Turning juicy orbs of purple, gold and red into a palatable beverage is no easy task.
Just ask Walt Vinoski. He’s been at it for four decades.
Vinoski is a partner and winemaker for a new venture, Greendance, the Winery at Sand Hill.
Part of the Sand Hill Berries operation near Mount Pleasant, owners opened the winery in October with about 18 selections ranging from fruit wines to more traditional ones made from a variety of grapes.
Vinoski, 45, who has a doctorate in business administration and runs his own electrical engineering firm, has been making wine since he was 5. With nearly a score of medals and a host of ribbons in his pocket for his wines from various national and international competitions, Vinoski continues a tradition started by his grandfather, Andrew Vinoski, and carried on by his late father, Walter Vinoski. It seems a natural fit, the winemaker says. “After all, my last name means ‘son of winemakers,”’ in Polish,” Vinoski said.
A South Connellsville native, Vinoski has joined the partners who founded Sand Hill Berries, a family owned and operated small fruits farm specializing in red raspberries, red currants, black currants, gooseberries, yellow raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries.
The half-dozen partners in the winery include Vinoski and his wife, Roxanne; and Sand Hill Berries partners Dr. Richard and Susan Lynn, and Robbie and Amy Schilling.
Owners had been studying opening a winery for several years, according to Susan Lynn.
She explained her husband and the Schillings were looking for a way to use the surplus fruit coming from plants on the 148-acre Sand Hill Berries operation, where they operate a store bakery.
“We are using our farm products in the highest value added way we can,” Lynn said, referring to the concept of adding value to a product as it passes from raw material along the production chain.
“We also applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Value Added Processors Program. We got $73,000 but we had to match it dollar for dollar. Part of the requirement was you actually had to produce the fruit and prove you were going to add value to it,” she said.
Lynn said the partners have “at least $150,000 invested so far but we really haven’t had the time yet to sit down and add up all that we have spent so far.”
Vinoski said payback on the operation will take about 15 years.
“Everything is food grade in terms of equipment, meaning it has to be the best quality. If you go to buy something with the word ‘winery’ in it, it automatically costs $25,000,” Vinoski joked. “If you want to make a million dollars from a winery, open two,” he added, laughing.
The winery took its name from a farm like analogy, Lynn said. “Greendance shows how we are constantly struggling with different rhythms to follow nature as the leader of the dance. At the same time there is joy in the dance and it shows there is no drudgery,” she said. The Greendance mascot is a jolly looking dancing green frog, which also appears on wine bottle labels.
“We were shipping all of our excess production to wholesale markets. But that is a very competitive business and we wanted to find a way to use our surplus here,” she said.
“My husband was reading ‘Wine East’ magazine and saw an article about Vinoski and a medal he had won for one of his wines. He thought he should call Walt and Richard put it on his ‘to do’ list but it was Rob (Schilling) who called and talked to him about joining us,” she said.
For Vinoski, it seemed a logical move.
While he calls his winemaking a “hobby,” its scope is anything but.
“I had about 3,000 bottles at home. When I was growing up we made wine for the neighborhood. Obviously, my liver couldn’t have handled all that wine,” he joked, adding the Vinoski efforts created a “really happy neighborhood.”
Vinoski lives in nearby Ruffsdale where he has about 6,000 vines on his property. With another 3,000 on the Sand Hill farm, there are about two-dozen different types of grapes available for winemaking.
Broken into seven categories at present, Greendance offers dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet whites; dry and sweet reds and berry wines.
The most popular offering at present is Greendance’s red raspberry, a blend of seven red raspberries cold fermented and back blended or sweetened with pure red raspberry juice. A close runnerup is Greendance’s blackberry, Vinoski said.
Each bottle, Vinoski explained, contains two pounds of fruit. “We use 100 percent raspberries and back-sweeten it with raspberry juice. The grape wine is the same. We do not add water to any of the wines but sweeten it with its own juice and not a ton of sugar. We are trying to put in, pound for pound, more fruit than anybody else,” he said.
Greendance, Lynn added, will specialize in fruit wines made from “our own strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, currants, and all our other fruits too, including elderberries. We will have 36 wines altogether, but not all will be available in the beginning. We are excited to be planning to develop a line of specialty ports from our own region and sparkling fruit wines,” she said.
“We will be producing a port, although the PTB doesn’t let you call it that because of an agreement between the U.S., and Portugal, where port originated,” Vinoski added.
“But we got our first batch of wine out there and now we are waiting for feedback to see where our market wants us to go,” Vinoski said.
Greendance has enough tanks to produce 10,000 gallons of wine, which translates into about 50,000 bottles a year, Vinoski said.
Explaining the winemaking process, Vinoski said most of it is natural.
“We look for specific qualities in grapes but there is a naturally occurring yeast on the grape skins that begins to eat the sugar in the grapes as soon as the grape is opened (or crushed).
“As soon as the grape is broken, that sugar becomes food for the yeast. So, about 55 percent of the sugar gets converted into alcohol. That process continues until there is no more sugar left or the alcohol content is high enough to kill the yeast.”
Vinoski also explained that “a winemaker is someone who grows his own grapes and makes wine. A vintner is a dealer in wines. I’m a winemaker.”
And, he noted, while many people believe they react to the sulfites in wine, there are really only a few people who are truly allergic.
“If you get a headache after drinking wine it’s from the histamines that naturally occur, not from the sulfites, which also naturally occur in winemaking. We have maybe 10 percent of the sulfites in our wines that other makers have,” he said, explaining some add them as a preservative.
Although familiar with winemaking at home, Vinoski said he took a course at the University of California, Davis campus, to hone his skills.
A graduate of Connellsville Area High School, Ohio Tech and Southwest University, Vinoski has won 19 bronze, silver and gold medals for wines he entered in a number of different competitions.
“Some of my medals are for berry wines and strawberry, blueberry and blackberry. I have numerous ribbons for fruit wines. Fruit wines aren’t as popular in some of the more hardcore wine competitions. Only grape wines are recognized,” he said.
Meanwhile, it appears the Vinoski winemaking legacy will continue. Vinoski said his son, Walter, likes dry cabernet and his daughter, Isabella, while not liking wine, “enjoys eating the fruit. She’s out there eating grapes while the rest of us are picking them.” His son, Luke, is undecided at this stage.