May 2017 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Goal: Better Wine, Future Winemakers

Extension's Wine Quality Improvement program inspires professional interests among students

by Denise M. Gardner

Virginia Mitchell and I first met on a snowy evening in 2012 at a brew pub in State College, Pa. Her harvest internship employer, Mario Mazza, enologist at Mazza Wines in North East, Pa., introduced me to Mitchell in the hope that I could help develop her wine education. She was a college senior with a dream of working in the wine industry, and I was new to extension and trying to rebuild an educational wine program for Pennsylvania.

Flash forward five years: Today Mitchell is winemaker for Galer Estate Winery in Kennett Square, Pa. After graduating from Penn State University with a degree in food science, she left the United States for a harvest-hop experience at Two Hands Winery in Australia during the 2013 harvest season.

Mitchell was the first of a successful group of undergraduate students who caught the wine bug and turned their attention toward building careers in the wine industry. What started out as an extension program to teach winemakers a multitude of ways to understand common wine faults such as volatile acidity (VA) and Brettanomyces-induced aromas has turned into a catalyst for launching wine careers.

The Wine Quality Improvement (WQI) short course is offered through Penn State Extension every January. The program has evolved during the past several years and benefitted from the assistance of student volunteers. The program often stimulates those students’ interest in wine and lays the foundation for future study. They develop an awareness of the local wine industry, learn about practical and applicable professional development opportunities for students and also get a basic introduction to wine quality.

Various faculty members within Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have supplemented these students’ education with viticultural and winemaking projects and research. In addition, each year several students compete for co-op opportunities within Pennsylvania and other wine regions across the country, sometimes opting for international harvest-hop experiences. Those harvest internships continue to educate students about new production skills.

Allie Miller, a 2015 Penn State graduate in food science, is currently working as a vintage cellar hand and laboratory assistant for Watershed Premium Wines in Margaret River, Australia. According to Miller, “The harvest-hop experience has been incredible in showing me a broad range of winemaking philosophies and techniques.”

She continues, “Harvest-hopping has given me immense networking opportunities, as I now know people from all over the world in the industry. The wine world is small! This is a global industry, and I encourage any aspiring winemaker to pursue international opportunities because they are so fulfilling in both career and life experiences.”

WQI short course, explained
The WQI program was established in 2007 by former Penn State extension enology educator Dr. Stephen Menke, who called it the Pennsylvania Wine Quality Initiative. The program focused on training six winemakers at each session to identify wine faults sensorially. The initial goal of the program was to reduce the number of wines with noticeable faults produced in Pennsylvania.

An enology graduate of the University of Adelaide, Mazza recognized the program’s value to the local wine industry and, after Menke left for another position, helped maintain the course until Penn State Extension re-established the program in 2011.

A main priority of WQI was to provide practical information for industry members. Instead of focusing on the end product of commercial wines, the program returned to a more traditional extension model, which placed emphasis on sensory training and education. The goal was to provide attendees with the knowledge to help answer their own production questions, while the sensory exercises emphasized the need to continue working on identification of faults once the attendees returned to their production facilities.

After the first workshop, I spent a year traveling from corner to corner within Pennsylvania and highlighting the importance of sensory evaluation of wines through this educational program. With support from the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant awarded to the Pennsylvania Wine Association (PWA), we hired Mitchell as a student intern to aid in the program’s development and organization. With her help, program attendance reached just under half of the state’s wineries in operation at that time.

“The summer we traveled throughout Pennsylvania was the first time I was exposed to the concept of wine sensory evaluation,” Mitchell says, recalling her summer internship with Penn State Extension. “I remember sitting in the class in Lancaster, and I took so many notes because I was very interested in the material.

“Those classes have definitely helped me better define and communicate what I taste in a wine as a winemaker,” she notes. “I can explain what I am tasting to people I work with in the cellar and with customers that come into the tasting room. It really helped me define basic descriptors found in wine and form a foundational base in sensory vocabulary.”

Mitchell also assisted in the development of “at-home” training kits that were mailed to every licensed winery in Pennsylvania as part of WQI’s revamped initiatives. While the kit was designed to entice attendance at WQI, it also included real-time training exercises to help wineries identify wine faults through sensory evaluation. Mitchell also utilized the kits to train staff members while employed by Mazza Vineyards in North East, Pa.

The WQI educational program has continued to evolve, and now attendees can bring their own wines to the short course and have them evaluated blindly by their peers and the program’s volunteers during the workshop. After the workshop, each attendee gets a written report identifying potential problems in the wine they submitted. They can then refer to their WQI notebook, which contains solutions to improve their wines.

“I see (the WQI program) benefiting the industry in a couple of ways,” says Mazza, who continues to volunteer with the WQI program. “Not only does it provide formal sensory training for many that have not been afforded that opportunity, but it also provides skills and structure that they can take back and utilize on a regular basis in their winery as they continue to pursue quality improvements.”

Many wineries have provided feedback regarding how the program has helped enhance their operations. Some have found opportunities to train more of their employees on finding potential flaws in their wines. Others have created five- to 10-year plans on how to continuously upgrade their production floor. Finally, many begin to utilize analytical testing and production expertise to improve the quality of their wines.

Taking advantage of wine education
Mitchell participated in the WQI short course as a student volunteer in 2011 and has continued to volunteer now that she is working in a Pennsylvania winery. “I actually have a better understanding of wine faults that are found in wines due to my participation in the program. It’s a great refresher for me to step away from the winery, work on preparing wine samples for a few days and smell the spiked wines with industry members,” she says. “As winemakers, we make wines all year long, but the class offers us an opportunity to refresh our memories on each fault.”

Other students help organize, prepare and participate in university extension programs as a way to introduce themselves to winemaking concepts and later join the student team that contributes to viticulture and enology graduate research. Both undergraduate and graduate students have opportunities to work in the research-winemaking program and get hands-on experience in grape harvesting, production, sanitation practices, analytical evaluation associated with quality control and management through harvest operations. They learn to maintain production and analytical records, and how to handle incoming grapes based on variations in vintage.

“My involvement with the WQI Short Course and Extension was phenomenal because it was a foot in the door into the industry for me,” Miller says. “I will never forget walking into (extension enology associate) Denise Gardner’s office, asking for advice on how I could start a career in winemaking and writing down all of the names of great Pennsylvania wineries that I eventually emailed and received my first internships from. On top of that, helping with the research harvests gave me that first taste of what winemaking would be like, especially in terms of the lab setting, which is applicable nearly everywhere.”

Mitchell recalls making research wines at Penn State. “Not only did I learn management skills since I was designated as a ‘team leader’ the year I helped with Penn State’s harvest, but I still apply some of the concepts I learned there to my winemaking practices today. I learned how to be a better supervisor toward my cellar staff and, from the winemaking side, I still think back to that class all the time when I’m making rosé wine. My independent research project was on dual-yeast inoculations in rosé wine production, and I think about all of that every year I make rosé for Galer Estate.” (Galer Estate’s rosé has been awarded numerous accolades, including a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.)

Stephanie Keller, a senior studying food science, completed her first harvest internship with E. & J. Gallo Winery during the 2016 season and has volunteered for the WQI short course every year she has been enrolled as a student. “Assisting with the WQI workshops for two years allowed me to gain a lot of knowledge on identifying faults in wine and also conducting sensory and tasting trials,” Keller states. “During my internship with Gallo, I was responsible for my own project fermentations, and my undergraduate experiences at Penn State helped me learn faults that could potentially be present in my project wines. The research winemaking experiences also gave me a great foundation on the winemaking process, which was applicable during my internship.”

Beyond providing travel opportunities, several local wineries have supported students’ educational experiences by developing internship programs surrounding the harvest season. This was especially true after WQI provided a forum for students and winemakers to meet and get to know each other. Mazza Vineyards, Blair Vineyards, Happy Valley Vineyard and Winery, Manatawny Creek Winery, Franklin Hill Winery and Galer Estate Winery are six Pennsylvania wineries that have provided internship or co-op opportunities for Penn State students at their estate vineyards or wineries.

“The student involvement in the (WQI) program has created an opportunity for students to engage with industry,” Mazza says. “From my personal perspective, it has given us an opportunity to draw co-op students, which many times has transitioned to full-time positions in our and other wineries. We see this as a great asset to the Pennsylvania wine industry’s growth, caliber and competency.”

WQI also attracted interest from students enrolled in plant sciences, chemistry and ag business in addition to food science. With collaboration from Dr. Ryan Elias in the Department of Food Science and Drs. Michela Centinari and Kathy Kelley in the Department of Plant Science, students are gaining familiarity with the industry and skill sets that make them marketable in the cross-disciplinary fields of viticulture and enology.

The future ahead
The level of interest in viticulture and enology education stimulated by the WQI program benefits both graduating students and industry members as a new generation enters the workforce. With support from stakeholders at all levels, the WQI short course will continue to provide industry members, students and the public interest with innovative and interactive educational tools to keep the local wine industry thriving well into the future.

Denise M. Gardner is the extension enology associate at the Pennsylvania State University. She is currently based at the Montgomery County extension office in Collegeville, Pa.

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