Central Pa. producer taps the knowledge, skills of West Coast winemaker to help ‘raise the bar’

For a winery on the East Coast and a winemaker on the West Coast, a new marriage offers both an opportunity for growth.

Nissley Vineyards is a 44-year-old Pennsylvania producer with an entrenched following that is quite familiar with his portfolio of off-dry to sweet wines. Now, it’s looking to add more dry wines to appeal to a wider audience.

Genevieve Rodgers is a former automotive engineer who eventually found wine her life’s calling, both as a winemaker and consultant, from her home in California. While she has worked with East Coast wineries, this is the first one that is established.

“Life is a learning experience, that’s sort of been my entire career,” she said during a recent phone conversation, talking about a career path that began so far from a winery cellar. “I love that part of life… I love learning. I love new experiences. I love challenging my brain, and my expectations and my understandings, and seeing what there is new to offer, new that I can learn. For me, this is a great experience. I’m really enjoying it.”

Rodgers started in March, getting acquainted with the cellar team and the winery’s vice president, Jonas Nissley, who has introduced a number of changes since he took on a leadership role around five years ago. He said there are two primary goals in adding Rodgers to the Nissley winery family, starting with gaining a “West Coast perspective on the winery’s Reserve program.” The other goal is to “give our great cellar team the professional and experienced resource they need to make excellent wine,” Nissley said.

The team is made up of head cellar master Brittany Vittor and cellar masters Andrea Rodriguez and Ashley (Red) Schatz, giving Nissley one of the state’s only all-female winemaking teams.

Said Rodgers: “Several of the women been there for several years, and have a really good understanding of what to do and how to care for the wines, so my role is a combination of making decisions but also to train the team that he has so that they can grow in their abilities and their skills.”

Winemaker and consultant Genevieve Rodgers says her ‘role is a combination of making decisions but also to train the team that he has so that they can grow in their abilities and their skills.’

Rodgers will do a vast majority of her work from home this summer, working through tastings and providing guidance via technology, then heading east to the winery in September to observe harvest and contribute to the progress of the wines.

While the in-house group work as a cohesive group in the cellar, none have formal winemaker training, Nissley said, adding that “Genevieve will guide this all-female team to success and will provide input on the higher-level winemaking decisions.”

There are few wineries on the East Coast that are aiming to evolve as much as Nissley has done while maintaining its core audience, a challenge that both its vice president and lead winemaker are eager to tackle. For decades, the winery located around 20 miles southeast of Harrisburg and 20 miles west of Lancaster built its audience on the appeal of its venue, its long-running series of summer concerts and a lengthy wine list that included Grapeful White, Grapeful Red and Bainbridge Red (sweet to semi-sweet), and Rhapsody in Blue and Naughty Marietta (semi-dry). masquerade, a semisweet white, has quickly gained in popularity since being created a few years ago. All of them are priced in the mid-teens.

It’s what long time Nissley customers expect from an iconic producer started by Dick and Anna Nissley in the late 1970s and then assisted in its growth by their children and the eventual addition of winemaker Bill Gulvin. Dick Nissley would serve as the first president of the Pennsylvania Wine Association.

“Nissley is not a start-up winery, they are established. They have a long history and they have wines they have been making for decades that people love,” Rodgers said. “I think that’s important that they have established what they do and who they are and made the wines to correspond to that. So my job in the situation with Nissley is really just to make those wines the best that I can make them.”

At the same time, she said, wineries can change the same way people do, evolving as they age. This role will allow her to not only make the wines that fit Nissley’s business and fit what their consumers want, but also “maybe challenge them a little bit, which is what good businesses do, as we challenge people to try something a little bit different ., maybe have a slightly different experience with a slightly different product and a slightly different wine.”

Anyone familiar with the Nissley brand have seen things change over the past few years. For instance, those summer concerts have expanded to Friday and Saturday nights in the wake of the pandemic. In addition, Nissley became one of the first in the region to introduce canned wines, in this case a line called Kiss that features blueberry. peach and strawberry sparkling wines. It was as aggressive as any regional winery in meeting the COVID restrictions, not only implementing curbside pickup but also delivery service to parts of Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster and York counties.

Nissley Vineyards

A shot of one of Nissley lines of dry wines, a Merlot Reserve. It is aged in French and Hungarian oak barrels for over 6 months. the cost is $19.99.

Finally, it has rolled out a Reserve collection of dry wines: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay … and it’s not finished.

That is a primary reason that Nissley said he connected with Rodgers, to provide valuable input to the winery’s premium wines. She will manage the sourcing of the winery’s barrels for not only the Reserve wines but also for what will be called the Heritage series, which will be introduced soon and expected to sell in the $30 to $49/bottle range.

Those will feature an estate Chardonnay, Chambourcin and possibly a Cab Franc, all aged in barrel. “These wines are really going to raise the bar at Nissley,” Nissley said. “We have been making the sweet wines well for many years, and not much really needs to change about them, maybe a few tweaks to enhance the flavor profile. But for the most part, we are after consistency with the wines we have been making well for many years.”

All of this fits perfectly into Rodgers’ wheelhouse, who has a BS in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Davisan MBA from Chapman University and a Level 3 Award in Wine from the Wine and Spirits Education Trustaccording to her organic. She has held a number of roles in the wine industry, including as a wine producer, consultant and educator. On Thursday, she was an instructor at the Winemaker Conference Boot Camp, where she taught a seminar in Starting Up a Commercial Winery.

“Winemaking is really special, dear to me, and how I started, and I love making wine. So it’s wonderful to be back in the cellar, making wine,” she said. “East Coast winemaking is challenging – my colleagues out here on the West Coast, they don’t realize how spoiled you are until you start making wines in other places, and there are some big challenges on the East Coast.

“To me, if it’s something that’s not challenging you, then it’s a role you should not take up. I love the challenge and [I am] excited to be working with them.”

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Elisha A. Tilghman