Q&A: Cain Hickey Has Grapes on the Brain

“A lot of times people ask me what I do,” says Cain Hickey, Penn State‘s new statewide Viticulture Extension Educator. “I tell them I’m a viticulturist and they go, ‘Oh cool….what is that?'”

Viticulture is the science and art of grape cultivation. And if you’re a lover of Pennsylvania wines, you should be thrilled that Hickey is on the job. His big-picture goal, put simply, is to improve grape-growing across the state by acting as a resource for vineyard managers, winemakers, and winery owners.

The PA Wine Land Post chatted with Hickey in June, covering the influence of his hometown, his passion for grapes, and his role in supporting the wine industry.

PA Wine Land Post: How did you get on the path to becoming a viticulturist? I know you grew up in the town of North East on the shores of Lake Erie. It’s a really interesting place.

Cain Hickey: North East is a town with an economy historically based on grapes and wine, and it still is. There’s the Welch’s plant and, as I tell people, more wineries than stoplights. Our high school mascot is the Grape Pickers.

I went to Penn State as an undergraduate and studied horticulture. Viticulture is just a specific sector of horticulture that deals exclusively with grapes, as opposed to ornamentals or apples or vegetables. In my summers, I came back home to North East. Penn State’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center is two miles from the house that I grew up in. I would ride my bike to work there during the summers.

That facility is strictly focused on grape research in Lake Erie, so I got to know people in the industry. Not too many years after that, I worked for commercial wineries in tasting rooms, on the bottling line, harvesting, and pruning. So I got both the academic experience and the industry side.

That is how I became really infatuated with grapes — working at that research lab and then being from a town where [the crop] has such cultural and economic impact. So I went to Virginia Tech for my master’s and Ph.D. in viticulture.

What is it that really excites you about the vineyard and about grapes?

When a commodity is valued — and in this case is turned into a value-added product that’s highly prized — there’s more funding that goes towards the research behind it. And because there’s more research done, there’s more known about it. And when more is known about a subject, there’s more we know that we don’t know. It’s just so fascinating that the environment in which these vines are cultivated ultimately dictates what the wine will taste like.

Tell me more about what this specific job entails?

At land-grant universities like Penn State, there are three main missions: research, teaching, and outreach or extension. As an extension educator, I’m here to conduct applied research, hold workshops, and work as a team with members of the industry to grow grapes the best that we can.

I help with the technical aspects of growing grapes across the varied landscape. In the industry, there are new folks and there are folks that have been doing this for 30 years. Then there’s the wide range of climates and different grape varieties — what’s best for a Chardonnay is not what’s best for a hybrid grape. And then there are [divergent] winemaking goals; for example, some people like to grow Merlot and use it as a rosé and others want to try to ripen the Merlot and have it be more of a full-bodied red. So there’s all these variables.

What is your relationships to vineyards and winemakers? Are you sort of like the coach on the sidelines?

I text with growers daily. I email growers daily. We hold weekly webinars, given the current state of the world, where I bring colleagues in from out of state. Each one is topic-specific and we try to make it timely so that the information can be immediately implemented in the vineyard. So we don’t talk about pruning now — we’ll talk about pruning during the dormant season. Currently we’re holding webinars on mid- and late-season pest management, and will soon be covering harvest and winemaking.

For more on Penn State’s Viticulture extension program, visit the team’s blog. Or you can check out the PA Wine Land Post interviews with extension educator Molly Kelly and Penn State viticulture professor Dr. Michela Centinari.