Meet the Winemaker: Kevin Durland of Nimble Hill

You’re offered $5,000 to start a new career. Do you take it? What would you do? Kevin Durland chose wine. Specifically, Pennsylvania wine.

By his late 40s, Kevin Durland found himself at the 30-year mark with Procter & Gamble—and then, something curious happened. He learned that he was eligible for an early retirement incentive that would enable him to train in a different career. Intrigued, he began to hatch a plan to use that $5,000 stipend to take a leap into the wine industry.

Kevin and his wife had traveled extensively around the Finger Lakes in New York, and had fallen in love with the wine, so he made the decision to apply for the stipend for wine education. Though he wasn’t sure of the endgame, he knew that he had been handed a great opportunity to invest in himself, and, he says, “really wanted to use P&G dimes to get super educated in wine—not like a sommelier but in the chemistry.”

As a young man, Kevin would explore the meager aisles at Pennsylvania’s liquor stores, giving each bottle a fair chance. “A $3 jug was my favorite to have with spaghetti,” he remembers. At that time, “wine was kind of mysterious, kind of romantic—we would light candles sometimes when we had wine with dinner.”

The thought of making his own wine certainly hadn’t crossed his mind back then, but the timing of the retirement offer, coupled with his new-found love for wine, seemed to be the perfect chance to pursue a growing passion.

The manager at Procter & Gamble who oversaw the early retirement program “looked at me funny,” Kevin says. “I took out a syllabus from UC Davis, the premier wine school in the nation. I also had info on workshops at Cornell University. He knew I was serious!” Kevin began taking distance-learning classes at both schools.

At a chance meeting with a wine professor from Fresno State, Kevin learned that many students interned at wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and encouraged Kevin to pursue a similar path in upstate New York.

Kevin called Dave Widen, owner of Red Newt Cellars in Hector, NY. “His winery was not very big, and he always did everything himself,” Kevin says. He called at just the right moment: Dave was starting a website and hoping to grow the winery. In fall 2004, Kevin began traveling to New York on weekends, staying on Dave’s sailboat at the marina in Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake.

Working alongside Dave provided the real-life education and experience Kevin had wanted. “He showed me how to sample grapes for ripeness and taste, how to blend, and he let me do a lot of stuff by myself while he worked in his office. Some days, I’d be there 12 hours,” Kevin says.

When Kevin’s internship ended that winter, his high school friend Gary Toczko asked Kevin to help him start a winery in his hometown, Tunkhannock, PA. Kevin told Dave he’d like to intern for another year to prepare. Dave agreed under one condition: This time, Kevin would be paid. “I took huge notes—I have books! I wrote down everything I heard him say,” Kevin adds. “Dave wasn’t a chemist—I think his major was philosophy and some type of science—but he was a great mentor, role model and teacher.”

Kevin left Red Newt at the end of the winemaking season in December 2005. In Tunkhannock, he started installing tanks, a chiller, and plumbing inside Gary’s two-car garage. The duo tried making wines with sweet grapes grown on Gary’s 165-acre farm as well as Chardonnay grapes from southern Pennsylvania. In 2007, they opened Nimble Hill Winery (now also a craft brewery) in Mehoopany, just a few miles from the Procter & Gamble plant where Kevin had worked.

Kevin credits his experience at P&G for much of his success as a winemaker. “I hadn’t gone to college formally, but I worked with a lot of engineers designing experiments, and picked up things by osmosis,” he says. Much to his surprise, much of that would come into play at his winery.

“Later in my career, they put me in charge of the supply chain, working with our sales forecasters looking at the 18-month sales plans. So, at the winery, I built my own little version of that software for all our winery needs.”

His experience with electrical work empowered him to do all the wiring for the chill jackets on the stainless tank, and on bottling days he is comfortable setting up the line and troubleshooting if it breaks down.

After establishing Nimble Hill, Kevin and Gary planted Chardonnay and Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Saint Croix, and some Minnesota hybrid vines. Although Kevin doesn’t hold a degree in enology, he checks sugars, sulfates, pH levels, acidity, and other chemical components every day. “The couple of gallons I may throw away are well worth it, because as I’m measuring I’m looking for things with acidity and balance, I’m tasting, and what’s going through my head is ‘what kind of wine is this going to make?’” he says.

At 62, Kevin has been drinking and enjoying wine for more than 40 years, and making wine for close to 15 years. He says he’s seen the overall quality of Pennsylvania wine improving steadily since the days when he used to walk the “state stores” in search of something new. He largely credits rigorous science being adopted among even smaller wineries. “Pennsylvania wines 20 years ago usually meant sickeningly sweet things, often with a lot of defects,” he says. “We had a bad rap; people in the Finger Lakes laughed at me for starting a winery here. Now, they’re seeing the medals we’re winning.”

Over the decade he’s spent as a winemaker, Kevin has developed several philosophies. “I like my wines to age,” he says. “I like to barrel-age my reds, and then bottle-age them for at least another year.”

He also gives a nod to science and art. “A lot of winemakers say a lot of things because they sound good, like that they ‘don’t manipulate the wine,’” he says. “Or they boast on labels that the wine is ‘never fined or filtered,’ when most scientists will tell you there’s nothing wrong with filtering—it doesn’t strip flavor but it does remove bad stuff. I believe in the science but I also believe in the art.”

Kevin also adheres to this bit of old-fashioned wine wisdom: “You can’t make good wine out of bad grapes, but you can make bad wine out of good grapes. In Pennsylvania, I think it’s only going to get better. We won’t be perfect in winemaking, but we’re really going forward in leaps and bounds.”

For additional information, visit the vineyard’s website, like the Facebook page and check in with the Pennsylvania Winery Association for new releases, events and pertinent wine-lover information.

Nimble Hill Winery & Brewery is located at 3971 SR 6, Tunkhannock, PA; (570) 836-9463

—Emily Kovach