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Monongahela's Ripepi Winery makes wine the old-fashioned way — it grows the grapes

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, July 25, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Ripepi Winery and Vineyards uses estate grown grapes to produce the easy drinking Chancellor and Steuben wines.
Dave DeSimone
Ripepi Winery and Vineyards uses estate grown grapes to produce the easy drinking Chancellor and Steuben wines.
Winegrower Rich Ripepi and his son at the Ripepi Winery and Vineyards tasting room.
Dave DeSimone
Winegrower Rich Ripepi and his son at the Ripepi Winery and Vineyards tasting room.

Every other Friday throughout the summer, winegrower Rich Ripepi of Ripepi Winery and Vineyard in Monongahela throws a casual happy hour celebration with live entertainment. The handsome little stone winery's tasting room, barrel room and patio offer tables where guests enjoy plates of meats and cheeses while choosing from wine styles to please every taste.

The scene may resemble other fun, festive tastings at Pennsylvania's more than 200 wineries, but Ripepi's wines have an important difference. Most Pennsylvania wineries buy either grapes or juice to make wines, but Ripepi's wines come from grapes grown in the beautiful 9-acre vineyard on the hillside just outside the winery. Planting the vines came naturally to Ripepi who learned winemaking early.

“I grew up in the small town of Gallatin on the third floor above the family grocery store,” recalls Ripepi who comes from southern Italian and Lithuanian stock. “Every fall we brought in Zinfandel grapes from Cucamonga, Calif., to sell to home winemakers, so my grandfather, father and uncles made wine too. I always had fun and really enjoyed it.”

By the early 1980s, Ripepi was married with two children. The family winemaking traditions had migrated to his home.

“We made about 12 barrels each year and my wife put up with the fruit flies that came along with it,” Ripepi recalls.

Then he purchased an undeveloped, heavily wooded 60-acre tract near Monongahela. The idea occurred to plant grapevines on part of the land and then start an actual winery. Not only would it create a more efficient winemaking facility, but it would also fulfill Ripepi's desire to provide opportunities for his own children to learn winemaking while laboring on the land.

But Ripepi had a problem. Nobody locally could provide professional, knowledgeable advice on planting vines, so Ripepi turned to Professor Robert Pool, Cornell University's noted viticulturist.

“Dr. Pool was an excellent man and we hit it off,” Ripepi says. “He wasn't familiar with Western Pennsylvania, but he recommended planting French hybrid vines that would have a chance at surviving cold winters.”

French hybrids cross European Vitis vinifera vines with more winter hardy American vines such as Vitis labrusca and Vitis rupestris. Ripepi started with 600 vines: Chancellor, De Chaunac and Maréchal Foch for the reds and Vidal and Diamond for whites. Also on Pool's recommendation, Ripepi selected a hillside with southeastern sun exposure.

Clearing the trees and planting the vines in heavy clay soils required tremendous work, but over 30 years later some of Ripepi's original vines still exist. They are trained, again on Pool's advice, on high, double cordon trellises which promote adequate foliage and photosynthesis to maximize ripening. Even so, difficulties inherent in Western Pennsylvania grape growing remain.

“Our biggest challenges are spring and fall frosts,” Ripepi says.

After bud break in April and flowering in May, one hard frost can destroy an entire potential crop. Meanwhile if early September frosts drop vine leaves prematurely, then photosynthesis can halt with grapes partially ripened.

“It's hard to grow grapes here and it takes a lot of work,” Ripepi notes.

Yet Ripepi and his family persist and take joy in harvesting and fermenting the grapes. Friends such as Rich and Madonna Rocca assist in picking. Rocca's blog “wpawinepirate” (wpawinepirate.wordpress.com/) offers ongoing coverage of wineries in Western Pennsylvania and New York's Finger Lakes region.

Ripepi's wines reflect hard work, pride and joy. Visit the winery at 93 Van Voorhis Lane in Monongahela to taste and purchase the following easy-drinking, well-balanced, relatively low alcohol wines:

Ripepi Wine and Vineyard, Traminette ($15.99): This award-winning dry white has pineapple and floral aromas. Ripe flavors with fine freshness and pleasant tannic hints carry the dry finish.Highly Recommended.

Ripepi Wine and Vineyard, Chancellor ($17.99): Spicy red berry aromas open to juicy berry flavors, fresh acidity and a soft, fruity finish. Aged in Hungarian oak barrels. Delicious. Highly Recommended.

Ripepi Wine and Vineyard, Ripepi Red ($21.99): This blend of Baco Noir and Steuben offers Ripepi's easy drinking answer to Italian Chiantis. Recommended.

Ripepi Wine and Vineyard, Steuben ($15.99): A delicious, refreshing red with strawberry and mild “grapey” aromas. Beautifully balanced with an unabashed kiss of sweetness. Chill and enjoy. Recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for the Tribune-Review. Reach him at tribliving@tribweb.com.

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