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Thorn of the Grapes

Thorn of the Grapes

For the past few issues, I have been writing about local wineries. During one such drinking session interview, a winemaker clued me into the riddle of Thorn Hill Vineyards, a Pennsylvania winery with vineyards in California. They had a tasting room in a Lancaster strip mall where one could buy their wines.

This is even odder than it sounds. In Pennsylvania, there are no independent wine shops; the only places allowed to sell wine are the government-run stores. Yet, here was Thorn Hill, blithely running its own wine shop, none too far from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s headquarters. I started researching this mystery.

I checked out their website. The winemaker at Thorn Hill is Amy Thorn, and the winery’s CEO is her husband, Jack. Their personal story is unusual, but understandable. They are Lancaster natives who love their hometown, but also wanted to make wines in Northern California. I pulled up a photo, and was immediately struck with an epiphany–I knew this couple.

Six years prior, Amy and Jack spent two semesters in Philly at the Wine School. I had been their sommelier-instructor. After a class, they told me of their winery concept. I thought it was awesome, bold, and likely impossible. They graduated, and that was that. Until now.

I shot them an email and jumped in my car. Despite two GPS devices and a set of printed directions, I managed to get lost. Twice. In my defense, there are dozens of shopping plazas in that short stretch of road in Lancaster. After looping through the traffic congestion a third time, I saw the huge sign across the road proclaiming “California Wine!” I hit the brakes and cut through oncoming traffic, Dukes of Hazzard style. (This is 100% true, if said Dukes used their turn signal and waited for the green arrow.)

A bit shaken, I walked in from the cold evening. Despite its location, the Thorn Hill tasting room is styled as a Tuscan villa. I looked past the ornate bar, and there was Amy. She was sitting in an overstuffed armchair in front of a roaring gas fireplace. We hugged and talked and drank her wines for hours before she had leave for an event. By then, Jack had arrived and we started to talk, and we talked some more.

How did Thorn Hill end up being Pennsylvania’s only private wine shop selling California wine? As Jack reminded me, there is a provision in the law that allows wineries to have off-site tasting rooms where they can sell their wines. The law was intended for locally produced wines, but that isn’t necessarily spelled out in the law.

Jack made his application for the wine shop a few years ago, when the fight to abolish the PLCB was in full swing. It was a singular moment at the agency, when all eyes were focused on the political war going on in Harrisburg. No one seemed to notice that the winery license they just approved had vineyards in California, not Pennsylvania.

How does Pennsylvania’s only California winery stack up? The lineup is very good, with two standout bottles. The Thorn Hill 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley is a sumptuously styled Cabernet with great concentration and rich flavor. Even better is the 2008 Reserve Cabernet from the Red Rock AVA, which offered more elegant and linear tannins while unfolding into a nuanced core of fruit.

Amy has turned into a stellar winemaker and Lancaster is lucky to have her. She tells me she hopes to open another wine shop soon, possibly in Center City, Philadelphia. I hope so, because I suck at Lancaster driving.

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