Don't pop the cork just yet.The Pennsylvania Winery Caucus is just getting its legs under it for a big job ahead.
To start with, state lawmakers are grappling with legislation that will bring the Commonwealth into compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Granholm v. Heald, which says states cannot put restrictions on out-of-state wineries that do not apply to in-state wineries.
The four co-chairs at the heart of the caucus are Sen. Jane Earll, R-Erie; Sen. Michael O'Pake, D-Berks; Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks; and Rep. Patrick Harkins, D-Erie.
Petri, a 1978 graduate of Downingtown High School, said the job of the caucus will be to educate other members of the legislature.
"Granholm will be really difficult for wineries," Petri said, noting that now in-state wineries can have up to three locations in Pennsylvania while out-of-state wineries sell through the state Liquor Control Board system.
Furthermore, Petri said, wines made in Pennsylvania are not subject to the Johnstown flood tax, an 18 percent tax on alcohol enacted in 1936 to raise money for those flood victims in Johnstown. Today that revenue ends up in the state's general fund.
Out-of-state wine is subject to the tax.
Both the store locations and the tax break are advantages for local growers that Petri does not want to lose.
There is an enormous amount of money at stake in the industry, he said.
Pennsylvania is the fifth-largest wine-grape producer in the nation and ranks eighth in wine output, with approximately 340,000 cases produced in 2005. The Keystone State is home to more than 150 wine-grape growers and more than 120 wineries.
"There are a number of important issues," said Petri, who represents a portion of Bucks County, which is home to 10 wineries. The industry "is growing tremendously in Pennsylvania."
Lee Miller, who owns Chaddsford Winery in Pennsbury with her husband, Eric, couldn't be happier about the formation of the caucus that comes some nine months after launching "Vintage 2012" - a five-year plan designed to double the impact of the Commonwealth's $661 million a year wine industry.
To Miller, the two initiatives mean lawmakers "are aware of our issues and will help us out in our process."
Miller said the industry already had a close call with state funding this year.
The usual $100,000 in annual promotional grants, which comes out of the agriculture budget, was going to be cut until the industry stepped in with an aggressive lobbying effort. To the relief of the industry, $240,000 in grants to promote Pennsylvania wineries was approved, Miller said.
Industry promotion does pay off. Miller said California's Napa Valley, which spends millions to tout its wine industry, now sees more tourists than Disney Land.
In attendance at the inaugural meeting of the caucus in June were members of the Pennsylvania Wineries Association, or PWA, the state department of agriculture and more than 25 members of the state legislature.
Caucus membership is open to other members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate, with several legislators expressing interest in joining the group.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-19th, of West Whiteland, is already on board.
"Vineyards in southeastern Pennsylvania are more and more becoming a valuable economic component," Dinniman said, explaining his interest in the industry. "We're fortunate in the region. We have the right type of soil and the right type of climate."
Dinniman said he gives the credit for the solid economic base of local wineries to the pioneers who made the investment years ago and put Chester County on the map.
While Chester County is known for its mushroom production, it is not an agriculture activity that lends itself to tourism the way vineyards and wineries do.
In 2005, the Pennsylvania wine industry attracted 877,000 visitors, resulting in $167 million in tourism spending, according to the PWA.
Both numbers are expected to rise sharply under the Vintage 2012 plan. The number of those employed by the state's wine industry is also expected to increase. Wine tourism and the sale and production of wine sustained 5,200 full-time jobs in Pennsylvania in 2005 and created $161 million in wages.