Park City man dreamed of making fine wines
January 17, 2015
"It takes a lot of beer to make good wine," says Dennis Romankowski, co-owner and sole employee of Cognition Winery, which he claims is Park City’s first and only local winemaker. The fledgling vintner relies on volunteers, mostly friends and family, to help him bottle his boutique wines. "You really find out who your friends are come bottling time. Pizza and three or four beer growlers definitely keeps them working," he says. Late last summer, he and his crew filled and corked almost 3,000 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and a Bordeaux-style blend in just 10 hours. Making friends comes easily for the energetic, personable Ohio native who’s lived in the area since 2000.
He and his wife, Gina Coccimiglio (Cognition’s co-owner and CFO), live comfortably in an Old Town condo. The couple met in 1995 at a restaurant/bar in Salt Lake City. "I remember it was karaoke night, but neither one of us sang anything," he chuckles. They married the following year and share a blended family of seven children and seven grandchildren.
Cognition Winery is the culmination of a dream that took form 15 years ago, when Romankowski began making wine at home. In the mid-1990s, he and his wife owned and operated "Miglio’s," a posh Italian eatery on Salt Lake’s east side. As the manager and wine steward, he created wine lists and suggested wine pairings for diners. "I got infatuated with it and began studying wine making," he says. "I took a few classes and started experimenting."
Impressively, Romankowski did all this in his spare time while also managing Encore Environmental, Inc., his own environmental consulting firm. Before Miglio’s, the Ohio native forged a long and distinguished career as an environmental scientist, specializing in waste management and reduction. In the mid-1990s he was director of engineering and permitting for U.S. Pollution Control, the job that brought him to Utah.
Romankowski likes to stay busy. He’s focused on his wine making, but also devotes some time to his consulting work and his duties as co-owner of Kestrel Investments, LLC, a real estate investment and property management firm.
The ultimate catalyst for Cognition Winery came not long after Romankowski’s 58th birthday. "Gina and I sat down together, took stock of our lives so far and decided what we wanted to do from here on out," he says. "We were both still in good health and wanted new and rewarding challenges. Gina went back to school to get her Doctorate of Nursing Practice and I decided to open a winery, simple as that."
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In 2012, he earned his first level of the coveted Court of Master Sommeliers certification, acknowledging him as having a certain level of wine knowledge and tasting proficiency. Romankowski interned at vineyards and wineries in California, Italy and France in 2013, working the fields and studying the esoteric art of vinification.
By November that year, it was time to get to work and submit the necessary applications for a winery. He leased a storefront and vinification space in the business park near Home Depot, installed two fermentation tanks, custom-made in Italy, and other essential equipment. Within days he drove to Sonoma Valley, harvested his contracted grapes for his first generation, Utah-vinified wines and trailered them home himself. Gambling on eventually receiving a winery license in Utah, Romankowski had previously vinified his present offerings in Napa and brought them in to blend and bottle once all licenses were finalized in May 2014. The results: about 2,000 bottles of a Bordeaux blend and a Sauvignon Blanc, available now at his store and in Park City area restaurants; a 2014 "Chalk Hill" Chardonnay, available soon; and a Russian River Cabernet Sauvignon, scheduled for release in about two years.
The spacious Cognition Winery/Tasting Room is set up for special events and wine tastings. His chief wine taster, he adds, is Gina, his wife. "Women usually have a better palate and nose than men," he explains.
Romankowski is licensed by the state to sell his wines over-the-counter, for off-site consumption. Cognition white wines sell for under $20 and reds are priced at under $30. The newly-minted vintner is most excited about his Cabernet, now aging in vintage oak casks. "I think it’s going to be good," he grins. "Making wine is my passion now, second only to my wife and family," he concludes.
Though Cognition’s grapes will continue to come from California, Oregon and Washington (and, with any luck, Italy), all the vinification, blending, bottling and aging will happen right here. Our very own hometown winery. Nice.
Favorite activities: make wine, sail, fly fish, hike, bike, play the saxophone
Favorite foods: Italian, French, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese and all variations of grilling
Favorite reading: fiction travel novels, Civil War and Roman Empire history, wine magazines
Favorite music: smooth jazz, "chill," classical and country
Bucket list: paragliding, extended ocean sails, more European travel and a vineyard in Russian River, California
Animal companions: "A Toy Schnauzer named Cooper (my winery dog). He makes me laugh all the time."