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Fresh palate to aid Pa. wineries

| Sunday, June 19, 2011

Denise Gardner thinks about wine all day.

Specifically, Pennsylvania wines — Catawba and Niagara made from grapes native to the state, Chardonnay and Merlot from French hybrids, Vidal Blanc from high-sugar white grapes.

A sensory scientist, Gardner can swirl a splash in a goblet and assess it by examining the color, sniffing for off-odors and tasting for tannins.

The 26-year-old wine expert, hired last month as Penn State Extension's only enologist, will work with the state's 140 wineries to enhance the quality of their products.

"In the traditional sense, (enology) deals with wine analysis and quality control. We apply those practices to fix or tweak wine," Gardner said. "We want to help improve overall quality on a year-to-year basis."

Winemaking is a fast-growing agricultural business in Pennsylvania, said Dennis Calvin, director of Penn State Extension.

"That's really part of the reason behind the position and interest in the industry of having an enologist," he said. "People look at Pennsylvania wines. Some are very good, some not so good."

After the state's first enologist left three years ago, "we committed to the wine industry to fill the position when we could," Calvin said. The state Winery Association and the Wine Marketing Research Board contribute funding for the position.

Enologists study wines for inconsistencies and factors that detract from quality.

Gardner said those factors can range from oxidation, when wines are overexposed to oxygen and take on a sherry-like quality, to cork taint, a musty smell and taste that seeps into the wine, to sulfur aromas and flavors that evoke rotten eggs or cabbage.

A sensory experience

Gardner was a high school student in Berks County, active in 4-H, when an article on grapevine diseases piqued her curiosity. She started to attend Penn State Extension seminars on winemaking.

"I started to realize there was a real industry out there," she said.

With a degree in food science from Penn State and a master's degree in food science and technology from Virginia Tech, Gardner was hired as a sensory scientist for Enartis Vinquiry in California, which employs enologists, winemakers and analysts who act as consultants to winemakers.

There she studied the effects of ingredients such as yeasts and enzymes on red and white wines, analyzed grape juice and wines in the laboratory, and consulted with winemakers on production techniques.

Now based in Penn State's department of food science, she works alongside viticulturist Mark Chien and other researchers to provide science-based information to winemakers.

While Chien's work is concentrated on the study and production of grapes, Gardner will step in as the process moves from harvesting to bottling.

Sensory scientists like Gardner use the five senses — sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing — in a controlled environment to analyze and interpret data for food or beverage manufacturers.

"There is a lot of science and psychology and statistics. Sensory is a cross-disciplinary science," she said.

"My new job is utilizing sensory science by training winemakers to identify defects. That is a primary focus of our industry right now. We want to train winemakers to know all the potential defects that could detriment quality. Essentially, if they know the defects, they can explain a problem, and then refer to me or others to help them fix it," Gardner said.

Preventing sour grapes

Wine can degrade when it's stored in barrels, often from oxygen exposure. Gardner can detect that through a vinegary taste or a scent similar to nail polish. She might advise a winemaker to keep barrels tightly sealed and to top them off monthly to keep out air, or "head space."

If a winemaker wants to improve taste, Gardner might suggest lab testing or reverse osmosis, a filtration technique to remove acetic acid.

"One of the big topics right now is tannins," she said.

A group of compounds that naturally occur in the skins and seeds of grapes, tannins can be added during fermentation to boost a wine's character and quality, enhancing astringent aspects called "mouth feel" and "pucker."

"Sometimes you have a variety that is not as full as you want it to be. You can add tannins to extend the finish, how long the flavor lingers in the mouth," she said. "That can make it more customer-friendly."

She can show winemakers how to ensure proper oxygen exposure, tweak nutrient content during fermentation to prevent a sulfur taste and evaluate the quality of the corks. She can show growers how to manage grape diseases.

"There is potential here to grow very good wines," she said of the state's vineyards. European grape varieties such as Chardonnays and Cabernets grow well in the Southeast's warmer climate, while hybrids like chancellor grapes are successful in regions with shorter growing seasons.

"It's a matter of learning a region's niche and figuring out how to deal with any problems," she said.

Rather than visit each winery, Gardner plans to survey winemakers to learn their concerns and to develop workshops that address them — issues such as winery sanitation and the latest industry research and innovations.

"We can filter the industry trends, research how we can apply that to wine, and keep them up to date on things they can do to improve their practices," she said.

Winery Association Executive Director Jennifer Eckinger said educational workshops can be helpful for startups and existing wineries.

"(Winemaking) is experimental learning," she said. "I do think seminars are more effective. You can learn from your peers, as well."

Karl Zimmerman, Pennsylvania Wine Marketing Research Board chairman, knows about experimentation.

Zimmerman's family operates Shade Mountain Vineyards and Winery in Snyder County. In the past, state winemakers had to hire a lab or a professional consultant to analyze their products.

"Almost every year, some problem develops with one of them or some of them (grape varieties). Hopefully, she will be able to give us some advice and guide the industry," he said.

Zimmerman anticipates that Gardner will be helpful in improving quality and efficiency. "Her role is not just to solve problems, but to help us succeed," he said.

Additional Information:

Toast of the state

• Pennsylvania ranks seventh among states in wine production, bottling more than 1.2 million gallons annually.

• The state is the nation's fifth-largest producer of wine grapes, with about 2,000 acres yielding as much as 16,000 tons of grapes.

• Pennsylvania has more than 140 licensed wineries, nearly triple the 50 operating in 1991.

• Nearly 900,000 people visited the state's wineries in 2007. The industry contributed $180 million in state tourism dollars.

• The wine industry, including the juice grape industry, contributed $2.35 billion to the state's economy in 2007.

• There are more than 200 wine grape growers in Pennsylvania. Some produce wine; others supply grape juice to wineries.

• A winery is located within a 45-minute drive from anywhere in the state.

Source: Pennsylvania Winery Association

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