The Concord grape-growing belt that runs about 50 miles along the south shore of Lake Erie - through Girard, Erie and North East, Pensnylvania - is the largest and oldest Concord grape-growing region in the world.
Thousands of acres of grapes will be harvested here along the Seaway Trail, then pressed and hustled off to become wine, juice or event potbellied jars of jelly. Wine connoisseurs visit the two dozen vineyards along the shores of Lake Erie, buying up award-winning bottles of ice wine, Riesling and even such names as "Reflections of Lake Erie," but the agricultural industry behind these establishments is also the juice - the punch - of Northwestern PA.
Mario Mazza whose family runs Mazza Vineyards and two other wine brands in the region, explains that the area pumps out gallons of juice from grapes native to that region, like the Concord, Niagara and Catawba varieties. In order for more wineries, and even juice producers, to create a distinct product, they must mix and match grapes. So, while some of Erie County's grape juice remains local, some is exported to other wineries that mix it with their native grapes, and vice versa.
In 1911 Welch's acquired the Walker plant, now the largest of all Welch's plants and where their Concord and Niagara grapes are processed. Today the plant occupies 60 acres, and take advantage of the unique microclimate in Erie County: fruit farmers here are presented with a 180-day growing season and temperatures moderated by Lake Erie. The majority of the grapes processed at Welch's North East plant arrive from family-owned farms in Pennsylvania. "Welch's consists of 1,150 family farmer owners who plant, care for and harvest all of Welch's Concord and Niagara grapes," explains Jackie Alosso, associate marketing manager - marketing strategy & pr at Welch's. In fact, the company is owned by the National Grape Cooperative, made up of those such family farmers.
While Welch's doesn't offer tours of its facility for safety reasons, many wineries in the region do allow visitors to observe the harvesting, juicing and fermenting process. Mazza says activity at his family's wineries peaks in the fall and early winter months. "You can see us transporting and pressing grapes, watch the fermentation and bottling process - the entire cycle," says Mazza. "We want visitors to understand this industry and to see what we do. That helps them become ambassadors for our industry."
But whenever you visit, take a ride out along Route 5 for a nostalgic taste of childhood and an intoxicating scent that smells like success in these parts.
Wineries that produce grape juice:
Arrowhead Wine Cellars, 814.725.5509, arrowheadwine.com
Mazza Vineyards, 814.725.8695, mazzawines.com
Presque Isle Wine Cellars, 814.725.1314, piwine.com
South Shore Wine Company, 814.725.1585, ss.mazzawines.com
Great lakes Region wineries: 800.600.WINE, lakeeriewine.com
Seaway Trail: visitPA.com/byways