by Lou Mancinelli
During the years that followed World War II, youths in Chestnut Hill often sipped wine that dripped from the hoses that pumped the wine from glass-lined train cars into the Philadelphia Winery, or so the story goes.
Then the winery was located at the corner of Moreland Avenue and Winston Road in Chestnut Hill. It was operated by the Pio family and was capable of storing one million gallons of wine. This year marks the 75th anniversary for the family of pleasing the palates of wine consumers. Gina Pio Cossman, the founder’s granddaughter, is one of the major figures in the business today. She lives in Chestnut Hill and was born and raised here.
“It just continues one year at a time,” said Cossman, 58, about the wine-making process. Much the same can be said about the Elmo Pio Wines Company and the art of importing wine.
During Restaurant Month in Chestnut Hill in March, diners can expect to find Pio Wines involved with local eateries, according to Cossman. Its imported Italian wines — Moscato, Asti, Chianti and more — are available at state stores in Pennsylvania, as well as wine stores in six other states on the eastern seaboard. The latest, Florida, was just added at the beginning of this year.
Gina’s grandfather, Bartolomeo Pio, founded the company five years after Prohibition ended in 1933. He was from a family of winemakers in Italy, and his cousin founded the prestigious Pio Cesare winery in the Piedmont area of northwestern Italy.
When Bartolomeo emigrated to America in 1912 and settled in Philadelphia, he established contacts in the wine business and purchased vineyards and a winery in Cucamonga in the southern part of California.
By the time the family’s wine company was started in 1938, 75 years ago, the Pio family had facilities on both the east and west coast. In Cucamonga, the grapes were grown and harvested, then crushed and the fermentation process begun. The wine was shipped by rail in glass-lined tank cars to Philadelphia for final aging and bottling.
The Pio Philadelphia Winery in South Philadelphia, where the wine was bottled under the Bartolomeo Pio label, had storage capacity for one million gallons for aging in redwood and oak tanks (upright) and casks (on sides). Skilled craftsmen from Europe were brought in to construct the storage facilities. The Philadelphia Winery could bottle five thousand cases a day.
Before the company moved from South Philadelphia to Chestnut Hill at the end of World War II, it had sold 400,000 cases of wine a year in the Northeast. “During Prohibition, we were the largest handlers of home wine-making grapes,” Elmo Pio, Bartolomeo’s son, once said. “When repeal of Prohibition came, my father had contacts in California: the Sebastianis, Mondavis, Martinis.”
In the 1950s, when the Gallo family winemakers wanted to expand into the state-controlled Pennsylvania wine market, they needed a friend to make it happen. Thus, the Pio Company was sold to Ernest & Julio Gallo in 1964, and the Pios then became distributors for Gallo wines, as well as importers of Pio Cesare wines.
Elmo Pio, who graduated from Springfield Township High School in 1936, started working for the family firm in sales and advertising. In the early 1970s he traveled to Italy in search of new types of grapes. That’s when he chanced upon Muscat grapes, which produce a sweet dessert wine called Moscato. The flavor, which Elmo thought was different from anything on the market in this country, moved him to begin importing it to the U.S. under the Elmo Pio label.
In the 1970s, Elmo Pio added Chianti, Frascati and Asti Spumante to his Italian imports, and in 1976 began promoting his wines on television with commercials featuring himself and the slogan, “The wines whose time is ripe.” Those TV commercials made Elmo Pio a household name.
Moscato remains the primary focus of Elmo Pio Wines. In February, 2012, the Wine Spectator magazine reported that Moscato white wine had become the third most popular wine consumed in the U.S. Since 2010, it is up 73 percent in both volume and revenue, according to the article. And according to industry sources, one million cases of Moscato were sold in the U.S. five years ago. Last year that number skyrocketed to 15 million.
Crossman attributes part of the rise in demand to lyrics to a Trey Songz song featuring Drake that says “Lobster and shrimp and a glass of Moscato.” Also songs by L’il Kim and Hannah Montana that mentioned Moscato, which apparently encouraged many young people to try the sweet wine.
But when Gina started in the wine business in the late 1970s after earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of New Haven in hotel and restaurant management, “Wine was not really happening in America at that point.”
Before that, Cossman, a 1972 Springfield Township High School graduate, like her dad, had studied at the Culinary Institute of America. But she learned fast and operated better on the front and sales end of the business than in the kitchen. Cossman started working for the family business in 1979. She moved back to Chestnut Hill three years ago after raising children in Montgomery County.
“When you’re in a family business, you don’t carry a title,” she said. “You do what you’re told to do.”
David Dahme, a Mt. Airy native who graduated from Spring Garden College when it was in Mt. Airy, is general manager of the company, having been hired by Elmo 27 years ago. “I’m the Irish guy in the Italian business,” he said with a smile.
“Americans do have a sweet palate. Look at the sales of Hershey bars and Coca-Cola. Look at all the flavored vodkas; they are like Baskin-Robbins flavors. Elmo Pio was the first to import Moscato in 1976, and now there are 35 Moscatos on the market, but most people still pick ours as the best in blind tastings. We have tripled our business in the past five years, mostly because of Moscato. We sold 120,000 cases of wine in the past year, and 90,000 of those cases were Moscato.”
Elmo Pio Wines purchases its grapes and wines from groups in Italy that operate vineyards based on a cooperative model. It also serves as importer for the Pio Cesare label.
Elmo Pio, whose sales and marketing brilliance was a major factor in the growth of Pio Wines, died Oct. 15, 1996, at the age of 77 of heart failure at Chestnut Hill Hospital.
For more information visit www.elmopio.com.