Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Meet Your Writer

I'm not going to lie... I have nothing for today.  With my new move to PA tomorrow (eek!), I've been trying to "work ahead" and get this blog lined up for the week, but I had no story for Tuesday.  Low and behold, this article that was recently written about the position I'm moving into at PSU was posted, and I thought I'd share.  Sorry for the lack of wine entertainment... but now you may know a little more about me.  :)

This article was originally published at LancasterFarming.com.  It is pasted here for your convenience.

Enology Educator Hopes to Give Something Back

4/23/2011 10:00 AM
Chris Torres
Staff Writer
Even to this day, 26-year-old Denise Gardner remembers the first time she tried to make wine in her parent’s kitchen in Robesonia, Pa.
She was only 16.
“I was just going off of home winemakers books. At that age, I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted just to make sure it didn’t turn to vinegar,” she said, laughing.
Of course, it was only a school project, so even if it did taste like vinegar, in the grand scheme of things, it probably wasn’t a big deal.
But when it came to getting herself educated about wine, the experience was priceless.
“You have to learn the dirty part of the job to really get an appreciation of what it is all about,” she said.
She hopes to share this experience, and then some, with the state’s winery industry. Gardner was recently hired as Penn State’s newest statewide enology Extension educator.
She starts her job May 2.
Gardner comes to the job after spending several years working in California’s Napa Valley. But the Reading, Pa., native has always had it in her heart to come home.
While she doesn’t have a background in farming, her parents encouraged her to find an interest in agriculture if for anything, to find a steady job.
“My parents sort of forced me to go into ag science. They thought I needed to be challenged. I didn’t really want to be challenged. I was really keen to do something with the arts,” she said.
Her teacher at Conrad Weiser High School, Steve Miller, liked her public speaking skills and urged her to refine them.
She did a speech on wine grapes, which led her to read more about the industry.
She later saw an article in a Penn State magazine on phylloxera, a deadly insect in wine grapes, which piqued her interest.
“For some reason, I was very captivated. When I read the article. I kept reading more about phylloxera,” she said.
After reading more about wine’s health benefits, Gardner decided to immerse herself in the industry as much as she could.
She tried planting a small grape vine at her home with her one brother, but it didn’t go as planned. They cut the TV cable to the house and ended up paying to get it repaired.
But she later planted a grape vine at school after being encouraged by Miller, her teacher.
“Grapevines are very difficult to manage. It takes a lot of time and care. He really wanted me to know what I was getting into,” she said. “I really liked the science aspects of wine. It’s really just one big chemistry conversion from grapes to wine. It’s also an art, which was also very attractive to me.”
Gardner did several research projects in high school and interned at some local wineries.
After high school, she was offered a monthlong internship with Lallemand in France. Lallemand, based in Canada, specializes in the development and production of yeasts and bacteria in the food service industry.
“That was one of the best times of my life. It was definitely worth it. I learned a lot about how to market wine products in the U.S.,” she said.
It was also the first time she got to work in a professional lab.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in food science at Penn State and then a master’s degree in food science and technology with an emphasis in enology and flavor chemistry from Virginia Tech.
“I went to Virginia Tech because I wanted to be able to have hands-on opportunities, meaning I would be able to harvest and process wine grapes. I wanted to have some real practical experience,” she said.
After college, Gardner moved to California’s Napa Valley, where she worked for Enartis Vinquiry as a sensory scientist. The job included organizing sensory panels to test wine so the industry could refine its products for the general public.
“Napa was a culture shock. It is all wine. The whole valley of Napa. It is encompassed around food and wine,” she said.
Napa Valley produces most of the country’s wine, and some of the world’s top wines come from the region. But Gardner found the area to be lacking in variety and style, as most growers over time have adapted to growing grapes in a certain way.
“California, especially Napa, has a very definitive style. In Pennsylvania, there are more opportunities, which I think is good,” she said. “I think it was essential for me to do that. It really helped me identify that I wanted to be in the eastern industry because I like to tweak things and change things.
“In the eastern industry, I feel like I have more of a contributing voice,” she said.
Her boyfriend, who was also a food science major, took a job in Florida and Gardner followed him there.
She applied for jobs in the food industry, but she found she wanted to be involved in education.
Gardner applied for the vacant enology education position at Penn State and got the job after several rounds of interviews.
“I was really surprised but I was really happy,” she said. “I actually wanted to do Extension and education work for quite some time.”
Her work begins in May, but she feels she already has a lot to offer.
“I know we want to improve red wine quality. I really hope to bring some tricks to the trade. Another big thing is marketing opportunities. There are some really good marketing opportunities that eastern states have,” she said. “I feel like I have some ideas to start marketing wines to people my age.”
Pennsylvania’s wine industry, which produces 1.2 million gallons of wine per year, is a drop in the bucket compared with California, which produces 631.5 million gallons of wine per year.
Still, Gardner thinks producers in the Keystone State have their own advantages.
“I think they have a very loyal customer base. I think that is essential. I think the biggest opportunity for them is that they have room to grow,” she said. “They haven’t oversaturated the market. They are open-minded and eager to learn new things and work on quality.”
Mark Chien, an Extension educator in wine grapes based in Lancaster County, said the wine industry is unusual in that it is providing $25,000 to support Gardner’s position. The money comes from the Pennsylvania Winery Association and from the state’s Wine Marketing Research Board.
It’s not the first time the industry has supported an enology educator. Gardner’s predecessor, Steve Menke, had his position paid entirely by the industry for the first two years of his four year tenure with Penn State.
Chien said having an enology educator is important, considering many people get into the business without any formal training.
“There have been 20 to 25 wineries open up over the last couple of years, most with no formal training in enology. They just need technical support, that’s the main thing,” Chien said. “We really can’t afford having people making bad wines.”
The fact that the industry is paying for part of her position is encouraging, but Gardner feels the pressure.
“That says volumes that the industry obviously wants someone to help them, but it is a little nerve-wracking,” she said.
“I’m really excited. I really feel like this is my chance to give something back. So many people gave me an opportunity when I was a kid and I just want to give something back,” she said.

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