by Sally Colby
Jonas Nissley didn’t intend to return to his family’s winery in the York, PA area but he says it was a good move. He graduated from college with a degree in English and looked forward to a career in teaching, then taught in Thailand for a year. He returned to the states and received his master’s degree in education.
“I hadn’t anticipated returning here and making this my career,” said Jonas. “It was through a few different circumstances that I realized I really did want to take over and take the business to the next level.” Jonas says at one point, the winery tapered down production with the possibility of downsizing and eventually phasing out completely, but now that he’s back and willing to take the reins, the winery is back to full capacity.
Jonas says his grandfather Richard and his father John were at the forefront of the state’s wine industry. It was just a few years after Pennsylvania started to license wineries Richard and John planted their first vines. “They started building the winery in 1975,” said Jonas. “Grandpa and Dad pioneered a lot of Pennsylvania grape growing because before that, it wasn’t even legal to have a winery. It was a total experiment and it happened that they picked some grape varieties that grew well and some that didn’t, but that’s how you figure out what works.”
After establishing the winery, John and his three sisters built Nissley winery to one of the largest in both the region and the state. “A lot of hard work has gone into putting us in that spot,” said Jonas, “so it’s up to me to see where there were successes and build on those successes, and look for new areas for growth.”
Although John and his sisters are still involved in the winery, Jonas and some other new faces have taken over much of the daily operations. At full capacity, Nissley bottles 50,000 gallons annually.
Nissley vineyards includes about 30 acres, but that number is changing as more acreage is being planted. “We planted seven acres this year,” said Jonas, “and I hope to plant just as much in 2018. I think it’s important to have locally grown grapes. Consumers want that, and we want to do that. It’s nice to be able to tell people that the grapes in our wine came from our vineyards; and from our press to our tanks and bottled in our facility.”
The Nissley family has kept the original wine labels listing the grape varieties used when they were experimenting with their first blends. “A lot of those original wines we no longer make because tastes change,” said Jonas. “We’ve been finding that people in our area want sweet wine. We didn’t make a lot of sweet wine before, but we realized we might as well give them what they want.”
Experimentation continues to drive the wines the Nissley’s produce. “We found that varietal names aren’t as important here,” said Jonas, comparing Pennsylvania winemaking to California. “It’s the taste, so we do a lot of blends. We used to do more varietals because that’s what California wineries are doing but it’s not about that. It’s about giving the customer what they want to drink, and they want something that tastes good and is drinkable.”
Nissley’s self-guided tour allows visitors to walk through the entire winery to see what goes on behind the scenes and chat with cellar master Kyle Jones or winemaker Jen Wampler. Jonas says Jen, who recently started working as Nissley’s winemaker, has a lot to live up to. “Our old winemaker had been here since 1991,” said Jonas. “In 2014, he won the INDY winemaker of the year.” John Nissley, Jonas’ father, has been the grower for the past 40 years, and is in the process of turning over his duties to Steve Foreman, who has been with Nissley for 14 years.
Although the winery was built in the 1970s, it blends perfectly with the historic stone buildings on the property. “They did a really good job conceiving what it would look like together,” said Jonas, adding all the buildings are constructed of the same stone. “As we think of building projects in the future, everything should tie in with what’s already here.”
One of the most unique features in the winery at Nissley Vineyards is the tanks, which are repurposed milk tanks. “As the winery was being built, they were put in before the roof was put on,” said Jonas. “They put them in with cranes as we were building the winery and we built around them.”
Some Nissley wines are available at PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) stores and several extension shops in the region. Nissley offers free tastings and is working on developing a wine club. “Selling wine is actually a lot of fun,” said Jonas, who has his hands full as he works and learns all aspects of the business. “Someone who is a long-time customer comes to the counter and puts their bottles down, I’ll look at what they have, then see what we have that’s close to that and pour them a sample and hand it to them without saying anything. Getting them to try something they haven’t had before is really fun.”
One of the most important goals at the winery is to keep wines the same from year to year. “We try to make our wines consistent because people like consistency,” said Jonas. “When we taste a new vintage, we taste it alongside the old vintage and try to match as close as we can to the old. When people find a wine they like, they want it to taste the same.”
Nissley’s wine shop features 24 selections, with something for every taste. Naughty Marietta, a French hybrid blend, is Nissley’s most popular red wine. Grapeful Red is a sweet red which suits the tastes of guests who prefer a sweet wine. Nissley uses local apple juice to make Masquerade, a semi-sweet French hybrid apple blend that’s one of their most popular. “We trimmed the list a bit,” said Jonas, “and brought back Black Raspberry, a dessert wine.”
In summer, Nissley Vineyards hosts music concerts on the lawn outside the winery. Guests are invited to bring picnics and enjoy time together with friends. Jonas estimates the winery draws an average of 1,800 to 2,000 guests for events, with as many as 3,000. “We’ve been doing it a while and we do it well,” he said. “People know it’s a nice place they can come to in the summer for events. We try to book a selection of bands that will appeal to a variety of tastes.”
Jonas believes one of the reasons he felt strongly about returning to the family business is that he was never pushed into it. “They told me, ‘do exactly what you want to do and forge your own path’ and I really appreciated that,” he said. “There was enough pressure without them even saying that because I knew it was important that we keep it going. I think I would have really regretted it if I hadn’t come back.”
Visit Nissley online at