“It was so strange how it happened. It was like one door just opened after another without me even prompting or initiating it. Everything just kind of fell into place on its own. It was really cool.”
This is how Jennifer Wampler describes her journey to becoming head winemaker at Pennsylvania gem Nissley Vineyards in Bainbridge. Jennifer is one of just a handful of female winemakers in Pennsylvania. Her path to this highly regarded position has been paved with hard work, dedication and a passion for great wine.
Jen’s enthusiasm for Pennsylvania wine is tangible when she speaks. The elements of her life have become like the components of a superlative blend; each piece supports each other and the whole. Maternal care crosses over into her wines, and the experience of being a winemaker enriches her personal life. “I’ll walk around and rub the tanks. You laugh about it, but it’s true. The bottles are all like my little babies. I’m worrying about them and hoping that they turn out OK. That’s the fun of it, too. You’re always keeping an eye on it. You’re tasting it. You’re examining it. You’re making sure that it’s doing what it needs to do. With winemaking—and I didn’t realize I needed this—everything that I put into it creates something at the end that people get to enjoy. If you put a good wine in the bottle, and the people who get it are sitting at the lawn concert enjoying it—that to me is worth more satisfaction in myself than anything else.”
It’s said that smooth seas don’t make a good sailor, and the course that Jennifer charted was daring. She enrolled in the viticulture and oenology program at HACC while maintaining her full-time job, juggling personal and family life and working part-time at Nissley. Now on the other side of that crucible, Jen can focus on what she loves: wine.
“I’m not sure how I did it; I mean, I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I worked full-time, part-time and I was taking three college courses plus internships.” Five years ago Jennifer came to a professional crossroads. Like many folks, she went to college and settled into a career and started a family. Knowing it was time for a career change, Jen became open to possibilities—and winemaking knocked on her door. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Wine kind of found me instead of me finding it. I started visiting local wineries in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I enjoyed it so much I didn’t just want to visit, I wanted to be a part of it. So my husband ended up getting me a wine kit at home.”
Jen’s approach as a winemaker is part of why Pennsylvania is quickly becoming one of the nation’s best wine-producing states.
“At Nissley, we have a couple of varieties that you don’t really see a lot in Pennsylvania. We have Chambourcin and we also have De Chaunac, which is similar to Chambourcin; it’s another French-American hybrid. We also grow Chancellor. On the white wine side we have Vignoles, which just won a gold medal at the Indy International Wine Competition. I’m excited because it’s a more difficult white wine to do. It comes in at a high brix and you have to stop fermentation; you have to really be careful with that one and it turned out very nice. I was really proud; I’m happy with that one. It’s got a lot of pineapple, peach and grapefruit flavors to it.”
Pennsylvania vintners like Jen push the boundaries of winemaking toward great heights through a pursuit to get better year after year, harvest after harvest. “My goal is to get people to enjoy. I’m a perfectionist, and I want my name to be linked to making great wine and that’s my goal. That’s my only goal. I still have a lot to learn. I still dive deep into learning about the winemaking process. You only get one shot at it a year. Each year is a new learning curve.” Having made the switch to winemaking full-time and with her graduate certificate from HACC in hand, Jen is honing her skills as one of Pennsylvania’s top vintners. Her knack for correcting and tweaking wines to conjure up alluring flavors and aromas has earned her respect among local vintners.
Like any craft, winemaking is a blend of art and science, and like any artisan Jen has her own unique approach to the field. “There is so much chemistry and science behind wine. For me the numbers don’t always mean as much. Organoleptically, wine is always going to tell me what I need to know. Is it good? Is it what I want to feel and to taste and to smell? I know what the pH is telling me, but tasting and smelling the wine are also a huge part of the winemaking process. If it doesn’t taste good it doesn’t taste good. I’m not adding acid just because the numbers are telling me to. I’m doing it because I’ve done trials and it just tastes better.”
Although the winery keeps Jen busy (especially during harvest season), she still finds time to travel, spend time with her family and enjoy life. “I play soccer once a week in a league. It’s a fun release,” Jen says.
In an area that has traditionally been known for its sweet wines, winemakers like Jen are breaking the mold and changing expectations.
A Philadelphia native, Jen has an Italian background. Childhood memories of her grandfather making red wine in the basement are recalled with fondness. “I always grew up with dry red wine. I never really gravitated toward sweet wines. A good red blend is what I strive for.” True to her aim, Jen talks about future plans for the vineyard. “Nissley is actually planting more, which will allow us to make some really good red blends in the years to come. We’re going to do Merlot and we’re going to do a new Cabernet Franc stock. I’m really excited.”
Never one to stop growing and exploring, Jennifer relates her most recent trip abroad. The Wampler family visited Italy on vacation this summer and the local wine cast a strong impression on Jen, coloring the future of Pennsylvania wine. “I’ve had some really great wine in Pennsylvania. I was just in Italy in July and I felt like Pennsylvania is up there with them. There’s no reason we can’t have wine that’s just as good, and I’ve tasted wine that’s just as good in Pennsylvania. We’re newer in the process. I’ve learned a little about how they make wine there. Honestly, in the last several years I’ve met a lot of really great winemakers who are feeling the same way that I am, which is: ‘Hey! We can make great wine in Pennsylvania.’ Our mission is to make great wine.”
*Editor’s note: since the publishing of this article Jennifer has left Nissley Vineyards to pursue other opportunities in winemaking.