Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chien: A lot of progress, a ways to go

Mark Chien might laugh reading the suggestion that he's the rock star of the regional wine industry.

Still, it's not far from the truth. He's well known. Respected. And his audience continues to grow as the membership expands and seeks out his advice. These days Chien carries a wine barrel's size cachet as he continues his work as the wine grape extension agent for Penn State Cooperative Extension, a job he has held since 1999. Of all the names that pop up during chats with winemakers across the central and eastern part of the state, none matches the frequency that his spills into the conversation.

I probably should have called him months ago, but the attention has been spent primarily on the individual wineries and wine trails rather than those who are part of the bigger picture. Appropriately, Chien will be the primary speaker when the Pennsylvania Wine Society holds its Wine Excellence Awards on Sunday, Jan. 18, at the Harrisburg Hilton on 2nd Street. That mid-afternoon event, which is $40 for non-members, will include tastings of the state's top 10 wines and a chance to meet and hear those winemakers.

You talk to someone as knowledgeable as Chien and try to figure out where to begin the questioning. With a limited amount of time, and much of that spent on introductions, I tossed one question his way: How good can this region be?

"There are only now people who are starting to press the region for quality," he said, "and I would say that I usually approach it from a viticultural standpoint, so viticulturally I think it can probably be the best region in the eastern North America just because we're sort of, how should I say it, we’re not as cold as the Finger Lakes and we’re not as warm as Charlottesville [Va.].

"It's just a matter of finding the best sites, which I think are down in Adams and York County. I don't pretend to hide the fact that I think those are the best areas to grow grapes. Hauser Estate will be probably the first example of what that area can do. Allegro certainly has demonstated that York County has great potential. And we have some new places like Galer, like Karamoor Estate. I think we have great potential if we find out where the best sites are and we apply the viticulture technology that produces great wines elsewhere. It’s jst no big secret that all the knowledge and ideas are out there, we just have to find the best places to apply them. So I think all those south slopes that are currently covered unfortunately with apples and peaches . . . and that’s to take nothing away from the Finger Lakes. We’ll never grow Riesling as well as the Finger Lakes. I think we can probably grow Bordeaux varieties better than Long Island. But we haven't put it to the test yet.

"It’s been 10 years since I’ve been here and we’ve made tremendous progress, but we’re still nowhere near. It will be another 10 years at least before the best wines pop out. I think Black Ankle, is right now, as far as the eastern United States, is probably the best example outside of Long Island of serious wine growing, of trying to test where the outer limits are of quality. And they’re so new that it’s impossible to use them as an example."

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