By Paul Vigna
Denise Gardner tells the story of waiting to check out recently at the neighborhood grocery store in suburban Philadelphia, watching those in line ahead of her pick up and purchase local wines. “I’ve never had that experience in Pennsylvania before,” she says, “and I was just standing there thinking, ‘wow, this is really a change, this is really something different.'”
It turns out that the passage of Act 39 in 2016, allowing the sale of wine beyond the former exclusive domain of Pennsylvania’s state stores, will alter her life, too. Gardner officially announced several months ago that she’ll vacate her enology position with Penn State Extension to become a wine consultant. Finished Sept. 1, she’ll begin her new role out of her home outside Philly next week. The website will be www.dgwinemaking.com.
She plans to offer her knowledge to wineries, consumers and retailers, moving away from the emphasis on education that has marked her time at Penn State. Over the past year she, like many others in the industry, have watched state winery sales swing more toward grocery and convenience stores, with producers and distributors working through a learning curve.
“It opens up a platform for competition, fighting for shelf space, and I think that’s where I can be helpful,” she says. “Not guaranteeing [wineries] shelf space, but helping them look at current portfolios and helping to improve them.”
A 2007 Penn State graduate with a bachelor’s degree in food science (she got her master’s from Virginia Tech two years later), Gardner left a job in Napa, CA., as a sensory scientist and returned to her alma mater in 2011. As the Extension enologist, she spent six years crisscrossing the state visiting wineries and analyzing wines along with helping to further programs such as The Wine Quality Improvement (WQI) Short Course. She provided a fresh face along with an understanding of quality, and for the state wine industry became an unabashed advocate who fit in comfortably at a variety of functions.
“She has proven to be a valuable asset to the Pennsylvania wine industry and developed some fantastic programming and rapport with wineries throughout the commonwealth that have pushed wine quality forward,” says Mazza Vineyards’ GM and VP Mario Mazza, her WQI comrade. “She truly has the industry’s success and future at heart.”
Her good-bye letter to the industry last week mentioned former state viticulturist Mark Chien and winemaker Joanne Levengood at Manatawny Creek in Berks County, two mentors she credits for cultivating her early interest in wine. Gardner worked at Levengood’s winery for several years while in school. “She is a very smart and driven person and that was obvious even when she was in high school,” Levengood says. “It was great to watch her on her journey figuring out where she wanted to be, both in actual physical location and career-wise.”
That nod to her past is important in identifying her biggest legacy: A group of students she mentored who have gone on to positions in the industry, including Virginia Mitchell, the winemaker at Galer Estate Winery in Chester County.
“I compare that to when I left college and that did not exist here,” she says. “The wine industry was foreign to students, to young people going in and trying to figure out what their career was. Now we’re seeing a good handful of students every year who want to do this.”
They’ll face the same obstacles as their predecessors: an unpredictable growing season and harvest and a profile that’s only beginning to hit consumers’ radar. Among the observations that are giving Gardner hope:
- An emergence, she says, of “people taking interest in styles and starting to be creative with their winemaking techniques.”
- More care and interest in “creating these fine wines to reflect the area but also to appeal to customers.”
- Increasing national and international recognition. “So we’re still at that breaking point where I hope we’ll see the tipping point eventually in terms of [the state] being recognized as a wine region for what it is, much like we recognize the Finger Lakes, and Oregon and Washington. I don’t think it’s ever going to be the volume that the West Coast is. But I think it’s the uniqueness that really brings this area together.”
- Consumers becoming more accepting of East Coast wines as neither a California nor European style. Their style falls somewhere in the middle, she says, “and with younger generations especially, they’re open to trying these types of wines … making that connection with local agriculture, and going and buying those wines. I think that will fuel our industry.”
It’s the diversity of grapes and wines that will continue to elevate interest, she adds, coming from a part of the country where “there are very huge differences between growing sites and the wines produced from that site, even if they’re the same variety. We don’t have that unified Pinot or the unified Zinfandel. So there’s that obstacle, but on the flip side it also offers everybody [a chance] to create their own unique niche.
“Obstacles but opportunities,” she says. “That’s how I always tried to look at it.”