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Scientist finds new career as award-winning winemaker

by on June 07, 2018 10:07 AM

CENTRE HALL — When Scott Hilliker took his wife on an anniversary trip to New York’s Finger Lakes Region a few years ago, he did not suspect that it was a vacation that would ultimately change his life.  

As he and his wife toured the wineries in the region, Hilliker, who holds a degree in biological sciences from North Carolina State University, became intrigued by the science involved in the winemaking process.

“It was the offseason, so we had the opportunity to really spend a lot of time with winemakers and owners of wineries and vineyards who showed us around and talked to us a lot about the whole process,” Hilliker said. “It was really interesting and fascinating to me. When we came back, I started making wine in my basement. I really enjoyed it, so I did that for a couple of years, and then I decided I wanted to make a career of it."

Hilliker was working for a chemical company as a quality control analyst when he enrolled in the viticulture and enology program at Harrisburg Area Community College. As a part of that program, Hilliker completed an internship at Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery, where he was then offered a full-time job.

Now, less than four years later, Hilliker and the winery have earned some prestigious awards for some of their wines. Their 2016 Chardonnay Reserve earned best in show honors at the Pennsylvania Winery Association's 2018 competition.
“It’s a good feeling as a winemaker. You spend a lot of time making the wines in the wine cellar, but at the end of the day, I don’t really make the wine for myself, I make it for other people,” Hilliker said. “So it’s really cool that they thought it was the best dry wine in the competition.”

In that same competition, the winery was awarded a gold medal for its 2016 Geisenheim, a silver medal for its 2016 Nittany Mountain Red and a bronze medal for its 2016 Merlot. Their wines also won five medals at the 2018 Pennsylvania Farm Show competition, as well as eight medals in the 2017 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association Wine Competition, including "Best of Category-Other White Hybrid" for the Geisenheim.

Hilliker largely credits a good growing season for the success of the 2016 wines.

“We had a really good year as far as sunshine, not a lot of rain, warm temperatures and the vineyard crew did a great job cultivating the vines throughout the summer. Everything just came together in the fall to have a really, really good vintage, and when the grapes came in they really didn’t need a lot of work,” he said. “I think less is better when it comes to winemaking; the less you do, the better the wine can be. I didn’t really have to do a whole lot. It was just a combination of a good growing year, a lot of hard work in the vineyard, and just kind of a light touch in the wine cellar.”

Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery regularly produces about 23 different varieties of wine and occasionally experiments with small batches of new wines, Hilliker said. The process keeps him busy throughout the year.

“Fall is probably the busiest time of year for a winemaker,” he said. “That’s when all your grapes are coming in, and that’s when all the wine is fermented and the wine is made. I get a little break in the winter, and then the spring is the other busy time of the year. I’m busy bottling a lot of wines right now.”

Hilliker seems confident that he made the right choice when he decided to make a leap from the corporate world into winemaking.
“I’m a scientist, so I like to experiment and try new things. I’m still learning, and I’ll probably continue to learn throughout my career and my lifetime, and that’s a great part of winemaking,” Hilliker said. “It’s a great job; I truly love it. It’s a beautiful setting out here, the Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery team is great — I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery is located at 300 Houser Road in Centre Hall. The winery hosts special events throughout the year, including food and wine pairings and winemaker’s dinners. Tastings are free and are available every day of the week except Monday. Tours are available by appointment.

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