When Molly Kelly first trained as a microbiologist, she didn’t know that she’d one day be applying that expertise to wine fermentation.
The Pennsylvania native is currently a full-time educator for Penn State Extension, focusing on the state’s wine industry. An extension is an educational organization that offers programming to the local community. Unlike university and community college courses, students don’t earn credit for completing extension work; instead, they walk away with new skills and knowledge. Because credit isn’t at stake, Penn State Extension’s offerings— workshops, conferences, on-site consultations, online resources, its Wines and Grapes U. blog — can be informal and flexible, responding to the needs of the target community or industry.
The PA Wine Land Post chatted with Kelly about her winding path to Penn State and why she always gives the best gifts.
Did you always work in wine?
I’m trained as a microbiologist. My first real job was at Cornell University in the veterinary diagnostics lab. That was located near the Finger Lakes, and that’s where I became interested in wine. I would go up and visit wineries, and actually started making wine at home.
I eventually had the bug to be a winemaker professionally. I left my position at the New York State Department of Health and moved to North Carolina to attend Surry Community College for their viticulture and enology associates program.
It’s very hands on. They have a demonstration vineyard and a winery that has 1,000-case capacity. So students work in the vineyard and make the wine, and then actually go sell wine. After I graduated, they offered me a position as an enology instructor. I was there for five years teaching and consulting for local wineries.
Then I went to Virginia Tech as the Enology Extension specialist. I was there for about five years and then applied for the position at Penn State.
What made you want to move to Pennsylvania?
I’m originally from Montoursville, PA, right outside of Williamsport. So I’ve always wanted to return to the area. Originally, I wanted to come back to Pennsylvania and establish a winery, but then I just kind of got off on this education path. I still think about having a winery of my own someday.
What is the role of formal education in winemaking?
A formal education will give students the concepts they need, but then I always tell them, if you think you’re interested in entering the industry, you really need to go and work at a winery. We have placed students at commercial wineries for internships, and we want to continue to do that.
What is your take on the current state of PA wines?
I’ve travelled around the state providing many Extension programs, and I’m really impressed with the quality of Pennsylvania wines. I’ve tasted some truly great wines. And I’ve noticed that the winemakers are eager to learn ways to continue to improve wine quality. They are also interested in applying newer technologies. With the diverse growing conditions throughout the state, winemakers can plant a wide range of grape varieties.
Any favorite wine styles?
Do you feel that you also have a role as an ambassador for Pennsylvania wines?
When I go into a restaurant, I always ask, “Do you have PA wines?” And when I give gifts, I give PA wines.