Dr. Michela Centinari grew up in Le Marche, a region of Italy that abuts the Adriatic Sea. Her town, Jesi, is famous for growing Verdicchio, a white wine variety. She first picked grapes in high school — vineyards hired local kids to help out during harvest. The region’s wine industry is hundreds of years old and most of the wineries have been family-owned for generations.
Pennsylvania, her current home, is a little different. The modern industry is only 50 years old and the knowledge base is still developing.
“Here in PA, [the industry] is much younger,” says Centinari. “There are people who want to enter the industry and start a vineyard, and they don’t have any education or any knowledge. How do I choose my site? What variety do I need to select? They need a lot of attention and a lot of help to get started at the beginning. They don’t have their vineyard passed from a father or grandfather. They have to start from zero.”
This means that formal education has an essential role to play in the growth of Pennsylvania wines. Students can also earn a bachelors degree in food science at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, a curriculum that includes the basics of sanitation and fermentation. Centinari, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Bologna back in Italy, is an assistant professor of Viticulture in the Ag school, and her department maintains a small vineyard near the main campus, partially manned by undergraduates. The program also places students in internships at wineries and conducts research experiments at about 10 commercial vineyards.
Of course, cultivating a slate of classes, workshops, and skill-building opportunities is only part of the big picture. In the end, connecting nascent wine workers with their peers — building a community like the one that exists in Le Marche — is key to the industry not only growing, but improving. The more people collaborate, the better the wines will be.
“When a person contacts me and I know there is a very knowledgeable grower nearby, I always advise this person to go and visit,” explains Centinari. “It’s very important for them to have contact with people growing grapes in the area. They know best what grows well, and what are the challenges, so they can really help each other for the success of the industry.”
“Pennsylvania has a lot of potential,” she continues. “It’s a big state, so we have so many different types of soil and weather. And we can really grow a lot of different varieties from Concord to European varieties. It’s a rewarding crop when you make your wine and it’s good. I see a lot of passion in people who are growing grapes and making wine.”
Looking back, Centinari initially fell in love with East Coast viticulture when she first came to the United States for a fellowship at Cornell University — the challenges, the community, and of course, the wine. That passion has only grown during her sojourn in Pennsylvania. In fact, she argues that local vintages have more in common with European-style wines than with their domestic compatriots from the West Coast.
“When I drink, it’s 90 percent PA wines,” she says. “I’m curious to try wines from different regions, even the same variety from different wineries across the state, and see how it changes.”