MORRIS - Eric Swendrowski became the youngest person in the country to own a winery, created award-winning wines that had critics raving, ran his own vineyards and even opened a golf course to keep visitors to his winery entertained... but in the end, he found that his calling was simple: he wants to make good wine.
Oregon Hill Winery was established in 1983, but Swendrowski is a longtime wine connoisseur.
"My father and I have always made wine since I was a little boy," he said. "Both my parents are from Europe, and it was just a family tradition."
Oregon Hill Winery offers wine tastings in this rustic barn from the 1800s to make the experience authentic.
His parents owned a restaurant based in a barn from the 1800s, and the family felt that it would make the perfect location for a winery with its cool basement and cement flooring.
"The month of my 18th birthday, I formed a corporation," he said. "I became the youngest person ever to open a winery in the United States."
Swendrowski enjoyed creating wines that competed with those of long-established wine makers. Although he was not legally old enough to drink his own concoctions, he loved competing.
"Winning a medal in a serious wine competition... It was pretty cool," he said. "It was a huge confidence booster to me, to be accepted (in the industry)."
But as Swendrowski grew in the business world, he made an important discovery: What's popular with the critics may not be so popular with the customers.
"It didn't matter how many medals I won with this stuff, I wasn't selling any of it," he said. "After a while, I decided to start giving people exactly what they want... Now we have a really good selection, and it seems like everybody that walks in here walks out with a smile on their face and at least a few bottles of wine."
Swendrowski has made other changes over the years, mainly as a matter of trial and error. He and his father planted over 1,000 grapevines when the winery opened.
"We could not get them to grow, because of our high elevation, mainly," he said. "We slowly phased the vineyard out, and I really feel the grapes are just an ingredient in making my wine."
Now he concentrates on finding the best growers in Pennsylvania, and using his expertise to turn all of the ingredients into the best possible wine.
"Just because we share the same juice suppliers (with other wineries) does not mean in any way that these wines are going to taste the same as anyone else's wine," he said. "That's where the wine-making comes in, and I don't want my wine to be like everybody else's."
The wines offered at Oregon Hill vary throughout the year.
"I refuse to artificially flavor any of my wine," Swendrowski said. "Usually we have about 20 varieties at any one time... but we do have quite a few that I keep nonstop, year-round, because they're so popular."
One of those favorites is the Mountain Red: "That's my best-selling wine," he said.
Because of the health benefits associated with red wine, more customers are interested in trying it, but are often unpleasantly surprised by the dry taste. Mountain Red is still fruity and a bit sweet, he said.
Swendrowski is an expert at helping customers choose the perfect wine, and is used to dealing with first-timers.
"It's like drinking coffee for the first time... It's an acquired taste," he said.
That's why Oregon Hill offers a tasting room: "It's like taking a car for a test drive," he said.
Customers can sample various wines at no charge in the tasting room before purchasing their favorite.
While Swendrowski has made changes to accommodate his customers, some things have stayed the same, such as the barn itself.
"When people walk in here, they are really walking back in time. The beams and the wood and the antiques are over 100 years old. People step down into the tasting room and it's the real thing," he said.
He noted that wintertime visitors would be wise to bring a jacket.
"We have to cold-stabilize the wine, and I like to do it naturally," he said.
Swendrowski is also confident that the size of the winery will not change.
"It's as much as we can do as a family," he said. "If I get any bigger, things would have to change."
While in the past he's toyed with various forms of entertainment for guests, including a golf course in the late 80s, Swendrowski has decided to narrow the focus of the winery and spend the rest of his time focusing on family.
Now that he has children, he said, his number-one priority is being a dad: "That's the best job in the world."
The best part of owning a winery, he said, is being able to provide a service to customers that makes them happy.
"I have a really good, loyal customer base and I know most of them personally," he said. "It's a good job... They're happy when they come in and they're happy when they go."