Monday, April 23, 2007

Wine, wings, dinors and dinosaurs along Erie’s grape lake shore

Drive out of the broad-shouldered lake town of Erie along the East Lake Road, put the top down and take a deep breath. Ah…it’s like a fresh hit of childhood. The smell of grape popsicles and grape juice and grape bubble gum and then it gets deeper, muskier, the smell of earth and good wine. It’s the fruit of the vine, as far as the eye can see, from the lakeshore right up to the glacial ridge that rides along east of Lake Erie.

We’re cruising wine country, along old Route 5, in a place we never knew was wine country. We’re touring vineyards in a place we thought was all about steelhead fishing and birding and shipwrecks. We’re on the piedmont between the lake and the ridge, where the climate and soil is pitch perfect for a symphony of peaches, pear, blackberries, apples and you bet, grapes.

Merlot and cabernet franc, concord and chardonnay. And at Penn Shore Winery, the first we come to in the community of North East, PA, it’s all about the Vignoles. A crisp, fruity wine, but not too sweet. We taste a hint of pineapple and pronounce it quite drinkable and toss a case in the trunk and head to the next sip down the road.

The sign on the hill says “Arrowhead Wine Cellars” and we pull in for a new flavor sensation. Among the rieslings and cabernets we discover blueberry wine. Who knew? It’s like a big old blueberry bomb on our taste buds. “It’s especially great on ice cream,” teases our hostess, Kathy Mobilla. She and hubby Nick have been making Arrowhead wines since 1998, and they’ve sure got the hang of it. So we plunk a few blue bottles in the car and head on down the lakeshore blacktop.

It’s here, at Mazza Vineyards, where we taste the cream of the Lake Erie crop. It’s Mazza’s renowned Ice Wine, winner of gold medals at competition after competition. “We even win in California,” boasts Andy, the young bear of a bartender (wine-tender?) pouring samples for us. “We pick the grapes deep into December, when they’re absolutely frozen, hard as marbles right on the vine.” When crushed cold, the marble fruit gives up the ultimate sweet essence of grape. This is a dessert wine at its finest and we can see ourselves sipping it between bites of dark chocolate or pouring it over fresh peaches with the fire roaring and the dog at our feet…

Ok, when we come out of the ice-wine reverie, we finish filling the ragtop with a couple more cases and barrel back down the East Lake Road, stopping to sample America’s champion Buffalo wings at a local haunt called The Fiddler Inn. Then a stroll among a host of homemade dinosaur sculptures we find just off the highway. (Which is a whole other story in itself.) Finally, it’s nap time in a great little B&B, and then our favorite Italian joint where garlic’s in the air and we can’t wait to get our hands on – you guessed it - the wine list.

Until then, we’ll see you round the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. (For a map with photos of all these places and more, go to www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.)

Penn Shore Winery
They’ve been crushing grapes since 1969 at one of Pennsylvania’s oldest wineries. On the web at pennshore.com and on the earth at 10225 East Lake Road, North East, PA.

Arrowhead Cellars
Nick and Kathy Mobilla starting making wine in ’98 and have been winning gold and silver medals around the country ever since. Come taste why. Online at arrowheadwine.com and in person at 12073 East Main Road in North East, PA.

Mazza Winery
Mazza’s unique ice wine is about the best in its class, and we’re quite partial to the outstanding port. (Especially sipped in PJs by a fireplace.) Online at mazzawines.com and in a glass at 11815 East Lake Road in North East, PA.

Roy Peters’ Dinosaur Park
Roy Peters gets a kick out of making enormous sculptures of dinosaurs and letting them loose on his lawn. (We’d say they’re life-size, but we’ve never seen a live one.) He’s even made a whale the size of a whale for the Erie zoo. Stop and see his Jurassic menagerie for yourself. At the Peters’s Welding shop, 4369 S. Cemetery Rd, North East, PA.

The Fiddle Inn
Shawn Festa shuffled his wings off to Buffalo for the National Buffalo Wing Festival and brought home the first place trophy. Believe it: the best wings in America are perfect with a cold beer after a day at the wineries. 6615 Buffalo Road in Harborcreek, PA. Call ahead if you want: 814.899.9005.

Dinors everywhere
Strange but true: “Diner” is spelled with an “or” in this neck of the woods. We’ve never seen it before, and no one can explain it. (“Maybe you’re the one who misspells it,” one waitress suggested.) No mater, we recommend the turtle soup and ox roast sandwich at the Crossroads Dinor in Edinboro and the real gyros and homemade soups at the Park Dinor in Lawrence Park.

Boothby Inn
Do the Highland fling in the Scotland Room or take a safari in the Africa Room. Each room here is decorated and themed according to where the owners have traveled. The hospitality is pure down-home, with plenty of extra creature comforts. One of the better B&Bs we’ve slept in. Online at boothbyinn.com and/or toll-free at 866-BOOTHBY. 311 West 6th St in a beautiful, old Erie neighborhood.

Colao’s Ristorante
Loosen your belts. This must-eat Italian feels like a neighborhood joint and cooks like a four-star Tuscany. Clams are steamed in Peroni beer and pasta’s always homemade. (If portabella ravioli is the special, don’t think twice.) Ask for “Cee” Colao and tell him we sent you. At 29th & Plum in Erie. Reservations: 814.866.9621.

This is just the beginning. When you find something weird and wonderful, drop us a line at shunpiker@visitpa.com.

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