Sorensen.

The book, about a family’s experiences after moving to the countryside and befriending syrup makers, features real-life local figures. Woods, a former school principal, uses Hurry Hill to showcase the book as well as preserve the sugar-making tradition that it details. The end result, Hurry Hill Maple Farm Museum Association, is a blend of history and agriculture.

As part of that preservation, Woods relies on the old ways to tap her trees and make her maple syrup. Silver buckets, some overflowing with clear, waterlike sap, hang beneath spiles from the trees in her maple orchard. There is no network of modern tubes weaving among the trees to collect sap at Hurry Hill. Instead, they do it the way the Chris family did in “Miracles on Maple Hill.”

Besides, Woods says, “No one wants to come take pictures of tubing.”

But savvy uses of technology surface around Hurry Hill, including on a walking trail. Visitors can use their smartphones to scan QR codes on signs, so that they can download information about each location around the property.

It’s just another way that Hurry Hill is weaving together present and past, in order to unite today’s families with history, agriculture and literature.

About Hurry Hill Farm: The operation, like dozens of sugarmakers in the Erie County region, reaches its peak in late winter and early spring. The sap needs several days of the freeze-at-night, thaw-during-the-day cycle to get going, Woods says. But it is open beyond the syrup season. Hurry Hill – including the shop, filled with glowing amber flasks of pure maple syrup and other maple products – is open in spring and fall, and the museum also welcomes groups for private tours.

Why Erie County: Hurry Hill is unique in that it is inextricably tied to its location – not just to Erie County, but to that specific area outside Edinboro that is the real-life Maple Hill. A driving tour, listed on Hurry Hill’s website, even lists locations from the book. In addition, Erie County is square in the maple syrup-making region, which stretches from northeastern U.S. and Canada across the Great Lakes.

Challenges of Erie County: Woods says her biggest challenge might be in getting publicity for Hurry Hill, particularly for the museum. As it highlights the local connection to Pennsylvania’s only Newbery winner, she would like to see a stronger connection to other tourism opportunities in the county. In addition, she is seeing fewer tours of students, as schools are working with limited budgets and greater attention to standardized testing.

Fun fact: Hurry Hill welcomes about 4,000 visitors per year.

Address: 11424 Fry Road, Edinboro, PA 16412 or www.hurryhillfarm.org.

 

Next week: We brush up on our math skills at Larson Texts in Millcreek Township.

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