Oregon Institute Hires Program Coordinator

Mark Chien returns to the northwest after 15 years in Pennsylvania

by Linda Jones McKee and Peter Mitham
After 15 years as a viticulture extension advisor in Pennsylvania, Mark Chien is returning to Oregon to serve as program coordinator at the Oregon Wine Research Institute.
Corvallis, Ore.—There’s still no director, but come June the Oregon Wine Research Institute will have a new program coordinator: Mark Chien, who has served as the viticulture educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lancaster, Pa., since 1999.

Announcing his new position and departure from Pennsylvania in his viticulture e-newsletter, “Wine Grape Information for Pennsylvania and the Region,” Chien described himself as “a non-traditional, non-conformist colleague,” a point that may come as no surprise to the industry in Oregon, where he previously worked from 1984 to 1999.

“In May, Judi and I will move back to Oregon (where we lived from 1984-1999),” Chien announced. “It is with very mixed feelings that we depart Pennsylvania. Our original intent was to have a five-to-seven year adventure in the eastern U.S., and it has stretched to 15, during which both of us have established ourselves in the community. It will be difficult to leave.”

Experience in the East
In 1999, Chien left Salem, Ore., where he had been vineyard manager of the 100-acre Temperance Hill Vineyard, and came to Pennsylvania to become the wine grape extension agent for 16 counties in southeastern Pennsylvania. At that time, the Lake Erie region of Pennsylvania—with its tradition of growing juice and table grapes—had extension personnel in place, but the southeastern part of the state had no viticultural or enological resource staff available. Funded partly by Penn State’s Cooperative Extension and by the Southeast Grape Industry Association, Chien was given responsibility for a wide range of duties, from assisting grapegrowers and winemakers to securing research funding and serving as advisor about small business management and marketing.

It soon became apparent that the entire state could benefit from his skills, and in 2002 Chien became viticulture educator for all of Pennsylvania, both to meet that need and to access funding from the Pennsylvania Wine Marketing Board. “When I first came to Pennsylvania,” Chien told Wines & Vines, “I was almost afraid to taste the vinifera wines, as many of those wines had problems. Now I look forward to tasting all wines from the region. It’s an amazing change.”

To gather the information and background to help growers and winemakers in Pennsylvania, Chien traveled widely. “We had to get information from other places, such as Cornell and Virginia Tech, because it didn’t exist in Pennsylvania,” Chien said. When he returned from meetings with growers, conferences or wine tastings, Chien would report his observations through a newsletter, with the goal of providing useful information for the region’s wine growers.

Looking back on his time in Pennsylvania, Chien said, “It has been a thrilling ride for me with eastern wines.…It never ceases to amaze me the passion and delight that wine engenders in people, and their ability, despite all odds, to grow fine wine under seemingly impossible conditions. I have grown to admire and respect all of you for your sense of place and history and determination to succeed, where, quite honestly, those from less harsh regions would fail or simply not bother to try to grow fine wine grapes.”

What’s behind and what’s ahead
Chien’s departure for Oregon will leave Pennsylvania with a “temporary void in the viticulture extension landscape” (as Chien described it), but according to Jamie Williams, vice president at The Winery at Wilcox in Wilcox, Pa., and president of the Pennsylvania Wine Association, the Pennsylvania Wine Marketing Board is working to find someone to fill the extension position. “We need someone in place for viticulture extension,” Williams told Wines & Vines, “especially after the winter we’ve had. A lot of people will have problems this coming season.”

When asked to define his goals for his new position in Oregon, Chien replied, “There’s a lot that can be done. We need to get the Institute functioning at its peak performance, to facilitate their work and make that work help the industry. We have to be targeted in our efforts, figure out what the industry wants, and use science and research to move forward and continue to improve wine quality.”

Bill Sweat, president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association and co-owner of Winderlea Vineyard and Winery in Dundee, Ore., told Wines & Vines, “As the former manager of Oregon’s Temperance Hill Vineyard prior to moving to Pennsylvania, Mark has first-hand experience with the issues winegrowers face. 
“The Oregon Wine community is very excited that Mark has decided to return to Oregon as the program coordinator for the Oregon Wine Research Institute. Mark will also serve on the Oregon Wine Board’s special committee on research. Mark's background in agricultural extension, and past experience as a wine grape grower in Oregon, is an excellent match for his new role at OWRI."

Future at OWRI
Chien’s arrival promises an extra measure of leadership to the Oregon Wine Research Institute, which has been under the interim direction of Bill Boggess, also executive associate dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University, since 2012.

Boggess oversaw the institute’s transition from previous director Neil Shay, who stepped down at the end of June 2012 to focus on research. The institute embarked on a process that fall of “developing a strategic direction” to balance the interests of industry, the university and the federal research station housed under the OWRI banner.

What’s needed at OWRI
Following Shay’s resignation, Bill Nelson, the former president of WineAmerica who served as executive director of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, prepared a report at the request of the OWRI. The report was described to Wines & Vines at the time as, “a basic examination of what different folks are trying to accomplish” via the institute (see “Oregon Wine Institute Mulls Future”). 

Nelson’s report, submitted in September 2012 and publicly released a month later, praised the research institute’s potential but highlighted a division between the university’s and industry’s understanding of the institute and the role each group plays. The report recommended that new leadership for the institute adopt less of a top-down approach and be integrated within the academic function of the university, which is primary owner of the institute.

“The director should have an academic role (research and education) as well as a leadership role,” the report said. “Research should be prioritized to address problems that are central to the needs of Oregon grapes and wine. This concept is embodied by the term ‘Unique to Oregon.’”

Boggess was unavailable to speak about the search process that culminated in Chien’s appointment as program coordinator, although it appears Chien’s appointment addresses concerns raised in Nelson’s report.

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