A year ago, on a wine road trip to Southwest Pennsylvania, I met some of the most authentic and passionate people making Pennsylvania wines. (See “Road Tripping Pennsylvania Wine Land’s Southwest Passage Wine Trail” for all the juicy details.)
It’s known that climate conditions, grape varieties and fermentation technique are the key elements to a great bottle of vino. However, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about the personality of a wine in this region that is undoubtedly the winemaker’s passion and personal journey. Such is the case with the owner of Christian W. Klay Winery, Sharon Klay.
On our previous trip, we sipped Sharon’s signature Lavender Mist wine (sparkling, lavender-infused wine just like the oak chip-infused Chardonnay) and chatted about her journey into winemaking—how she left Manhattan to move to the mountains to grow grapes and make wine.
As she explained the balance of lavender in her wine (enough to make it “just right”— “Too much lavender is like too much tarragon, you know?”), she mentioned that within the year her sister would be opening a restaurant “right down the road.” She also noted that her son had taken an interest in distilling and planned to open a distillery. So, naturally, after 12 months had gone by, I decided to head west and see what had blossomed.
I left in the early morning and with each sip of coffee my gaze shifted out the window, taking in the rolling farmland of central PA. As I drove west, the sun showed off, highlighting first the crops and fields, then the trees and, eventually, the rockier terrain of the Laurel Highlands.
My heart ached at times and it occurred to me that although I have always had immense love for this state, I hadn’t fully realized that Pennsylvania is a total knockout. I delighted in the moments that repeatedly took my breath away. What a joy it is to readjust our lenses and focus on something that has been right in front of us, but in an entirely new, in this case dancing, light.
My plan was to visit Sharon’s sister’s new(ish) restaurant, drop in on her son’s distillery and, of course, sip some of Sharon’s famous lavender wine.
I arrived just in time for brunch at Dr. McCarthy’s Kitchen, located in the humble town of Hopwood (just a few miles from the winery). Originally called “the Hopwood House,” this historical structure provided food, rest and a place to gather for a number of U.S. presidents over the years, and now offers a locally sourced menu and a tranquil garden for relaxed outdoor dining. The brunch buffet was chock-full of real buttermilk pancakes (with chocolate chips), scrambled eggs, baked goods, vegetables, salads with handmade dressings and plenty of seasonal pasta and seafood entrees that owner Dr. Roxanne McCarthy serves alongside her mission “to bring ‘Guiltless Gourmet’ to Southwest Pennsylvania.”
She explained the art of using little to no animal fat while still adding depth and flavor to dishes by layering ingredients like shallots, lemon, wine and sun-dried tomatoes to deepen flavors. Her dishes require only a small amount of butter for multiple servings and offer up rich flavors.
The bar program touts pairings of local and premium wines and spirits with each meal. The bloody Mary I had was made with local Ridge Runner Distillery vodka (more on that below). Although the previous executive chef is no longer there, Tyler Cooley (cooking for a little more than two years) was at the helm on this visit and claimed he’ll make “the best burger you’ve ever had” with house-made buns, 81/19 ratio beef patties and unique toppings including avocado lime.
Next on my trip was a visit to Christian W. Klay to get another sip of its floral sparkling lavender wine and to experience the broad wine selection, including a floral, light-bodied, dry white wine called Blanc de Lafayette that boasts a touch of grapefruit and is reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc.
Live music available inside contrasted with the serene outdoors, which provided a tranquil view of the farmhouse, pond and rolling hills topped with vines. I enjoyed sips of Nemacolin Castle, a semi-dry wine with a hint of violet similar to a semi-dry Riesling or a Gewurztraminer. The name of the castle (also known as Bowman’s Castle), came from Nemacolin’s Trail, which itself is named after the Shawnee chief who helped mark the ancient Native American trail through the Alleghenies that connected the valleys of the Potomac River and the Ohio River on the Monongahela River.
It was too easy to pop right across the meadow to Ridge Runner Distillery, the newest distillery in the Laurel Highlands (also the seat of the whiskey rebellion).
Sharon’s son, Christian W. Klay, is a second-generation winemaker, and although he shares a deep appreciation for wine and the way it’s made, Christian’s real passion is good whiskey. As a nod to the vineyard across the street, he produces grape-based liquors, such as Grappa and Brandy, but I was mostly excited to taste his fruit-filled moonshines.
The Apple Pie Moonshine goes down a little too easily and was satisfying on a hot summer day, but it would also really hit the spot on a chilly winter evening. The Peach Pie Moonshine was also dangerously good and offered a boozy blast of peach built off of a white whiskey base, an unaged corn whiskey with a mix of 95% corn and 5% malted barley. The rum, appropriately named Ridge Runner Rum, is a light-bodied, sweeter spirit with a short distillation period and made with pure Panela sugar cane. The Fayette Springs Vodka is distilled six times with multiple different filtration techniques and offers a smooth, clean taste that I sampled in a made-to-order Moscow mule with a spicy ginger beer and lime.
I caught up with Sharon in the tasting room of the distillery after visiting this trio of food and drink goodness tucked away in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. “So,” I asked, “what are your plans this year?” She smiled and revealed just enough to pique my curiosity (as I am learning is her style). What I know is that there will be some herbaceous developments over the next year. She mentioned growing more herbs and other ingredients that are sure to shine in whatever her future plans will be. I’ll definitely check in with her in a few months to see what is in the works. (My fingers are crossed for a basil wine.)
This feeling of love for my state stayed with me throughout my trip and continues to fuel my desire to trek around the Keystone State to discover new nooks, ask more questions and explore.
I encourage locals and visitors alike to push the boundaries of their personal comfort zones. Get out and explore the Keystone State and its amazing array of wines, food and drink.