Science of Wine class teaches chemistry, appreciation
March 16, 2007
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Imagine this: You’re at a weekly wine-tasting at a local winery. You’re sampling a wide variety of flavors, picking your favorites, chatting with your friends, and best of all, you’re getting credit for it. While this may seem an impossible dream to most college students, to the members of Marlene McCauley’s course “The Science of Wine,” it’s nothing more than a homework assignment.
“How great is it to teach students, undergraduates particularly, to appreciate wine and understand it?” said geology professor McCauley.
This appreciation and understanding comes more through education about the scientific aspects of wine than actual tastings. Students are required to taste wine – either at wineries or by buying the wine themselves – as part of their homework assignments. Class time, however, is devoted to the geology and chemistry involved in the grape growing and fermentation process.
“We talk about the chemistry of wine,” said McCauley. “We talk about the grape itself and growing it and the molecular archeology of figuring out where the first wine came from. There’s a lot of science involved in wine; it’s a science class.”
It certainly is. I sat in on a class session one cool, blustery Tuesday night. At 19, I was the youngest one in the crowd by far (you must be 21 to enroll in the course). I found myself astounded by just how technical and scientific wine making is. The process, from grape growing to the final bottling, utilizes concepts from geology, chemistry, and even some biology.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I had no idea had to even do with wine,” said senior John Irwin. “I feel like I’m really learning.”
Not all class time is devoted to lecture and discussion; there’s also some very hands-on learning involved. In labs, for example, students get an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned by actually making their own wine.
“We are following the fermentation process throughout the semester,” said McCauley. “There’s a lot of chemistry and biochemistry happening in the lab.”
“It builds confidence to implement class concepts (in the lab). It’s proof of what you’ve learned,” said senior Katharine Clark.
One of these labs, the field lab, includes a day-long trip to two local vineyards. There, students get an opportunity to talk to winemakers and witness the winemaking process up close.
“It was interesting to see the actual vineyard itself,” said junior Joe Gillette. “We got quite an experience.”
“We saw two very different winemakers,” said Clark. “It gave you an idea of how much leeway there is for individual personality to come through in wine.”
Vineyards are what led McCauley to teaching the class in the first place. About four years ago, she began a mapping research project in North Carolina in order to help grape growers select locations for vineyards. Before long, McCauley realized the potential of her knowledge in a college setting, and the course was created last year.
“The way research works at Guilford, you tie it into your teaching,” said McCauley. “I said, ‘why can’t I teach this as a lab science?’ That would be fun, I thought. People would like to take it, and they’d learn something about wine.”
People do like to take it. There are waiting lists for the class each semester. And it isn’t always to get the necessary lab science credit out of the way; some take it as an elective.
“I’d already fulfilled my lab requirement, but the course sounded like it could be interesting,” said Gillette. “You learn something about wine. It’s fun.”
McCauley finds more value in teaching the course than just the academic aspect and students’ enjoyment, however.
“We talk about various problems on this campus that arise when people are drunk and stupid,” said McCauley. “Can you minimize that through education? I maintain that you can.”
Students must sign a waiver at the beginning of the course stating they will not drink and drive, as well as agree to complete their drinking homework assignments responsibly and in moderation. Some students feel that the course has taught them about drinking safely in addition to its more scientific aspects.
“I’d only had boxed wine before. There’s only one reason you drink boxed wine,” said senior John Irwin. “I feel like I make safer decisions now when I drink.”
“When you have a bottle of wine, it’s a more social thing than other alcohol,” said Clark. “You’re not drinking it to get drunk. It’s very different than I thought.”
The course may be based around science and education, but McCauley ultimately hopes to leave a lasting impression on students that goes beyond the doors of the classroom.
“I educate students on the basics of wine tasting and understanding its structure,” said McCauley. “You teach a college student about wine, and how good is that for the rest of their life? It teaches them to think about what it is they’re drinking instead of just pounding it back.