City Lights Q&A series: 'From Vine to Wine'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State Alumni Association will talk with each of the City Lights speakers and share a Q&A for each event in the six-part series that visits major metro areas.

Our next conversation is with Denise Gardner, enology associate at Penn State Extension, which offers educational support for the Pennsylvania wine industry.

Gardner will lead a presentation Thursday at The Mayflower Renaissance in Washington, D.C. This event is sold out, as is the last City Lights event next month in Philadelphia. More information on the City Lights program is available on the Alumni Association’s website.

Penn State Alumni Association: You started in this field at a young age. How did you become interested in winemaking?
Gardner: It was actually the Penn State Ag Science magazine. In ninth grade, we had to take a test on the current edition of the Penn State Ag Science magazine -- that's how they taught incoming freshmen about agriculture -- and in that issue there was a story about an insect that attacked grapevines. I thought, “This is so cool and I want to know more about this.” Then I contacted Penn State so many times, the extension person said, “If you're that interested, do you want to grow them?” He helped me get grape vines, and I planted them on the high school grounds right after my sophomore year.

Penn State Alumni Association: What was the process like learning to grow grapes?
Gardner: It was a very daunting task, and I knew it was going to be because I had read a whole textbook on how to prune grape vines. I knew it was going to take a huge commitment, and it was a really big commitment to grow those vines in the school and make sure they lived. We didn't even get grapes for three years. I graduated without ever seeing grapes on those vines, but it was a really great educational experience.

Penn State Alumni Association: You went three years without seeing grapes? What kept you motivated during this process?
Gardner: Once I started the grape vines, I was committed to it. I wanted to see them succeed, and I was determined to make them succeed. It can be very frustrating, especially for someone who has no idea how to grow them, because you do have to learn pruning techniques. We built a trellis -- which is a wire system that the grapes sit on -- and you have to learn to potentially see where the new growth is going to go. If you don't learn properly, then you don't get fruit, and that has been the failing point for a lot of high school students.

Penn State Alumni Association: From growing grapes in high school, how did your interest in winemaking evolve into a passion, and now a career?
Gardner: I was very determined to watch the grapes take off because we put this little grape arbor of 30 vines right against the main road of the high school; and when people drove by, you always saw people turn their heads and go, “What is that,” and it amused me. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed knowing that was something that I had done, so I had a lot of determination to make it work. From that point, the more people I met in the industry, the more interest I got because there was just so much enthusiasm around this young, whip-of-a-kid asking questions about how to make wine. It was amazing to me how many people invested time into me. Once somebody invested time into my success, it made me want to do it. It just kept proliferating into that, and eventually at some point, it became a career option. I thought, "I can really go into this and do this for a living."

Penn State Alumni Association: What message will you share during your presentation?
Gardner: The first thing I'm hoping to show is how much our experiences at Penn State can really start a positive feedback loop for your career. The story about the Penn State agricultural magazine is very near and dear to me, because not only was that the driving force in my career, but it launched me into a lot of other opportunities and was a big part of me wanting to come back here and give back to the community that helped me. Additionally, I hope I encourage a love of wine. Wine is not as trendy right now as the beer and distilled industries, but I think that’s because it seems daunting to people. It seems confusing and overwhelming, so I'm hoping that people can take away some information from my presentation and think it's really not that scary.

Penn State Alumni Association: You mentor students and have received many honors, and also serve as a volunteer judge. What motivates you to stay so connected and take on a leadership role within your career field, especially at such a young age?
Gardner: I do try to mentor students; it's important and it's probably the thing I'm most proud about. In terms of helping other people create their careers, I like being a part of that and being that positive influence, investing time into them the way that people here invested time into me. City Lights gives me an opportunity to touch base with alumni, and I'm hoping to encourage them to do the same, because that's the strength of the Penn State Alumni Association.

Last Updated May 18, 2015