The gravitas of the Mazza name has grown tremendously in Pennsylvania since the early 1970s when two young entrepreneurs set out to go into business for themselves and make wine in what is now the Lake Erie AVA.
What began with a single location that focused on wine has evolved into multiple locations, brands, and beverages, including three separate wine labels (and locations) and a brand that focuses on brewing and distilling.
The Mazzas are nearly synonymous with the Lake Erie AVA, which was officially recognized as an area of viticulture in 1983, but their origin traces back to Calabria, Italy, where the farming family produced figs, chestnuts, and grapes. They emigrated to the United States in the 1950s and eventually settled off Lake Erie, where Joseph Mazza purchased the vineyard that would later become Mazza Vineyards.
Robert Mazza, Inc. was officially incorporated by Robert and Frank Mazza 50 years ago, with Frank overseeing the winemaking operations and Robert heading the business side.
Frank passed away a few years ago and Robert still serves as president, but his children Mario and Vanessa Mazza are now running things as vice president and creative director, respectively.
“In some ways, our core remains the same,” Mario said. “My uncle left the business years ago and passed away a few years ago, and this is quite different from what he envisioned early on.
“They set out to be a small winery in 1972, and they were the first in Pennsylvania. My uncle was interested in wine, and my father was really much more interested in getting into business for himself.”
The trailblazers incorporated the business when they were seniors in college, Mario said. Back then, they wouldn’t have dreamed of a multiple-location business model that includes a craft beer and spirits line.
“The change (from the beginning) is drastic,” Mario admitted. “Our production is 20-fold over what it was in the early days. My father and uncle hadn’t envisioned the craft beer and craft spirits sides of the business. We have just about every adult libation there is now.”
Getting Reacquainted with Wine
When Vintner Magazine caught up with Mario, he was visiting his wife’s family in Adelaide, Australia.
Adelaide was once a place Mario called home. He studied Oenology at the University of Adelaide, getting his Master’s in the subject and spending additional time there learning more about the trade after initially deciding to pursue a different career than the family trade.
“I have to mention that I met my wife out there, too,” Mario laughed. “Or I’ll be in trouble. I didn’t plan to go into the wine or spirits. I went to school for engineering and first worked as a chemical engineer. At some point, I was interested in coming back to the family business, but my father told me to go learn something and make mistakes with someone else’s money first. So that’s how I ended up out here.”
He worked in both the Adelaide Hills and the Barossa Valley in South Australia before rejoining his family at Robert Mazza, Inc.
Upon beginning his journey back into the wine and spirits world, Mario knew his “why” was similar to that of his father more than 30 years ago.
“I enjoyed engineering and I liked the work,” he said. “But I realized I am like my father. What I didn’t dig was the large corporate culture. There’s an appeal to being your own boss, and when you run your own business, you make your own destiny. There’s a lot of pressure, but there can be a lot of rewards.”
Getting a chemical engineering degree wasn’t a total miss, though.
“Having a technical background helps me,” Mario said. “I’m analytical. I think about operations whether it’s winemaking or distilling, and I’m comfortable with the technical aspects. It’s good for the quality of the wine and consistency has helped us remain competitive.”
Mario’s return to Pennsylvania dovetailed with some big moves the company was poised to make. For its entire existence up until 2004, there was simply Mazza Vineyards, which crossed the 100,000-gallon production milestone in 1995.
Mazza Vineyards still remains the company’s legacy brand and produces numerous varietals and blends including dry, traditional varietals like Cabernet Franc; sweet, fruitier varietals like Catawba, Niagara, and Concord; and dessert sippers like Port, Cream Sherry, and Vidal Blanc Ice Wine.
Though it was thriving behind what it had developed over a few decades, Mazza began the task of expanding, first acquiring new wine brands and properties on the New York side of Lake Erie and then delving into the world of spirits and craft beer.
Mazza opened Chautauqua Cellars in New York in 2006, unveiling its first distilled spirits with fortified wines, Eaux de Vie and Grappa, and acquired and renovated the South Shore Wine Company, which is known for its Civil-War-era cavern tasting room. Numerous varietals are sold under the South Shore label, including three Sparkling Wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling) and two Pet Nats (Rose and Riesling).
Chautauqua Cellars shares space with Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing, which ages its whiskeys and craft beers in Mazza’s recently emptied wine barrels, allowing the still-wet staves to impart character into the company’s newest products.
Having three unique locations gives the Mazzas an avenue for capturing the interest of both die-hard locals and curious tourists interested in exploring the sites.
“We were wine-focused for the first 35 years, and wine is still a major part of what we do,” Mario said. “It’s going to be a number of years before the other product lines are on par. On the wine side, we’ve continued to evolve where the opportunities are. Our on-site tasting has continued to evolve, especially after the pandemic changed the way people taste wine. They don’t just taste anymore and buy some bottles to take home, they stay and enjoy a flight.
“You’re seeing more of this everywhere, and I don’t think any of us in the industry are sad to see the old ways go. We’ve got on-site growth opportunities because we’re getting to interact with consumers in ways we never did before.”
Beer and Wine
Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing’s creation also aligned with Mario’s return to the company.
“It was serendipitous,” Mario said of the timing. “It was around the time the craft spirits movement started, and legislation was more conducive to do that. One of the graduate advisors at the University of Adelaide had a teaching winery certification with distillation aspects to it. We wanted something that would be a complement to having a wine operation and it wasn’t until several years later that we realized that this portion of the business had significant legs of its own. I give my father a lot of the credit. The spirit side continues to grow.”
Beer was a natural complement to the burgeoning line of spirits, Mario added.
“We’re using locally grown grain and hops and we felt like it fit the narrative of us being proponents of local agriculture,” said Mario, noting that sourcing local grapes that represent the region are a large part of Mazza’s identity. “That’s what we’ve done with wine for 50 years.”
Growing Distribution and Reach
Expanding the reach of Mazza’s product lines has remained a focus for the family, Mario said.
This has been facilitated in part by a change in Pennsylvania law.
“Five to six years ago, our wine was available in state-owned fine wine and spirits stores,” Mario said. “Now, grocery and convenience stores can do wine sales, and so that’s led to many more points of distribution for us. We’ve embraced our (longtime) products, but we’ve expanded our product lines to fit different consumers.
“We’re a house of brands — not everything says ‘Mazza’ on it. We have different markets, and we tailor them to those.”
One of those brands includes the Getaway Bubbly White, which is sold in 250mL cans, something Mario said was a key part of the strategy for that product rollout.
“It’s a big boating community, fishing community up here, so we think the cans make the wine more accessible,” Mario said. “We wanted a certain packaging size. The 250mL can opens up other opportunities for us. There were customers we weren’t hitting and couldn’t hit with a 375 ml can. That’s half a bottle of wine and it’s $8-9 bucks a can, and people don’t want to pay that when it’s sitting next to a $3 can of beer.
“We carbonated it because we made the decision that more often than not when people open a can they expect carbonation. So we thought making it effervescent made it more attractive.”
For both canned products and sparkling products, investing in equipment to do both has been key. Mazza has had the equipment needed to do both for years, canning beer and cider for client contracting work. No custom crushing or offsite production is needed.
Mario said the company has slowly added existing technology and advancements in winemaking to its toolkit over the years.
Pneumatage Pulsair technology is one of those things. The large bubble air/gas mixing process was developed in 1986 and is similar to a reverse punch-down or in-tank pump-over. It’s designed to pump red wine up into and over the top of buoyant red grape skins during fermentation during in-cap mixing session. The process utilizes the sequential injection of large compressed air or gas bubbles released into the bottom of the fermentation tank. The fast, rising air pulses completely separate the grape cap into individual berries to infuse phenolics, flavor, aromatics, tannins, and color. This gentle mixing process also helps significantly reduce labor costs, reduce energy consumption, reduce sanitation and increase efficiency.
Mario said that while they’ve been doing it for a decade, they got a semi-automated upgrade last year for harvest with additional red fermenters.
“It gives us better control over our red wine management,” Mario explained.
Other investments Mazza has made over the years include putting in a Stelvin closure system on its bottling line to reduce unwanted oxidation, Mario added.
“We were one of the first on the east coast to put one in, in 2004,” he said. “We also embraced lenticular filtration, which has given us the ability to do more versatile things with carbonation while preserving quality. We want to make sure the wine is how we design it. We want to make sure we don’t run into wines that don’t filter well and lose stability.
“We keep our eye on things. Fifty years in, we’re still doing incremental improvements and trying to see where we can find a little bit of extra efficiency, productivity, and color stability.”
Of course, having the right leadership team has also been key. So has investing in support staff to help them.
“I couldn’t do any of this without the team I have around me,” Mario said. “We have talent we’ve developed from within that is amazing. Joe Nelson, our head distiller whom I went to high school with, started out distilling part-time once a week. He had interest in it — he had done a little brewing before that — and was pretty much self-taught and went to conferences … things like that. He has a team of 12-15 people working under him and a full facility that we just added more people to.”
On the wine side, Grace Rossetto has been helpful as the company’s quality control and lab coordinator.
“She came in with chemistry knowledge but no wine knowledge, but she’s done a good job of leading our quality control efforts,” Mario said. “It’s been great to get an outside perspective and also someone who’s been willing to learn.”
Outside help has also been something that’s helped bolster the winemaking side over the years.
“Our evolution has started from day one,” Mario said. “My father brought in a German enologist for the first five years, and bringing in assistant winemakers from other regions has been something we’ve doubled down on and leaned into during the past 15 years.”
Assistant winemakers have hailed from Hungary, Portugal, Uruguay, and India.
“We’re not a culture of complacency where we say ‘that’s good enough,’” Mario said.
Growing Beyond The Region
Tourism is a major driver for wineries that don’t have national distribution, Mario said, and it’s been part of Mazza’s strategy for growing its brands.
Facilitating online sales and redesigning the website (EnjoyMazza.com) has been a supplement to that strategy as of late.
“It’s about who comes to visit,” Mario said. “We draw from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Ontario, so we’re more regional. That’s where our base is so a lot is built around the tourism side. But we’ve expanded how we handle online sales because you do get a lot of people who visit outside of the tri-state area and want to purchase the wines online.”
Being unafraid to branch out has also helped grow that audience.
“We’ve made Riesling from day one but we’ve branched out to other varietals,” he said. “We have different brands and different collections, and each has a common theme. We’ve got esoteric and eclectic varieties and non-traditional vinifera for those interested. We make a number of sweeter wines that are part of the portfolio.”
Being a tourist destination makes it necessary to have a wide range of products, he said.
“Because we have multiple properties and collections and price points, we want to make sure that we’re not a single producer of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and that’s all you get,” he said. “From a tourism standpoint, you want to have enough selection for people to be interested. Our properties are in close proximity to each other, and would you want to go to three coffee shops and have all of them be Starbucks?”
Their diverse portfolio helped them survive the pandemic, and it’s potentially setting the stage for bigger things.
“I can’t go into specifics, but a huge partnership is being formed in the Pittsburgh market, and it’s something novel and unique from a worldwide perspective,” he noted.
Mario said Mazza was always trying to make sure it considered potential opportunities for repositioning.
“We’re not looking to stop being a tourist destination — we still want that experience,” Mazza said. “But we have wines that are competitive and incredible and we want to lean into that.”