Jim Thorpe is recognized for its versatility, its draw for every demographic. There’s something to offer every age, intellect, and niche audience out there. It’s like a big metropolis made fun size. In this quaint town, the incessant car horns and air pollution are replaced by the sound of songbirds and genuine kindness.
There’s one local business that embodies many aspects of the town's uniqueness. If you want to wrap up all the things that draw visitors here, history and heritage, to fresh air and flowers, to botanical backdrops screaming to be instagrammed—and enjoy them all over drinks and lunch—look no further than Wild Elder Wine and Cider Co.
The specialty beverage spot (and eatery) is situated among the Victorian architecture on Jim Thorpe’s main drag (Broadway), halfway between the train station and the Mauch Chunk Opera House.
While their physical foundation sits at the heart of these historic landmarks, the products found here are also grounded in traditions and local pride — just ask the winemaker's wife.
“We want to show people that good wine isn’t necessarily a Euro-centric thing, that only the elite can make and truly enjoy.”
Amber Finsel married into what she calls the “folk wine” culture that Wild Elder is built on. Her husband Josh Finsel and his family have been making fruit wine in their Lehighton home for decades. Lehighton is located just three miles away from Jim Thorpe. The family backyard is now home to an “urban winery” where winemaker Josh creates all of the products for Wild Elder.
Josh has elevated what began as a father-son pastime to a science and brings his passion for doing things by hand and as naturally as possible to everything he makes. Amber, a naturalist and herbalist of more than two decades, left her position as a foundation exec in spring of 2020 to help launch and grow their family business. They combine their love of wine and cider and botanical wisdom to prove that fancy French and Italian grapes aren’t the only way to do wine.
“We make things with the fruit and flowers readily available in our backyards, and often, that’s not grapes.” All the products here lean on native or colonial favorite fruits and flowers.
And it’s a romantic model, given the worldwide clientele who flock to Jim Thorpe looking for a one of a kind experience. Finsel says she’s proud to give patrons just that.
“I’m certain when we give someone something in our tasting room, it’s a product they cannot find anywhere else.”
She says it boldly and doesn’t hesitate when asked for an example. She details the making of Forte, their elderberry port, which is a semi-sweet high alcohol elderberry wine, fortified with locally distilled elderberry brandy, then aged 3 years in oak barrels. Elderberry wine is the flagship pour of Wild Elder.
“It’s all elderberry infused, even the brandy.” Finsel says between the locally sourced herbs and ingredients, and the three year aging process, she is sure there is nothing on the market like it.
Although wine making was Josh’s first love, making the leap to cider was easy since the methods are very much alike. In fact, he often blends his small batch flower wines with his ciders, as he does to create his popular dandelion cider. In early America, hard cider was a popular indulgence, but, according to Finsel, it was very different from the sweet ciders you find in stores now.
“We want to connect people with the roots of cider,” says Finsel, who describes their dry “champagne style” ciders as far less sweet than things like the mass-produced cider people may be used to.
Here, the beverage starts with raw apple cider sourced in the Lehigh Valley, and gets infused, enhanced, and made into Wild Elder’s novel creations.
“People often come in and say ‘I don’t like cider, but taste ours and are really pleasantly surprised.”
In the same way, Finsel says patrons often come seeking out their flagship elderberry wine and cider but are surprised to learn that they are not sweet. For something elderberry on the sweeter side, patrons are encouraged to turn to the port or their nonalcoholic elderberry syrup, which can be added to sweeten any beverage or enjoyed straight as a wellness tonic.
Wild Elder DOES offer some grape wine, however, they have deliberately chosen to shun European varietals in favor of native North American grapes and cultivars. Their Fox Grape wines are very popular. Wild Elder prides itself on defying fruit wine expectations; they offer a full variety of dry, semi, and sweet options.
“We like to probe a little bit, and make sure people understand what we’re offering and end up with something they like[…] We rely on our smart and friendly staff to make sure our customers have a great experience. We are blessed with a talented team and our reviews consistently celebrate them and the amazing job they do representing our company.”
It’s important to note the creative, and handcrafted goods aren’t only for those who enjoy a little booze. Housemade syrups, organic herbs, and creativity come together in a fun assortment of mocktails. The Elder Dark and Stormy featuring elderberry syrup, lime and ginger beer is a house favorite.
And hey, maybe you don’t need a romantic story of family traditions to lure you in, or lines drawn between Victorian history and your post hike cocktail — but if you want a delicious and ethically-sourced drink or bite to eat, or a gorgeous and filling charcuterie board to split with friends, this place has you covered.
Wild Elder is open every day (talk about a Jim Thorpe rarity!) – even in the winter. Mulled wine and hot apple cider? Yes please!
They only close on major holidays, and despite closing doors at 5 on most nights, they stay open later on Saturdays and for special events. Currently the first Friday of every month they host art openings, and the second Friday is open mic night. Check their Facebook page for schedule updates.
The hand-built outdoor stage brings in local musicians, and to keep things on brand, they’re strongly encouraged to play original music, as opposed to the same old cover songs.
Their beautiful back patio space is the perfect place for, well, just existing and taking in the view — but to think you can jam out to a live band, get a flight of vino and eat a plate of cheese? They’ve really got it all.
“We grow what we can, and source locally everything else. We forage for things ethically, responsibly, and with permission in places where it’s safe to do so,” says Finsel. She says their passion for the business starts with the fruits, flowers, and herbs they’re using.
Getting even more intimate with their ingredients is important for the co-owners, and big things are on the horizon. Amber and Josh recently purchased a bit of acreage just outside of town, where they plan to grow heirloom varieties of apples and pears. The goal is to produce fruit with more bitter notes than what’s available in your typical grocery store to enhance their cider blends. They also plan to grow pawpaws, currants, and many flowers and herbs.
If Jim Thorpe is a tiny New York City with cleaner sidewalks and more outdoor appeal, Wild Elder is like a tiny Jim Thorpe you can experience in one sitting. Culture, authenticity, and good old fashioned hospitality are all on the menu here. It's a buzzing and trendy place you can enjoy even if you just happen upon it, but doesn’t lose its luster even if you do your homework.