University Wine Company came to my attention a couple of years ago while it occupied a booth at the Farm Show.
Outside of knowing it was located in State College and was best known for its U-FREEZE Wish Slush, which is wine packaged in a re-sealable pouch that’s suitable for freezing into a frozen adult treat, I was otherwise unfamiliar with the operation.
What I do recall during a short conversation with those giving out samples that day was the mention of plans to build a tasting room.
A couple of years later, those plans are now a two-story building at 540 Misty Hill Dr. in State College, off Route Route 45/Shingletown Road, and a product line that has grown. It opened Nov. 7.
The tasting room is closed Mondays, open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. It has another location inside The Wine Bar @ The Greek, 102 East Clinton Ave, in State College (5 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays). Finally, it has connected with The Brew Coffee and Tap in Tyrone.
Jeff Proch, president of University Wine Company, had plenty to say about the business and the wines they are making there. So as part of the “6 Questions” series of interviews with winemakers and owners of East Coast wineries, which looks behind at what has been a turbulent year and, with optimism, looks ahead, here is Proch’s take on his operation and its Artist Series, which feature the artwork of talented local artists on the labels and, in turn, gives back some of the proceeds to community organizations.
Q, For those who don’t know anything about you, what can people expect when they visit in terms of the wines, the food and any events?
A, Like many other PA wineries, we have a fairly extensive wine list – dry to sweet, reds, whites, blushes, sparklers, vinifera, hybrids, & fruits. In addition, we have our ever-popular U-FREEZE Wine Slush, wine packaged in a re-sealable pouch suitable for freezing into a frozen adult treat, and usually have at least one variety going in the slush machine.
As far as food, we have a selection of locally produced cheese & salami. We have a wine bar in “The Greek” restaurant in State College and also have their Greek dips available in our tasting room served with pretzels (Humus, Tzatzki, Spicy Feta, & Roasted Eggplant). Local craft PA beer is also available. We have live music and food trucks Friday evenings, sip & paint, yoga in the vineyard, wine & food pairings, & numerous other such events – our social media is the best way to stay informed on what we have going on.
Q, What did you want to want to make sure you included in the tasting room and are you happy with how it turned out? (It looks very nice). How long did it take to construct? How far are you from downtown State College? When was it finished. and let me back up, when did the winery open?
A, We have been producing wine for 10 years but never had a proper “tasting room.” We wanted to take our time and do it right. Our vision was a place that we would want to go to with friends and family and enjoy great wine and food and have a relaxing and joyful experience. We purchased the 12-acre property, which is 4 miles from downtown State College, in 2017, planted the 2-acre vineyard in 2017 and 2018, began construction on the winery and tasting room building in 2019 and opened the tasting room in November 2020.
The building is an open two-story post and beam structure with massive, exposed posts, beams, and trusses. Numerous large windows provide beautiful 360-degree views of Happy Valley – the vineyard, Nittany Mountain, Tussey Mountain, Beaver Stadium, and the Bald Eagle ridgeline in the distance are all visible. With an occupancy of just under 100 people, there is plenty of space to spread out at one of the many tables or seating areas. Customers particularly enjoy the fireside couch, the second-floor mezzanine, and the gallery room featuring artwork by local artists rotated monthly.
Q, What was the impact of COVID on the winery and did it force any changes in how you do business? And will you stick with any of those changes moving forward?
A, As with most businesses, COVID presented a challenge. The food with alcohol requirement made us have food available in the tasting room from the beginning. This is something we probably would have done down the road but not right out of the blocks. Also, we switched from a sampling at the tasting bar model to seated tasting flights at tables. While you do lose the extended tasting bar interaction with the customer, I do think the seated tasting flight with optional food is a better overall customer experience and one we will stick with going forward.
Q, U-FREEZE has sort of been you niche, yes? Talk about the product, are you expanding it, etc?
A, U-FREEZE Wine Slush, wine packaged in a re-sealable pouch suitable for freezing into a frozen adult treat, was our original product. We currently have 6 varieties of the product (Sub-Zero Sangria, Polar Peach, Tropical Fruit, Glacial Grape, Choco-Chill) and typically experiment with new varieties each year. The popularity and success of that product allowed us to grow to where we are today.
We have added a line of botted sweet wines under the U-CHILL brand, which are the same varieties as the U-FREEZE products, just bottled instead of pouched. We have our full line of traditional wines under our University Wine Company label. As mentioned previously we have a wine bar in “The Greek” restaurant in State College and have a similar setup in a coffee shop in Tyrone called The Brew Coffee & Tap.
Q, I love seeing wineries that are involved in the community. What’s the deal with the Impact Artist Series? How old is it and what does it involve?
A, Community involvement is a cornerstone of our winery. Winning winemaking awards is great but helping to make an impact in the community is much more rewarding. One of the ways we strive to do this is through our Impact Artist Series of wines. These are wines that a portion of the proceeds benefits a local cause, and the label artwork is created by a local artist. Our first wine in the series was Slab Cabin Run Red and Slab Cabin Run White, which benefit ClearWater Conservancy, a local land conservation group.
We just released the latest vintage of Slab Cabin Run White, a PA-grown Grüner Veltliner varietal, and it is fantastic. Our second wine in the series was Arts Festival White and Arts Festival Rosé, benefiting the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. In addition to our Impact Artist Series, we also have developed an entire fundraising program using our U-FREEZE Wine Slush products, which has benefitted numerous organizations. We also look to use our resources as best we can to help other worthy causes.
Last week we hosted a fundraiser for Easter Seals in the tasting room, this weekend we hosted a charity cornhole tournament in the vineyard benefitting Centre Volunteers in Medicine, and this Friday we will be holding a virtual tasting fundraiser for a local chapter of Rotary, just to name a few recent examples.
Q, Do you have a vineyard or is everything sourced? And you do have a mix of dry and sweet wines, but is it heavier on the sweet? What can drinkers expect and is your demographic pretty young with your proximity to Penn St. or a mix?
A, We have a 2-acre vineyard. We planted 6 different varieties to see which would work best at the site – Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Valvin Muscat, Traminette, Cabernet Franc and Marquette. Currently, we have a wine list of 7 dry wines, 3 semi-sweet wines, and 6 sweet wines. Our customers are mostly locals and visitors (I don’t think the students have found us yet). Surprisingly the customers are skewing slightly dryer than sweet in terms of sales. Of our top 5 best sellers by the bottle, three are dry (ranked 2nd, 4th, and 5th) and two are sweet (ranked 1st and 3rd). Of our top 5 best sellers by the glass, 4 are dry (ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th) and one is sweet (ranked 4th).
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