When Scott Hilliker, a quality control analyst for a Pennsylvania chemical company, took a vacation to the Finger Lakes wine region about seven years ago, he didn't know that the trip would be a life-changing experience.
“There was an opportunity to talk to a lot of the owners of the wineries and the winemakers. We toured the wineries and wine cellars and that’s what really got me into winemaking," he said. "I have a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, so I’m a scientific person by nature, so the whole process of growing grapes, taking those grapes and making wine, was intriguing to me.”
When he got back from the Finger Lakes, he started making wine in his Bellefonte basement. After a couple years of doing that, Hilliker decided that's what he wanted to do as a career.
"I went back to school to become a winemaker and it turned out that I did my internship at Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery," he said. "After my internship was over, they offered me a job and I accepted and I’ve been there about three years.”
During his stint as a resident winemaker, the Centre Hall winery has received double gold for Best Dry White Wine and overall Best Dry Wine at the 2018 Pennsylvania Winery Association competition, for its 2016 Chardonnay Reserve. Additionally, the 2016 Geisenheim won Best of Category — Other White Hybrid in the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association Wine Competition.
The Pennsylvania Winery Association award, which is only open to wineries within the state, has special meaning for Hilliker.
"That’s a great feeling to be recognized and just to be in competition with other Pennsylvania wineries," he said. "There’s a lot of really good winemakers out there making amazing wines in Pennsylvania. I’ve only been doing it for just a couple years, a lot of these gentlemen and women have been making wine for a long time. To be in a class with them, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
He's also proud of what the award means for Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery.
“We’re a pretty small little wine region, where we’re at here in Centre County ... I know if you go up to Lake Erie, there’s a lot of wineries up there or if you head down to Harrisburg and Lancaster and out by Philadelphia, there’s larger groups of wineries. So I think it brings a little more recognition to the central Pennsylvania area as far as winemaking and grape growing goes," he said.
So, what were the magic ingredients that set the 2016 Chardonnay Reserve apart?
“I think everything really came together for that 2016 vintage,” Hilliker said. “It was a combination of a lot of different things that really made that wine (into) what it is today. It was a good growing season, a lot of hard work went into taking care of the vines and the vineyard. It’s easy to make wine when you have great starting materials. The grapes, when they were harvested, they were really mature. They had a lot of great flavors. Everything worked out perfectly for that vintage to make a great wine.”
As for the Geisenheim, Hilliker notes it’s consistently exceptional, always winning different awards in various competitions. He also points out that it’s a wine you probably won’t see in your average wine and spirits store and, while it may be a difficult variety to find, it’s still a wine everyone should try.
A Chardonnay fan, Hilliker is partial to the award-winning 2016 Reserve, but he has a difficult time pointing to just one Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery selection. Whichever one you choose, you’ll be guaranteed a small-batch, high-quality wine, served in the vineyard’s spectacular setting on the side of Mount Nittany.