by Ed Williams
The charismatic Gino Razzi lives, breathes and of course sips wine—but more importantly, he cherishes wine. Not only the act of swirling, inspecting color, sniffing, tasting and enjoying the velvety varietals—this vine-whisperer is also well-versed at understanding the vines, the weather, the soil, the gorgeous grapes and the process of creating a world-class product. He is also the ultimate believer that great wines are (and continue to be) made in Pennsylvania.
Having immigrated from Italy in 1962, Razzi has been a highly respected importer of fine French and Italian wines for 40 years. He definitely knows what he’s doing. Still not content with hearing that Pennsylvania wines are “second-class citizens,” he explains that distributing his product (or any Pennsylvania wine) outside of the local market is one solution to the public's mixed perception of Pennsylvania-made wines.
Oenophile Razzi has been a constant force at Penns Woods Winery—planted firmly within Chester and Delaware Counties—since 2004, when he purchased the struggling vineyard. The winery was in need of some TLC; with Razzi’s experience, it went from 6 acres of poorly maintained vines to 15 acres (incorporating a few 40-year-old Cab Franc and Chardonnay vines) within six years. The winery is now a full 32 acres, including a tasting room. Razzi also owns a gleaming state-of-the-art production facility just outside of Philadelphia. Last year Penns Woods produced over 4,000 cases of wine.
Razzi realizes that Pennsylvania wines have a reputation for not having textured profiles and scoffs at West Coast (or any) comparisons. “Don’t tell me that California wine is better until you drink similar profiles together,” he admonishes. “If Pennsylvania winemakers take their product and throw it all in the same bucket to see what sticks they will not succeed in the long run. As an industry, we must classify Pennsylvania wines within their categories like the French do—sort the profiles for the consumer and educate them on the wine that they are tasting—to distinguish the sweet from the dry and everything in between.” Taking his stance on wine education one step further, Razzi donates $1 of every bottle sold at his winery to further wine and grape research in the Commonwealth.
Razzi also notes that Pennsylvania wineries don't quite have the history and statistics of experience that international vineyards toiling the soil for centuries have. He’s also quick to point out that is no excuse for inferior wines; he explains that “white grapes do very well on the East Coast. Reds that thrive in a shorter growing season like Cab Franc and Merlot also do well in Pennsylvania’s climate.” Soil drainage is also important and Pennsylvania soils tend to lean toward the acidic side, but these are not disadvantages according to Razzi. Of course there are challenges in local terroir, but according to him it's “not really any more of a challenge than any world-renowned vineyards face.” Zeroing in on Pennsylvania climate specifics as time goes on to identify subtle changes and alterations in creating the perfect breeding ground in Pennsylvania is crucial.
According to PennsylvaniaWine.com, Pennsylvania wineries are still considered relatively new, but they are growing at a rapid rate. In just under 30 years, Pennsylvania wineries have increased from 27 to 123; in that same time period, gallons of wine produced have increased from 254,724 to 971,191. Pennsylvania produces a diverse array of wine varieties—perhaps more kinds than any other wine region.
Razzi shares that his vineyard alone consists of 10 different grape variations, which create fragrant Pinot Grigios, crisp Chardonnays and sassy Sauvignon Blancs. Not left out of the bunch are several award-winning roses and reds that include a white Merlot, several Cabernet Sauvignons and a select Chambourcin.
Awards are also beneficial in giving solid credence to the wine output of the Keystone State. “Making wine to me is like being an artist who wants to paint well. I strive to make wine great,” says Razzi. This is evidenced by the 2015 Bancroft Riesling, which won double gold at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition and was then sent to the Berlin International Wine Competition in Germany, where a silver medal for best U.S. wine was garnered. Gino’s first commercially released wine, Symposium, also received rave reviews from Wine Spectator magazine, which awarded the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 95 points and then later featured it in a retrospective, “Italy’s Golden Vintage—the 1997 Harvest.”
Razzi values family and has daughter Carley managing the tasting room and serving as marketing and social media guru for the winery. A recent addition welcomes Carley’s infant daughter, Olivia, who promises to have her grandfather wrapped around her little finger in no time like a grapevine to a wire.
“Pennsylvania winemakers must be in touch with their vineyards and pay close attention to the details,” Razzi shares. “They must also hire knowledgeable staff and listen to their market of consumers. If you’re in it to just produce a large number of cases to sell, you won’t be able to compete in the business. Give the public something that they can truly enjoy, offer it at a decent price and they’ll follow along.”
When asked what happens if there is a bad weather year or an unusually tepid harvest, Razzi summarizes by stating that if any wine he makes is not to his standards it will not hit the market and he will not sell it. “It’s personal for me,” he promises.