Interview with Michela Centinari

Michela Centinari

Michela Centinari is Assistant Professor of Viticulture in the Department of Plant Science at Penn State.

What challenges does Pennsylvania’s wine and grape industry face?
MC: The climate is the main challenge. Pennsylvania can have cold winter temperatures, late spring frosts, a lot of rain, and humidity. All of that can affect grape and wine quality and quantity.

How are you helping growers?
MC: My goal is to help them grow high-quality grapes so they can produce high-quality wine. You can’t make good wine if you don’t have good grapes. My goal is also to improve the economic sustainability of wine-grape production.

How can growers produce better quality grapes?
MC: Several projects I am working on will help growers in Pennsylvania determine what management practices work best in this region. We are beginning experiments in which we will test if and how management practices affect grape production, quality, and disease susceptibility, and vine cold hardiness and root biology. Then for some of these studies, we will make wines from the grapes grown under the different treatments. My colleagues in the food science department will examine the chemistry of the wines to see if the management practices make a difference. We will also solicit panelists who will taste-test the wines to see if they can detect any differences.

What types of management practices will you examine?
MC: A number of practices; for example, we’ll look at the timing of cluster-zone leaf removal, which is a practice that is widely accepted as beneficial. We will investigate if and how the timing of removal affects specific aroma compounds in grapes and wine in this region. We will also investigate the use of a vegetable-oil substance that, when applied to dormant buds, can delay bud break (the timing of delay varies among varieties). This practice would help growers reduce or avoid economic losses in the case of a late spring frost, but we don’t know if it will delay fruit ripening and affect wine sensory perception.

Where will you do these experiments?
MC: Right now we are using commercial growers, and we also have experiments set up at Cornell University and Virginia Tech and at the Penn State Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center. We are planning to plant our own two-acre vineyard here on the main campus next spring. The vineyard can be used for research and for teaching. It’s a lot of work to have your own vineyard, but it’s exciting.

How did you become interested in viticulture?
MC: I grew up in a town in the center of Italy, where you have wine grapes and olive trees all around. I helped in the vineyards with the harvest when I was in high school and really liked it. I began to study viticulture in college, and then I stayed on and pursued it for my Ph.D. degree.

Personally, what do you think of Pennsylvania’s wines?
MC: I’m not a wine expert, but I have had some good wines in Pennsylvania. One big difference between the wines here and those in Italy is the price. In Italy, you can get good wine for about 5 euros, and you drink it every day with dinner. Also in Italy, every region has its own variety that they’ve been producing for hundreds of years. Growers here are still trying to determine which varieties are best for them. As they begin to find this out, the quality of the wine will improve.

— Sara LaJeunesse. Photo by Steve Williams