LEEPER — Summer weekends in Cook Forest, a registered national natural landmark known for its old-growth hemlocks, usually involve this:
Paddling or tubing on the lazy Clarion River. Climbing the teetering, 87-foot fire tower built as a firemen’s lookout in 1929 and then scrambling across the rocky ledges at nearby Seneca Point Overlook. (You can see for miles at both locations.) There’s also the mandatory licking of hand-dipped Hershey’s ice cream cones at The Cooksburg Cafe on River Road, souvenir shopping at Parker’s Indian Trading Post, hiking, fishing, antiquing …. The list of family-oriented activities visitors have been enjoying for generations goes on and on.
So the fact I’m sipping Pennsylvania-produced red wine on a Saturday afternoon at a sweet little winery deep in the woods comes as a happy surprise to this veteran Cook Forester. It’s a little surreal, even.
I always thought Bud was the drink of choice among outdoor types.
No way, says Kate Hall, who a year ago opened the tiny R• • Bandana Winery (redbandanawinery.com), at which my husband and I are drinking, after falling in love with and marrying a native.
She laughs and says, “We have a lot of happy locals,” not to mention a “very strong following” of city slickers like me, who keep the winery’s cozy tasting room and back deck buzzing on weekends.
Made with local organic grapes and fruit, R• • Bandana’s offerings include an assortment of reds, whites, fruit and berry wines. A tasting of four at the charming oak bar costs just a buck, but most customers enjoy it by the glass ($4.25-$6.50) or bottle ($9.99-$15.99). For non-drinkers, there’s a French press coffee bar, organic grape and cherry juices and bottled root beer, and you also can enjoy cheeses from Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District. By the door, there’s a selection of premium cigars.
“Once people find us, they come back,” says Ms. Hall, whose painting studio is nestled on the second floor. “It’s not unusual to have 100 people on a weekend night, it’s such a destination.”
Actually, there’s a lot of wine drinking these days in these parts of Pennsylvania. At least a half-dozen wineries selling a variety of sweet, dry and fruit wines are within easy driving distance of Cook Forest, and all offer tours and tastings — a perfect diversion when you’ve overdosed on nature or the weather’s not cooperating. To name a few: Deer Creek Winery in Shippenville specializes in raspberry wines, while Allegheny Cellars Winery in Sheffield makes an award-winning sweet Concord red. Rather spice the tongue? Laurel Mount Vineyard in Falls Creek has among its offerings Groundhog Grog, an apple wine spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg.
For one-stop tasting, all of the above, plus several more, will be part of the fourth annual Wine Fest in the Forest on Aug. 17 at Majestic Farms & Hall in Leeper. Tickets cost $20 in advance at cookforest.org or $25 at the door, and attendees also will get to sample chocolates from Dan Smith’s Candies, along with a variety of cheeses. This year’s event also will include a dozen vendors selling everything from jewelry and rustic furniture to homemade jellies and dips.
If you’re expecting a snooty, highbrow wine experience, you may be disappointed on a visit to R• • Bandana. Built with salvaged materials from Construction Junction and decorated with tanned hides and an eclectic but comfortable mishmash of thrift-store finds, this is a pretty laid-back place. And that’s before you discover a side room filled with hats and costumes so customers can play dress-up when the mood strikes.
“I think most wineries get it wrong,” says Ms. Hall, whose landscapes and paintings — marketed under the name Kathleen Flaherty — hang on the walls and also decorate the wine bottles. “They want to make people feel uncomfortable. We don’t.”
A professional artist who trained and taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Hall has been visiting Clarion County since she was a toddler; she grew up in Bethel Park and for a while had a gallery on Pittsburgh’s North Side. But it wasn’t until she met husband-to-be Mike, who works in the gas industry, that she came up with the idea to combine art with winemaking. They were inspired, she says, by their trips to Lake Erie’s wine country.
Securing financing through The Progress Fund and constructing, with local labor and timber, the winery, which sits on 22 acres across the road from her mother’s 1870s farmhouse, took three years. It was a hit from the get-go.
That “something” includes offbeat activities such as an upcoming Crappy Car Cruise on Aug. 10 and a swing dance the night of the wine festival benefiting the Clarion Area Trail Towns Co-Op ($18 in advance, $25 at the door). The winery also has live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays, “and we get really good bands,” such as Tom Zeller’s Jazz Lite Quartet from Clarion, which rocked the house July 6, and local artist Robyn Culp Young.
Expect also to be greeted by the Halls’ Shetland sheepdog, Olivia, who, like the bandana-wearing West Virginia coal miners of old for which the winery is named, wears a bright red handkerchief.
“You come as a stranger and leave as a friend,” she says.
The winery is open from noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Cooksburg/Cook Forest is two hours by highway if you don’t get stuck in summer construction on Interstate 80. Take I-79 North to I-80 East and get off at Exit 60 toward Shippenville. Follow Route 66 North 15 miles to the light at Route 36; turn right on Route 36 South and go 7 miles to the park.
Or, go the “long” way via Route 58 through Butler and the tiny town of Eau Claire to avoid the construction. It has the fringe benefit of driving past Zimmerman’s ice cream stand on Main Street in Evans City. (Get the hand-dipped chocolate.)
There are campsites galore near Cooksburg, as well as private cabin rentals in the woods and on the water. In addition, Cook Forest State Park (1-814-744-840; dcnr.state.pa.us) has 210 camping spaces (some ADA accessible) plus 18 rustic cabins (outdoor plumbing and bathrooms) that sleep four to eight people. The Inn at Cook Forest, a Victorian farmhouse built as a Cook homestead in 1870 (theinnatcookforest.com), is the area’s premier bed and breakfast. Across the street from the river, with a picturesque covered porch, it features nine rooms (some with antique furniture and river views) and a gourmet breakfast each morning. Prices range from $100 with a shared bath to $130 for the king-sized Cook suite with a fireplace. More upscale is the Gateway Lodge (gatewaylodge.com), which has luxury suites with king beds and private balconies ($199 and up) in addition to eight original rooms furnished with antiques ($95 and up).
Cook Forest State Park’s grove of old-growth white pines and hemlocks, called the Forest Cathedral, is one of the largest stands of old-growth timber in the state. It’s great for hiking; also be sure to check out the fire tower and Seneca Rocks. If you’d rather play in the Clarion River, several companies rent canoes, kayaks and inner tubes, including The Pale Whale (cookriverside.com) and Cook Forest Canoe Rental (cookforestcanoe.com). The Verna Leith Sawmill Theater at the Sawmill Center for the Arts (sawmill.org) offers local productions of plays and musicals throughout the summer.
If you believe one man’s trash is another’s treasure, the flea market behind Leeper Market (free, intersection of Routes 36 and 66 in Leeper) can be fun. It can have upward of 30 venders selling knickknacks, clothing and household items on a busy weekend, and there’s also a concession stand with homemade french fries. At least one Amish family usually is selling homemade jellies, pickles, pies and bread.
If you happen to be in the area the first weekend of the month, worth the half-hour drive is the flea market in nearby Hazen, just north of Brookville on Route 28. It’s huge (and exhausting), featuring more than 300 vendors. There are also several antique stores on Route 36; be sure to check out Mountain Mercantile.
Just because you’re in the woods doesn’t mean you won’t eat well. The Gateway Lodge has gourmet farm-to-table dining both at dinner and breakfast. The Forest Nook features burgers and Italian food, and it also has a great deck for outdoor dining. Knotty Pines has sandwiches, nachos and an outdoor tiki bar. For terrific pizza, try Fox’s Pizza Den in Tylersburg. And ice cream? Some of the best soft-serve in the state can be found at the Sawmill on Route 66 in Leeper, across the road from Leeper Market.
For more info: cookforest.com, dcnr.state.pa.us or VisitPaGo.com.