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Mario Mazza with winemaker Peter Szerdahelyi.

Northwest Pennsylvania is a part of the North American Grape Belt, the biggest producer of Concord grapes in the world.

21 Brix Winery.

Located just two hours north of Pittsburgh, in the heart of what’s known as America’s Grape Belt, Lake Erie Wine Country spans about 50 miles from Harborcreek, Pa. to Silver Creek, N.Y. The area boasts 30,000 continuous acres of crops, making it the largest grape-growing region east of the Rocky Mountains and the largest producer of Concord grapes in the world. It’s also home to a booming wine business that contributes millions in yearly economic impact, much of which comes from tourism. But as the vines begin to blossom, and another busy summer draws near, businesses are seeking new ways to attract visitors.

Healthy competition
While the history of Lake Erie’s wine industry goes back five decades, the Lake Erie Wine Country trail has just recently come into its own. Formerly known as the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail, the cohesive, cross-state expanse has provided a haven for chateau-hopping wine enthusiasts since its establishment in 2002. It offers access to a number of wineries—11 of which are located in Pennsylvania—and the list keeps growing: 21 Brix opened in 2011 and Courtyard Wineries opened in 2010.

New blood may seem like new competition to some, but Lake Erie Wine Country Executive Director Julie Pfadt insists that there’s safety in numbers.

“People drive from Pittsburgh to go to 24 wineries, or even 10, but they’re not going to drive all this way to go to one,” says Pfadt.

The variety of wineries counts among one of the many reasons to visit Lake Erie Wine Country. Aside from its natural beauty, the trail provides plenty of entertainment, including concerts, shopping and outdoor activities such as biking, boating and fishing.

Lake Erie Wine Country also makes navigating the wineries easier for tourists with perks like the $20 Visit Visa, a “personal passport” that contains discounts and coupons to wineries, restaurants, B&Bs and other attractions.

But, as Pfadt points out, the region still faces some challenges, such as the close proximity to the Niagara Wine Trail in New York and Ashtabula County in Ohio.

“The economy still isn’t that great,” says Pfadt. “So we’re competing for tourist dollars just like every other region. And there are other wine trails fairly close, so we have to show off what makes us unique.”

Lake Erie vintners are also helping to promote tourism, including Mario Mazza of the North East, Pa. winery, Mazza Vineyards. Along with his father, Robert, he works with local non-profit organizations, including Lake Erie Wine Country and Visit Erie, to advocate the region as a vacation destination. But judging from his experience, there are still opportunities to educate the public on its charms.

“I think a lot of people are surprised to find out how much Erie has to offer in terms of different things you can do,” says Mazza. “And they’re all very easy to get to – short distance, short drive, minimal travel.”

Variety is the spice of life
One way Mazza believes they can stand out is by diversifying and experimenting with product. After earning respective degrees in chemical engineering and enology, Mazza returned to the family business in 2005. Since then, he has used his skills to help develop new creations such as a traditionally Austrian Grüner Veltliner, and Hops and Honey, a lightly carbonated mead made from two varieties of locally grown hops.

He’s also expanded their brand into another venture, Five & 20 Spirits, a distillery in New York that creates craft whiskey and spirits. Later this year, there are plans to launch a microbrewery.

This trend toward diversifying just keeps growing. This year saw the opening of Arundel Cellars & Brewery, a North East, Pa. estate surrounded by vineyards and apple orchards. The new addition will not only sell wine, but also craft brewed beer and, later in the year, sparkling cider.

Targeting locavores
Mazza believes that an array of beverages will appeal to a wider demographic, and allow them to target young foodies who are more prone to seek out anything that's fresh, different and locally sourced.

“One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve been back is the general interest in regional and local wines,” says Mazza.  “There’s a lot of talk about the ability to market to Millennials and their interest in trying new products."

In addition to the income generated from tourism, the Mazzas sell more than half of their product in the wholesale market, including private label brands. One of their customers is the Wooden Angel, a fine dining establishment located in Beaver, Pa. Mazza Vineyards began bottling house wines for owner Alex Sebastian 35 years ago and their continued relationship reflects the public's increasing interest in local or regional wines.

“Requests are slow, but we sell more of their wines than any of the other 400 wines on our list,” notes Sebastian, citing the popularity of the Wooden Angel's Mazza-produced Country Red, Vidal Blanc, and Noiret.

Judging by recent efforts, local and state governments also recognize the economic possibilities of wine tourism. While many of the new initiatives are on the New York side – including a $6 million program dedicated to raising the profile of wine producers – Pfadt points out that any promotion will benefit both states as one big wine region. She also credits Erie County for using the Hotel Occupancy Tax to procure funds for Lake Erie Wine Country. But while funding always presents a challenge, she believes that the region practically sells itself.

“We’ve got a lot of refurbishing going on and new wineries and new events,” says Pfadt. “It’s very dynamic and ever-changing, and it’s just beautiful here."
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